The Anatomy of a Great Landscape Photo with Colleen Miniuk

As part of our 2021 Public Lands and Waters Photo Contest, our judges are offering some tips to improve your photography while out recreating on our public lands and waters. For our third installment, Phoenix-based landscape photographer Colleen Miniuk offers tips for bringing home the essence of a remarkable scene and enabling viewers to feel like they are in your landscape photographs.

Renowned landscape photographer Ansel Adams proclaimed, “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, believed, “Light makes photography…know it for all you are worth and you will know the key to photograph.” Modern-day photographer Peter Adams suggested, “Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”

So which is it? I agree with all three of these gentlemen. The beauty of art, of photography, is that each of us can—and should—develop our own definition of what success looks like. So long as you are mindful and deliberate in how you choose to express yourself, anything goes.

For my work, I aim to blend intimate self-expression with precise technical execution. I hope to pull the extraordinary out of the ordinary, to celebrate the splendor the moments of awe and wonder I feel, and to give outsiders a glimpse into my inner connection with the outdoors. To accomplish this, I believe an effective landscape photograph:

Holds special meaning to the photographer.

Before you can express meaning visually, you have to experience the world around you in a meaningful way. Let your curiosity direct you to your photographic message. Go for a hike. Skip down the trail like the happy-go-lucky kid you once were. Roll “cool” rocks in your hands. Inhale the sweet vanilla smell of pine. Listen to the percussion of the waves as they crash against the cliffs. Although photography is often referred to as “the art of seeing,” humans create perceptions and thus connections with the land, through all our senses, not just sight.

To help trigger a deeper emotional response to your scene, ask yourself, “What else it it?” Use your imagination to build metaphorical associations. An agave can become an exploding firework.

Communicates a clear message.

Remember “K.I.S.S.” from grade school? “Keep it simple, silly” applies in photography, too. To help simplify, consider titling your photograph before your shoot. You might not end up with a photograph that ties with those words, but it gives you a place to start, which is especially useful when a scene feels overwhelming.

Once you define your message, fill your frame with visual elements that support and provide context to your intent—and only those elements! Conduct a "border patrol" to identify and remove cropped shapes, bright tones, a tilted horizon, or other distracting parts that divert a viewer’s eye away from your subject.

Incorporates human perceptions to position visual elements based on the photographer’s intent.

Arrange elements according to your desired visual force and movement. Based how humans perceive gravitational pull, darker and larger objects feel heavier while lighter and smaller objects feel lighter. Place heavy elements at the bottom of your frame to create a restful foundation. To express more drama and energy, place the darker and heavier objects at the top.

If you position your dominant visual element in the center of the frame, your viewers will perceive your primary subject to be at rest. This might be exactly what you wish to express! Despite what you may have heard during Rule of Thirds discussions, you will not spontaneously combust if you position your subject in the middle. I promise. If you wish to express increased visual tension and dynamic energy, place the subject in the intersection of the imaginary Rule of Thirds tic-tac-toe grid. If you place your subject near the edge of the frame, viewers will perceive the object to be traveling away from the scene and other visual elements within the frame. Which position is the right answer? The one that matches your intended message.

A dominant horizontal line, such as a horizon, will determine the overall balance in your photograph. By centering this line, you’ll create symmetrical balance. Symmetrical balance, when symmetry exists in cases like a reflection in a lake, serves to create harmony. Symmetrical balance, when no symmetry exists (called “half-and-half”), divides attention and confuses the viewer. To accomplish asymmetrical balance, which unites visual elements, position a dominant horizontal line off-center

Conveys a sense of depth.

The three Ls—lines, layers and light—create the illusion of depth in our two-dimensional media. Position lines such that they stay within the frame and lead to an interesting payoff. Multiple lines working together can create a sense of depth as in the case of converging lines. They also create shapes. Shapes working together create layers. Include a strong foreground, mid-ground and background layer. If you notice a confusing merger as shapes overlap (think: telephone-coming-out-of-someone’s-head” merger), reposition your camera to give the elements more space.

Lighting and tonal contrast can help further separate layers. Look for side and backlight so the camera “sees” both a highlight and a shadow. With top and front lighting, the camera only “sees” a highlight or a shadow, not both, which can render flat-looking landscape images.

Is “properly” exposed.

In general, the histogram for a JPG photograph should reflect a balanced distribution of tones towards the center of the graph regardless of the shape of the graph. If you’re shooting in RAW format, use the “expose-to-the-right” (ETTR) philosophy where the distribution of tones is pushed to the right-hand side of the graph to maximize your data capture. But don’t go so far you blow out the highlights! If you see the “blinkies” in your highlight alert function, underexpose to retain data in those areas. To balance challenging exposures between land and sky, apply a polarizer or graduated neutral density, or make multiple exposures to blend later in processing software (e.g. high dynamic range, or HDR, imaging techniques).

Of course, there are exceptions to this practice. Silhouettes (i.e. backlighting) will result in a histogram weighted heavily on the left. High-key images will result in a histogram weighted on the right.

Is in focus in the “right” places.

For broad scenic views, aim to keep the entire frame in sharp focus. To do so, consider the hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is the distance at which you must focus at such that half of that distance to infinity is in focus. It is a calculated number and varies based on your camera, lens and aperture setting. Since the last thing you’ll likely want to do when the sky explodes into color is math, consult a depth-of-field app to determine the exact focusing distance and aperture setting.

To keep things sharp beyond depth of field, use a cable release or self-timer instead of pressing the shutter button, which can move the camera during the exposure. Also, when shooting from a tripod, turn off the image stabilization/vibration reduction feature (otherwise the camera may try to stabilize by shaking, causing a blurry image). Confirm sharpness by using your camera’s focus peaking capabilities and/or by zooming in on your photograph on your LCD.

Depicts motion (or not)

Faster shutter and ISO speeds will freeze the motion of moving subjects, especially on windy days. Alternatively, slower shutter and ISO speeds blurs moving water, clouds and other subjects. When the natural light is too bright to achieve a slow enough speed, use a neutral density filter.

Deliberately expresses the photographer’s intent

Don’t move your tripod until what you experienced comes out of your camera. Ask what you don’t like about your image. Be specific! Then eliminate or minimize those elements on your next shot. Keep and emphasize the things you do like. Repeat this until you’ve captured exactly what you believe to be a great landscape photograph.

 

BHA member Colleen Miniuk is a full-time outdoor photographer, writer and instructor. In addition to teaching popular field-based photography workshops, including Sheography™ all-women’s workshops, she has authored multiple guidebooks, teaches online webinars, and writes a monthly online column about photography, art and the creative life called “Dear Bubbles.” Learn more about her and her work at www.colleenminiuk.com.

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