I promised that I’d circle back to the topic of landscape photography before the fall colors arrive so today I want to pick up where I left off a few weeks ago. When last I wrote about landscape photography, I wrote about big picture kinds of considerations. Today I want to give you a few tips to consider for the individual photos.
First, I promise not to recommend a lot of gear to you as I write to you each week but today will be an exception. The one piece of gear (other than a camera obviously) that I recommend for every photographer is a polarizing filter (a circular polarizer in most cases). I’ve written about the magic of Photoshop before and in most cases, there are ways to achieve the same effects that you can when you use filters but the polarizer is the exception. Simply put, it affects the way that the light hits the sensor in a way that cannot be changed in post-processing. I could go into this in more detail but I suspect that you are not really interested in a physics lesson so I’ll just tell you what it does to for a photograph.
First and foremost, the polarizing filter is a tool to reduce or eliminate reflection. A classic example is that if you photograph a body of water, with the polarizer off, you’ll likely see a reflection of the scene on the surface of the water whereas if you have the polarizer on, you will see into the water (assuming it is clear enough). Angles of reflection are a factor here and you just need to practice in order to get a feel for it but reflections can be manages on all surfaces including glass and (key point coming up here) leaves. You may not realize it but a lot of light is actually reflected off of the waxy surface of the leaves. If you use a polarizing filter, you’ll be able to manage that reflection in order to get brighter and more saturated colors. Polarizers are also useful for helping to darken the blue sky. This is a nice look for many images but also, it helps to give you contrast between the sky and the clouds giving the clouds more impact in the scene. Oh, and have you ever had a hard time photographing a rainbow? Yep, the polarizing filter will help there too.
One key bit of information for using polarizing filters is that the effect is strongest when the sun is 90 degrees away from the direction that you are shooting. A quick tip to use to see if a polarizing filter will help you is to hold your hand like a child pretends that it is a gun. Point your thumb at the sun then everywhere your index finger points might benefit from a polarizing filter. Oh, and since you asked, yes, I even use a polarizing filter on my cell phone camera for landscape photos. It makes that much of a difference. One last thought here before I move on. You absolutely can use the polarizer at the point where it has the maximum effect but sometimes the best effect is achieved somewhere between the maximum and minimum effect that it is capable of producing.
Next I want to briefly mention the value of composition guides. The big one that is most often cited is the rule of thirds. Imagine a tic tac toe grid overlaying your scene. Every point that two lines cross is a minor focal point in the image – that’s just the way our brains work. Now imagine putting something important in one of those intersections. That is how you use the rule of thirds in an image and believe me; it can add a lot of impact to an image. This is a very useful tool for helping photographers from falling in the trap of always putting the most important part of an image in the center of the photograph. The center can work but oftentimes central placement tends to work best for an image that has natural symmetry. If there is no symmetry, pushing your main subject off to the side is usually a good idea (keep that in mind for portraits too!).
The rule of thirds and the use of symmetry are both great tools to use for improving your compositions but they are not the only choices. You could also use the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ which loosely means that you are consciously avoiding using compositional guides but as with any tool, you should only use it when you have a reason to use it. Another formal compositional guide that you might consider is the ‘golden spiral’.
I spared you from the physics lesson but now it’s time for some math. Have you ever heard of the Golden Ratio, the Fibonacci Sequence, or the Fibonacci Spiral? They are all variations on a theme. It seems that nature likes order and efficiency and the Golden Ratio is something that can be seen over and over again in nature. Anyhoo, back in 1202, Fibonacci published a book entitled Liber Abaci. It was a math book and he realized that a particular sequence of numbers (which we now call the Fibonacci sequence) was reflected over and over in nature. That sequence is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. The formulate is Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2 so the sequence continues infinitely. That sequence also can be represented as a ratio 1.618 (rounded to 3 decimal points but also continues infinitely). So then, how does that help us with landscape photography? Just like the rule of thirds can give us a graphical representation, the advanced math that Fibonacci taught us can be presented as a graph. When graphed out, they look like these examples and as you might have guessed, placing important elements of your image along those lines and intersections can lead to stronger compositions.
That seems like a lot to take in so I’ll wrap it up here and leave you with some examples. Happy shooting!