How to Photograph Mostly Flat Landscapes
- Use the Sky
- Look for the small things in the extensive landscape
- Look for that lone subject
- Try to get up High
- Go to the Rivers
- Look for the Layers
I spend a lot of time in the mountains. It's just where I go when I want to be in the outdoors. So, naturally, as I talk about landscape photography, I turn a lot to the mountains. It is my happy place. But recently, I had a listener ask some questions about landscape photography not related to the mountains. I hadn't realized how often I reference the mountains and waterfalls when I talk about shooting landscapes. This episode is all about tips that, while they work for being in the mountains and around waterfalls, are intended more for less mountainous landscapes.
Thankfully, Calgary is at a remarkable confluence of natural elements. With foothills and mountains to the west, prairies in every other direction, badlands just an hour away and even a desert about 6 hours from us. You can kind of get everything except the ocean from this city. This means I've been lucky enough to be out there creating in all sorts of conditions on all kinds of landscapes.
One thing to note as we get going here. All the landscape tips I talk about in the mountains apply to flat landscapes as well and, everything I talk about here can apply to nearly every other setting.
Alright, let's get into those tips.
Tip #1 Use the Sky
Saskatchewan, the province beside Alberta, has been coined the land of the living sky for a reason. The sky changes and moves and almost feels to be breathing in the way it changes. There can be big dramatic storm fronts, amazing pink and orange sunsets, and clouds that look like something out of super Mario bros. That same kind of sky can be had on the prairies in Alberta and all over the world. People just don't think to look for it. Instead of avoiding extensive open areas in your hunt for landscape photos, or trying to find the perfect tiny detail in the ground, look up. Don't be afraid to use the sky as your subject.
Big open areas can sometimes make it difficult to spot a subject. When there are mountains, trees, and other significant objects in an area, it can be a bit easier to spot a subject for your image. But, when the landscape is primarily flat, finding a subject can be really hard. We're often taught to look for other things in an image, to look for that tree, or the building or whatever to make an image. But the sky can be one of your greatest resources. If you find the clouds amazing, create a composition with them. Watch them move and form new shapes, and use the other parts of your picture to compliment the clouds. But make the clouds your main subject. Or whatever part of the sky you find amazing.
Tip #2 Look for the small things in the extensive landscape
On the other end of the advice spectrum from tip #1, look for the tiny details in the world around you. This is great if the sky isn't really offering up anything or if you've already taken lots of sky shots. Look towards the ground and find interesting things down there. This can make you a bit crazy looking as you wander around staring straight down, but you can really find some cool stuff this way. In particular, I always love beautiful flowers or little patterns in rocks. You can shoot these details directly, use them as foreground subjects in a larger composition, or get right up close and personal and shoot some macro. There are all kinds of options with these types of subjects. My favourite is using them as foreground subjects in longer exposures. Just make sure as you are looking for them that you don't walk into anything, so look up occasionally to be aware of your surroundings.
Tip #3 Look for that lone subject
A tree standing by itself in a field. Or an abandoned building about to topple over. Anything that is standing by itself on an open landscape can make a great subject. Big landscapes are typically the only place you are going to find lone subjects standing by themselves. These can be really easy to spot from a distance, but composing them correctly can be challenging. If at all possible, walk around the scene. Don't just get there and start shooting. But explore a bit, look around, and shoot by hand to see if a composition will work or not before you put the sticks down and commit to some longer work. Don't just explore up close to the subject either. Walk back and look at the subject, then walk up closer again. Just move to all sorts of varying distances and heights to find compositions.
One thing to note here, don't walk onto private property. Many old buildings are on private property, so don't just climb over a fence and step onto the land. If you really want that photo, find out who owns the property and have a conversation with them. Get their permission to be there.
Tip #4 Try to get up High
This can be harder on a flat landscape but get high points to see patterns on the ground and change your perspective. And you may have to get creative to do this. I've climbed trees to be able to get up higher on a subject, found the one hill in an area, got on top of a building. Just anything you can think of to get an elevated perspective.
If you own one, a drone can be a fantastic way to shoot in big empty landscapes. Drone photography is not something I have any experience with. I have no advice on actually shooting with a drone, but they are a great way to provide angles that no one gets to see. Make sure you follow all rules, regulations and laws around flying drones in the area you are in. This will mean that, should you plan on using a drone, you'll want to look up the rules beforehand to make sure you don't get yourself a big-ticket.
Tip #5 Go to the Rivers
If you find yourself in a big landscape, head towards the river. This is for several reasons. Rivers make for a significant compositional element to lead your viewer through the frame. They add a ton of visual interest (especially if you can do some long exposure photography to make the water silky smooth). They make a great subject. They can cause amazing reflections. And, perhaps best of all, the wildlife and vegetation around rivers can be incredible, giving you a lot more options for what to include in your frame. Basically, rivers are one of the best things you can have on large landscapes.
As always, be aware of the animals that are around rivers. In Canada, you don't really have a ton to worry about, but in other parts of the world, you need to be very aware of the animals that live in the water. So, just be aware.
Tip #6 Look for the Layers
Flat landscapes aren't nearly as flat as they usually appear. Most landscapes have some rolls in them and some extra layers you don't see without really paying attention. One of the best ways to show these off visually is to use a telephoto lens. Wide angles won't show these layers much, but a telephoto, where you can zoom in and compress the layers together, will emphasize how they look. This will take quite a bit of exploration to find suitable layers, but it is totally worthwhile.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram as well @RobertMasseyPhotography.