How To Photograph Complex Landscape Scenes

Nature provides some complex compositions and much like a Raffaello Sanzio painting, the longer you look at them the more you see.

When we are photographing a simple landscape, there is a clear foreground, middle ground, and some distant object. But as is often the case, things are not so simple.

Complex nature scenes call for us to put together numerous elements in the frame and bring harmony to them at the same time.

In this article I will discuss some common challenges encountered when shooting complex landscapes and how to bring them together effectively.

Complex Landscape Scenes

Nature does not often provide us with an easy composition but that is the beauty of nature photography. Once you know what the common challenges you encounter and their solutions you will be able to capture harmonious and interesting images consistently.

Uneven Foreground Elements

wildflowers and mountain

When shooting in the field you will often encounter uneven foreground elements. When foreground elements are unevenly spaced you will find gaps in your composition that may show unflattering elements. This is often the case when shooting flowers in the foreground. In nature they are rarely perfectly spaced which can lead to gaps where dirt or other less appealing elements are visible. And when the distant element, such as a mountain, must be included it is a real challenge to bring everything together.

The best way to tackle this scenario is to put away the wide angle lens and compress your scene with a shallow depth of field. This will allow you to crop out the unappealing elements while putting your foreground elements and distant elements in view. Your foreground will be blurred which provides an interesting counter to the in focus distant element.

Shifting Shadows

desert sand dunes

When light shifts rapidly it provides a unique challenge to the landscape photographer. I run into this issue frequently when photographing dessert and sand dune scenes. Often times this scene is tackled using a wide angle lens to create a strong foreground.

Instead I will switch to something like a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and use a focal length of 200mm. This will allow you to compress your scene. The effect is that the sand closest to you still looks to be at a further distance. You should also underexpose your scene. This will keep your lines clean and remove any detail from your areas covered in shadows.

This gives a beautiful effect of the light painting the edges of your scene. You can use this to draw the eye to a particular point in your composition.

Avoid Clichés

aerial fall view

I love shooting fall photography and travel to the east coast yearly for those gorgeous fall colors. There is nothing wrong with taking panoramic images of peak fall foliage but you should have the goal of taking images that break expectations.

I highly recommend taking an airplane tour of the autumn colors for the chance at epic fall shots. Use a medium focal length zoom with a fast lens. Because you are moving you should also use something with image stabilization.

Go for a faster ISO, either 400 or 800. With this setup look for scenes where that highlight color shifts in the tree line and focus on one or two details. This technique does not rely on the rule of thirds and is more of an abstract composition focused on color and lines in the landscape.

Moving Subjects

Moving wildlife can be one of the most challenging landscape scenes to capture. I often shoot groups of animals as they move naturally in their habitat. This makes composition challenging as they tend to bunch together and move unexpectedly.

I solve this problem by going with an ultra wide angle, fish eye, lens. This provides a unique image with multiple layers that are very interesting to the eye. I will let the shutter fly and focus on my composition when editing. It is far to challenging to worry about in the field.

Poor Light

winter sunrise with mountain

Much of the landscapes I capture are not basked in light. If you shoot on overcast or winter days you are confronted with this challenge frequently. Maybe you hoped for a glorious sunset but the clouds just aren’t cooperating. All is not lost though.

Take advantage of the natural monochrome lighting the world is providing you and embrace the blue look of the moment. Do this by taking advantage of multiple focal points so the eye is drawn to multiple points in your scene.

These images will by their nature be busy and the rule of thirds is not adhered to. But it works thanks to the natural monochrome color of the scene.

Conclusion

Working with the natural challenges of your landscape instead of fighting against them allows you to create truly interesting compositions. The key is to really look at the scene and see what it has to offer. There is no reason to wait for the perfect conditions or fall back on overused compositional techniques because the joy of shooting nature is capturing what is actually going on.