Relationship, Range, and Reflectivity
Welcome to photography school. Today, I present the "three R's" of landscape photography: relationship, range, and reflectivity. Perhaps I should explain.
Our first "R" is for "relationship." Composition depends on the relationship between elements within the frame, as well as their relationship to the frame itself. It matters less what you are photographing, and more how you present them. Traditional rules of composition often deal with such relationships. The "rule of thirds" says to position your subject a third of the way into the frame. Repetition of similar objects tends to work better when in relationships between three and five members. Leading lines guide the viewer into the frame. These rules and more describe how things relate to provide meaning and context to an image.
When out with your camera, first find something to photograph. That seems straightforward enough. Try to compose the best image possible by relating that subject to other elements. Sometimes, those elements may differ in hue, tone, or texture. They may connect through symmetry of placement. While varying in appearance, they may relate simply by commonly occurring together in nature in pleasing combinations. Regardless, look for the best image you can before dealing with the technical details you'll need to surmount to capture your vision. At this stage, it's the relationships that matter.
The second "R" I want to talk about this week is "range." Landscape photography benefits from showing a given subject, both its details and its environment. What with the range of focal distances needed to achieve this, it's not uncommon to struggle with getting everything in focus. Depth of field is defined as the range of distance in front of and behind the actual focus point. You can only focus a lens at a single point at a time, but based on aperture and other factors, objects somewhat in front of and behind that point can be made to appear sufficiently sharp.
It isn't easy to shoot those vast landscapes. Stopping the lens down to a small enough aperture forces slower shutter speeds. And the longer you have to leave the shutter open, the higher your risk of something moving in the frame. Sometimes, it's the tiny wildflowers in the foreground. Sometimes, it's the family further down the trail that happens to wander into the frame at just the wrong time. As an alternative, you can shoot multiple images varying only by focus distance and then stack them digitally later. But while you may get away with faster shutter speeds for each frame this way, anything that moves can still create problems. Compositing an image from multiple exposures can be tricky when things don't line up. Yet this I part of the challenge. With an ideal image pre-visualized, the work of realizing that vision commences.
Our third "R" today is "reflectivity." Some things like the sun do emit light, but most of what we see is made possible by the fact that objects reflect light. The percentage of light reflected by an object determines how bright it appears to us. Precisely which wavelengths something reflects determines what color we see it. White balance and exposure are both matters of reflectivity.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to notice just how varied brightness is outdoors. Ordinary squinting can serve as a simple trick to improve your ability to see differences in exposure. Squint down until an area of interest is barely distinguishable. Then, without re-adjusting your eyes, glance around at other possible areas. Anything of a similar brightness will be obscured similarly. Areas brighter or darker than your reference will stand out now that you've set a benchmark through squinting.
Our eyes automatically adjust as we scan our surroundings, but camera sensors are more limited, and we have to pick a single exposure for everything. Light outdoors can vary from dark shadows to bright sunlight, yet even the best of modern cameras can only record a small slice of that in a single capture. Typically, this leads either to burned out, overexposed skies, or foregrounds lost in the shadows. There are many ways to even out the exposure ranging from old-school graduated neutral density filters to new-school HDR techniques.
So, some readers may be feeling that I took a few liberties with my choice of R's. But Relationship, Range, and Reflectivity translate into composition, depth of field, and exposure, three basic skills necessary to master landscape photography. All are important. And it's not like "Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmatetic" didn't take a few liberties with the alphabet either. So there.