Landscape Photography Appreciation #2

Welcome to the second part of this series. In this post I hope to cover some of the differences between landscape photography and portraiture.

Why portraiture? I have joined all sorts of photogaphy groups and forums and noticed that amateur photographers are usually divided into two groups: landscape and portraiture. Very few people are exclusively into macro or sports or street and if you want to meet them you will probably have to join specialized groups. And besides, if you are still a beginner you probably should avoid doing those other types of photography because they may slow down your progress, or worse, force you to develop bad habits (stop shooting flowers).

Another general observation is that landscape photographers usually suck at portraiture and portrait photographers usually suck at landscape. It is a rare combination to find a photographer who is an expert in both. I have done a fair amount of model photoshoot sessions and all I can say is that it is very very tiring. 🙂

Anyway, let’s move on and discuss the major differences between these two areas of photography. Treat the rest of this post as “landscape photography for portrait photographers”. I will try to use my own portrait shots as examples on how you might use landscape photography techniques in portraiture to ease the transition. Please be mindful that I am not a portrait photographer so the examples may not be in the level you expected.

LIGHT. Portrait photographers need not wake up at 3AM or stay up until midnight to capture the right amount of light (or the lack of it). In landscape photography, you are at the mercy of mother nature to provide you with that magical ingredient. While portrait photographers rejoice at the sight of a grey, flat, gloomy day, landscape photographers would rather go through their old photos hoping to find something worthy of editing. Flat light is bad light but portrait togs love it because that allows them to shape it using artificial lights. Even extreme hard light is fair game for portraiture because they could diffuse it over a relatively small area or balance it with reflectors.

Portraiture can even do the extremes and still achieve acceptable output (don’t even try this with landscapes):

Blown highlights don’t matter in a lot of cases and sometimes they are intentional:


Even extreme contrast is fair game:


Unfortunately, control of light is something that can’t be done in landscape. Portrait photographers who venture into unplanned trips will come home with photos that suck. If you are not willing enough to be on location at least an hour before sunrise or an hour after sunset then don’t even try landscape. Simple as that.

COMPOSITION. Do not put your subject dead center in the frame unless you have a good reason to do so. In portraiture, you can safely ignore this rule all your life and still come up with keepers and maybe a magazine front page or two. Look at the portrait shots of Steve McCurry; they are all composed the same way. Look at the shots I posted above. In landscape photography, this is suicide.

You have probably read about the rule of thirds. There’s a good reason why beginners learn about this rule first. It’s not just about blindly following this “rule” but understanding how it works and where it applies.

Here’s the rule in action:


And here’s how you break it:


In fact, that last shot breaks a lot of rules such as “avoid clutter and simplify”, use a powerful and distinct foreground, use lead-in lines to create an illusion of depth and so on. What other rules can you think of?

It is quite obvious when rules are being followed without understanding why. There was this shot posted in our group by a portrait photographer where she tried to capture a sunset. Mind you that she is an experienced portrait photographer and I am a fan of her work. Anyway, she used the rule of thirds by having the horizon placed on the lower third and the sun positioned a third of the way from the left side of the frame. I do not have permission to use her photo but essentially, it looked like this (the colours I have chosen portray the relative luminance of the entire scene)


Perfect rule of thirds! But the shot is very poor and she knows it. Aside from other “mistakes” such as the underexposed and empty foreground and boring sky, what’s wrong with having the sun at the center? Why place it along the leftmost third? Instead of using the simplicity and balance of symmetry, the rule of thirds has rendered her shot into an awkward composition. Compare it with this shot for example:


Now if I can have a mermaid sitting on one of those rocks then I would have the perfect portrait shot 🙂

DEPTH OF FIELD. In landscape photography we strive to have everything in focus. From the nearest object up to the farthest background, it is essential that they are all in sharp focus. Therefore, it is critical that every element in the frame must work together to create a harmonious whole. The subject must be prominent and obvious. Anything that does not contribute to the image must be removed during capture. Simplification is key. Clutter is a mortal sin.

In portraiture, it is very easy to isolate the subject. Just use a mid telephoto lens and open up the aperture to blur the background. That’s it! Of course it quickly becomes very boring if all your shots are like this but people keep doing exactly the same thing. The problem here is that they do not learn how to compose a shot and it shows when they attempt to shoot landscapes where the whole frame looks very cluttered or empty. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: those who rely on background blur do not know or will never learn to compose a shot.

When taking photos of people, try to use the background instead of just rendering it as a big blob of incomprehensible blur:


By doing so, your transition into landscape photography becomes easier while at the same time it adds interestingness to your shots.

FOCUSING In portraiture, you are advised to always focus on the eyes. If you can only focus on one of them because your chosen DoF is too shallow then target the nearest eye. This is usually performed using advanced autofocus mechanisms in the camera and lens. A lot of beginners complain about how their cameras can’t keep track when using continuous AF. They blame their gear for not being able to properly execute the ultra shallow DoF cliche at f1.4.

You will be delighted that in landscape photography you can get away with even full manual focus. In fact, manual hyperfocusing technique is highly recommended and is superior in every way compared to AF. Learn how to hyperfocus in this tutorial.

I believe that these are a few of the most important differences between landscape and portrait photography. Learn them by heart if you want to widen your horizon. I, on the other hand, will try to learn more about portraiture because I do suck at it LOL!!!

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