Lessons learned from behind the lens

Landscape design by landscape architect Stephen Haus.

Over the years, I've been able to improve my photography and have learned a few things along the way through trial and error. The photos in this post all happen to have been taken within the "built environment", but in my experience the lessons they depict are just as applicable to more traditional landscape photography of less developed settings. There is still so much more to know about photography and I continue to work on improving. Here are some of the things that have worked for me so far.

1. Use a polarizer filter

If you have an SLR, invest in a polarizer filter. They are inexpensive compared to the camera body and lenses at under fifty bucks and make all photos look amazing. Just like polarized sunglasses, you will be able to capture so much more definition in clouds and sky, and will be able to cut the glare out of water or glass sometimes entirely.

2. Use trees to filter harsh lighting and block out monotonous sky

I took the photo below with a point and shoot that has no polarizer and very little control over the settings. When I was just starting out, I would have tried to photograph this historic building straight on from the front. Since the light was behind the building at the time, the result would be a dark building, the details of which would be hardly visible, against a large swath of white sky and a giant tree in the yard. When you have a simple camera that is limited in what it can do, and no control over the lighting, you have to get creative with the angle or composition. This is not my ideal shot of the building - I want to return at a different time of day and possibly with better equipment - but it was the best shot possible at that time.

The monkeypod filters harsh afternoon sun and blocks out bland white sky.

3. Less is sometimes more

Sometimes capturing just some interesting small feature of a landscape (or any subject) as opposed to the whole landscape is enough or even more effective at conveying the point you are trying to make. Think about the message you are trying to convey, and then think about how that can be done best with the tools and constraints you have. The site depicted in the first photo above has many great elements. You descend down lava rock steps to this hidden and unexpected plateau where the water feature is the focal point, but to the right is a gorgeous pavilion, and to the left are more steps that curve down to a lower terrace. Especially with an inexpensive camera, but even with a great camera, there is no way to capture all of its beauty in a single frame. The perspective above excludes most of the site, but I think the image still succeeds in conveying what the site and design are all about.

4. Have a point of view

Why are you taking the photo? What story are you trying to tell? Does the image convey this story effectively? Asking these questions will make your photo much more interesting, especially as the years go on. This is probably the most important lesson I've learned in photography.

Grandmother and grandson silently pass the time under the shade of this Thai sala (pavilion) fulfilling its purpose of creating a place for meeting and contemplation.

5. Plan out the best time to shoot at each location

If you're shooting outdoors, you have little control over lighting. With a good map and understanding of the site, you can figure out what the best time of day to be there is. My main goal is usually to avoid having to shoot into the sun, unless I'm trying to create silhouettes or want the subject back-lit. Generally, dawn and dusk are the best times for photography, hence why photographers call these times of day "golden hour". The mid-day sun tends to create harsh shadows that have to be avoided or manipulated. If you have to be outside mid-day, try to position either yourself or your subject in the shade. Standing in the shade to take a photo also makes seeing what you're doing much easier. The photo below was taken around noon from a shady position. It probably works in part because there's nothing overhead creating a harsh shadow through the courtyard. I'm standing under an interesting sculptural pavilion structure that is a focal point of this space when you enter from across the courtyard, and chose to point the camera away from it at least partly because of the time of day. It seems that there is a fine shot to be had at most any time of day or place, but if you want a particular angle, it is best to plan ahead.

If you have to photograph at noon, avoid harsh shadows.

6. The rule of thirds

For composing a photo, I will generally only center the subject dead ahead when photographing buildings or gardens that are formal and/or where I want to emphasize symmetry, as in the image above. In most other cases, I keep the subject slightly to the left or right of center.

7. Consider vertical space

I used to have a lot of sky in my photos. Unless sky is the point of the image (sometimes a dramatic sky is the subject, or conveys mood or weather or something), often times having a lot of sky in the picture does not add to the narrative. I now try to keep the amount of sky to the minimum, and sometimes will keep it out of the photo entirely. Where the sky is not important to the story I am trying to convey, sometimes the horizon line is. That seems to be the deciding factor of how much sky to include when the sky itself is not important: do you want to show the horizon or not? In the example below, I was interested in the transition from ocean to palms, so I opted to completely exclude sky from the image composition. Having the horizon line or sky in the background did not add anything to the narrative in this case.

Consider omitting the sky from the composition if it does not add to your narrative.

8. Bad weather makes for good photography

My absolute favorite time to take photos is in between downpours of rain. There are so many things that "bad" weather can provide that sunny days just cannot. Pavement looks better when wet. "Bad" weather can also introduce amazing lighting and dark clouds that make the sky look more interesting. "Bad" weather can sometimes make shooting in mid-day just as great as dawn or dusk. "Bad" weather also deters a lot of other people, meaning fewer crowds or that you can have what would normally be a tourist hot spot all to yourself.

9. Keep lines parallel, sometimes

If your photo has the horizon in it or you are shooting a building head on, make sure the lines in the image are parallel to the frame of the image itself. See the third and fourth image above for examples. Shooting at an angle is more complicated. In this case, you may want just one edge parallel (often the vertical edge if shooting from ground level) or none at all. Sometimes you just have to experiment to find the composition that "feels right".

The rightmost columns and ground are parallel to the frame. Sometimes it takes experimenting to get it right. The point of convergence is to the right of center.

10. A thought on one point perspective

Like in drawing, lines in an architectural image converge to a point or two somewhere out in the distance. I'm not completely certain, but at least in general, I think the image is more interesting when the point of convergence is not smack dab in the center of the photo. In all of the images above, the point of convergence is offset from the center in one direction or another.

11. Back up

I used to go right up to the subject and attempt to take a good photo. I think that's a natural human tendency, as I see many other people do this. Now I look at what I'm trying to capture, and walk a ways backwards. Often times the more interesting angle is further away. The first photo is a good example of this. I visited that site three or more times trying to figure out the best time of day and angle, and it turned out I had to go to the fringes of the site. In the image below, it would have once been so natural to try to capture just the structure from a closer position, but backing up a bit introduced the tree canopy that adds interest, context, and filters the light.

Sometimes the more interesting vantage point is further away from the subject than you initially think.

12. Change it up

For a collection or series of images, I generally like to have a mix of wide angle landscape shots and close-up detail shots, but the story comes first. It's important to me to consider not only the composition of each image but also the overall composition of the collection as a whole. In other words, consider composition at all scales. This approach seems widely applicable to design in general.

Do these work for you? Did I miss any great tips? What lessons have you learned from photography?

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