Making The Shot

By Peggy Peattie

February 1, 2008 4 min read


Techniques that can transform the everyday scene

By Peggy Peattie

Copley News Service

Q: What's the most common mistake made by beginning photographers?

A: Shooting straight on, not looking for different angles.

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Landscape photographs don't have to be the classic sunset over the ocean, or the view across an open meadow toward a stand of old-growth redwoods. You might be surprised at the images you can make even in a stark environment if you consider using a few simple techniques.

The first is to consider the quality of light that occurs at different times of day. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the sun is at an angle instead of directly overhead, the light has a "warmer" feel to it, and consequently everything it touches also resonates with that warmer light.

You will also find that shadows become landscape elements themselves when the sun is at a lower angle. Consider using these as part of your graphic composition.

Another thing to consider is the relationship between the elements in the foreground and in the background. Using a greater depth of field (the higher the f-stop number, the greater the depth of field), such as f-16, you can keep both the foreground and the background in focus. The advantage to having an interesting foreground and an interesting background is that your photograph has a three-dimensional feel to it, much like your eye naturally sees.

We are often tempted to photograph landscapes in a fairly "flat" way, with the center of attention somewhere in the middle of the scene. The eye goes there and has no place else to go. The image, though pleasant, has a one-dimensional feel and doesn't engage your attention like a photograph that has the greater complexity of a foreground and background relationship.

Again, the landscape you photograph doesn't have to be the classic beauty one expects. This scene at Bombay Beach on the eastern edge of the Salton Sea catches a decayed neighborhood destroyed by a flood a decade before, crusted over by salts and colorful mineral deposits. The warm glow of sunrise picks up the subtle colors in the reeds and makes the salts seem like a coating of snow across the pond created by the flood.

The shadows in the foreground, from an object that we don't see, further illustrate the extreme time of day. They also add a more complex element to the overall composition. In addition, they create a sense that the boat and the reeds are emerging from the shadowy bank. So, the shadows with the angle of light add to the three-dimensional effect we get with the foreground and background elements.

And the warm light at early morning reflects off these otherwise ugly sediment pools, changing a harsh landscape into an interesting, if not downright pleasant, one.


- "Landscape Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures" by Peter Eastway (Lonely Planet, $16.99).

Covers technical and creative elements for film and digital.

- "Creative Nature and Outdoor Photography" by Brenda Tharp (Amphoto, $24.95).

"If we learn to look deeply enough, we can photograph what makes a tree a tree." With 200 photographs to inspire.

- "Nature Photography Knowledge Cards" by Tim Fitzharris (Sierra Club, $9.95,

A deck of cards, each with a natural image and details of how the shot was obtained, including equipment and settings. Each card gives hints for better photographic results.

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Peggy Peattie is a principal photographer for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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