Techniques for Photographing Landscape – Layers

You’re out enjoying the vast beauty of nature all around you. It’s spectacular, you set up your camera and snap a few shots. You look down at the view screen and you’re… disappointed. That’s not what it looks and feels like, what happened? The experience of a place live is much different than the experience a viewer of your image will have. They don’t have the benefit of sounds, smells, the feel of sun, wind, cold, nor do they have the same emotions you have while immersed in all of this.  All they have is a 2 dimensional representation of what you saw and experienced. So it’s up to you to bring that landscape to life. To entice others that they wish they were there. That they can almost feel those other sensations.

One technique for landscape photography is layering. Imagine building a sandwich, you have a bread layer, a condiment layer, a layer of veggies and/or meat and then another layer of bread. Layering a landscape works much the same way, except you usually have a foreground layer, middle layer(s) and a background layer – usually sky. This technique keeps the image dynamic and interesting.

For this to work, all of the layers must have something of interest, such as color, texture or a strong subject element such as a barn, tree, mountain and so forth. If you include the sky it must be interesting. Look for color and/or dynamic clouds. A plain blue sky is often just as boring as a washed out sky. But it can be used as a layer in your image, just don’t include too much of it.

Now that you have some layers it’s time to proportion them. Is the foreground or background stronger? Are they equal in strength? You might emphasize a foreground and minimize the background or you might have equal amounts of each layer. See below for some variations. Mentally divide the layers into proportions.

The first image has a foreground layer of grasses with a strong element immersed in them. Then there are two thin layers of rolling fields and a small strip of blue sky. The sky is minimized as it is not that interesting. The truck element is the strongest part of the image and is emphasized proportionally.

Red Truck

This image has a foreground layer of grasses with a strong element, the barn immersed. Then there’s another layer of rolling hills and finally a sky. This image is more 50:50 with the sky as there are dynamic clouds and color.

Palouse Barns

Here the sunset lit house is minimized against a very menacing sky. There are only 2 layers, the foreground field with house and the sky. The effect and feel is quite different from the previous 2 images.

Palouse Farmhouse

The foreground of this image has color, texture and a leading line of tire tracks that leads the viewer into the vast landscape. The middle layer is a fallow field and the remainder 50% of the image is filled with an interesting sky of blue and clouds.

Palouse field

Here the image has a diagonal foreground triangle with the sign. A diagonal road line divides the foreground from the middle ground of fields and then another dynamic sky of color and texture.

Dead End Sign


Next time you’re out shooting landscapes, look for layers to include in the image. Then decide what is more interesting or powerful. If you’re uncertain, take several images emphasizing the foreground and then the background. One will more than likely stand out from the others. Good Luck and Happy Shooting!

All images above are from the Palouse region in Eastern Washington state. It’s a beautiful area for landscape photography. My friend Rod Barbee and I teach a workshop out there every summer. For more information and see more images from this area visit my website.

Photographing Lovejoy

This past weekend I tried my hand at shooting the comet Lovejoy. I had lovely clear skies Friday evening and caught my first glimpse of the comet. It’s a cool fuzzy green blob below the Pleiades. I trained my long 300-800mm lens on it, but it was hard to get much with the lens. It’s slow at f5.6, not ideal for astrophotography. Combining that with the long length meant I couldn’t use shutter speeds much fast than 2-3 seconds before the stars lost their pin point brilliance. My Canon 5D MarkII has good ISO quality up to 3200. 6400 was ok, but the HI and H2 were too noisy to use. I also forgot to pre focus the lens to infinity during daylight hours, so the first batch of shots weren’t great.

I pulled out my 70-200 f 2.8 lens and had much better luck. The infinity mark on this lens was spot on and the 2.8 aperture combined with less focal length allowed me to get longer shutter speeds and some decent images. So I’ve got a cool fuzzy green blob on a field of stars. I’ll take it!

Key points to remember prior to shooting objects at night with basic camera photo gear:

  • Prefocus all lenses to infinity and tape the focus ring down
  • Turn off autofocus
  • Have a red light headlamp
  • Shoot in manual
  • Use the widest aperture you have – a 2.8 or wider lens is best
  • Start with ISO 3200 and go from there
  • Take the lens focal length and divide into 500 for the longest shutter speed you can use without significant star streaks, ie 200mm into 500 is 2.5 seconds, 20mm into 500 is 25 seconds, 100mm into 500 is 5 seconds, etc…
  • Don’t even try this without a tripod
  • Use your cable release or remote control
  • Consider long exposure noise reduction, but this does double the time to take each image
  • Mirror lock up not really necessary as the shutter speeds are too long. Mirror lock up is best for speeds between 1/15 and 1 second long
  • Figure out ahead of time where your object is located in the night sky and have a star chart or app available to help you find it.
  • Find a dark sky location away from light pollution

One day I’d love to have a telescope to shoot through and the ability to track the earth’s rotation. Something to look forward to. In the meantime I’ll drool over the spectacular shots other astrophotographers got. See this link for some examples:

Here’s my shot:

comet Lovejoy
Comet Lovejoy