Photography masterclass: Landscape lessons
Capturing an inspiring panorama takes patience, planning, composition – and a dash of luck. Peter Cairns shares his recipe for scenic success
Do you remember when you were eight and all your friends came to your house for the much-awaited birthday party, with the much-awaited birthday cake? Imagine if, when that cake emerged from the kitchen, instead of being a culinary work of art, it had in fact been a bit of a mess, with the icing on the bottom, the cream on the top and the candles protruding at every angle. It wouldn’t matter how good the ingredients were – it just wouldn’t taste the same.
And so it is with landscape images. The ingredients are one thing, but arranging them in the right order is what turns your image into a mouth-watering birthday cake.
The first thing to say is that car parks and lay-bys are not positioned with classic landscape photography in mind. And so it follows that the best images are not taken by leaning out of your car window and snapping away. Some effort is required; some walking is necessary.
Light is the basic ingredient of any image. And while you may feel you have little control over the willingness of the sun to appear, you can learn to predict the effect of light on different scenes, at different times of day and through different seasons. Low-angled light is generally the best for landscape work, which means getting out early and staying out late
in spring and summer.
So you have your light, you’ve walked a few hundred metres from the café, and you have a wonderful scene in front of you. It’s easy to panic and start firing away: please don’t! You now have to make the best cake possible, and that takes a considered approach.
Where I live in the Scottish Highlands, spring and summer can produce the most exciting light of the year, with shafts of late-evening gold dust contrasting with inky, brooding skies. The image opposite (bottom) reflects such a day, and I was in position long before I took the shot. I predicted the ingredients, giving me the time to mix them effectively.
I used the vibrant bogbean as foreground interest and lined up the break in the forest with the darkest clouds over the mountains. I also waited for sunlight on the middle-distance to contrast with maximum mood in the sky – this happened only a couple of times in the hour or so I was shooting. The result is that the eye is led from roughly bottom-left to the top-right of the image, through several different layers of visual interest. The viewer is deliberately escorted through the image on a path that I prescribed. This gives the image a depth, a soul, a story. Now, of course, that all sounds terribly pretentious, but try it with your own images. Are they flat snapshots (they will be if taken from the car), or do they engage the viewer and draw them in? It’s the difference between a birthday cake triumph, with hoots of joy from the assembled throng, and an uneasy silence that fails to hide disappointment.
- Make a note of potential shooting locations while out walking.
- Make the effort to be there at the right time of day or year and explore different viewpoints – not just the one nearest the road.
- Craft your image with care, using ‘lead-in’ lines such as rivers or pathways. Try to give your image depth using layers of interest.
- Use the ‘rule of thirds’ to position key elements of the image.
- Don’t rush – composition is critical.
- Always, always shoot when the sky is interesting.
STEP BY STEP
1. I walked around this little lochan in the winter but knew it would work best in late summer. A note went in my diary.
2. Predicting the potential for stormy weather, I got myself in position well before the optimum conditions arose.
3. I messed around with the composition, trying to optimise the relationship between foreground and background.
4. Shooting from a tripod, I used a small aperture (f/16) for maximum front-to-back sharpness.
5. I shot through rapidly changing lighting conditions to record a variety of images, but this was my favourite.