5 tips for an award-winning landscape photo

This year (2020) I was honoured to be invited as a judge in the Landscape category of the Sony Alpha Awards 2020. It's no mean feat looking through hundreds of entries to then decide on a small selection of shortlisted entries worthy of being considered for the place of a Top 3 Finalist. The process of having to critically look through A LOT of images and decide what makes the cut has given me some really interesting insights, and so if you've ever entered or plan to enter a landscape image into a photo competition I hope you will find these tips useful!

An instant connection

The key to an amazing landscape photo is to make your viewer FEEL an instant connection to your image, whether that’s a feeling of wonder, shock, or something else altogether. It’s easy for us as photographers to take a lovely shot of an amazing and recognisable location but it’s something quite different to take a shot of a very ordinary location that becomes extraordinary because of the photographer’s eye.

Sunset at Cambridge Lake, NZ
Unusual cloud formations create an otherworldly scene at my local lake 5 minutes drive from home (ISO 100 | f/9 | 1.3 sec)

Creative composition

Creating an image that is multi-dimensional is another way to ensure your viewer’s attention is held. Rather than shooting at head height, why not shoot down low or from high above? Also think about whether you have included foreground interest or used other compositional techniques like leading lines, framing and symmetry, or objects that are at different depths of fields within your image to add more dimension.

Routeburn Track Misty Forest
Misty forest with leading lines shot down low on the Routeburn Track (ISO 200 | f/5.6 | 1/160 sec)

Light it up

There are scenes in nature that naturally demand our attention at any time of the day for their grandeur and beauty. But choosing the right moment to shoot these subjects can make all the difference. The light during the middle of the day tends to be harsh and flat especially in wide landscape scenes, whereas shooting early or late in the day provides opportunities for light and shadow to bring more depth to your subject on the ground, as well as a tendency for a richer contrast of tones if your image contains sky elements too.

Mount Taranaki from Pouakai Tarn
Unusual light and clouds during golden hour at Poukai Tarn (this image was a Top 3 Finalist in the Sony Alpha Awards 2018)

Work that lens

It’s a commonly accepted fact that our eyes naturally see the world at focal lengths similar to shooting 35-50mm on a full-frame camera, so shooting outside of these lengths will make your image appear differently to how it would if we were standing looking in at the same scene. Shooting at wide angles between 10-20mm enables you to portray a sense of the vastness of the landscape that demands to be taken in, while compressing distant scenes with a zoom lens of 100mm or longer is an effective way to bring a heightened sense of the immense scale that exists within a landscape.

Images taken at 24mm, 70mm, 168mm and 239mm all give a very different feel to the image

Crop to concentrate

Award-winning images combine a strong or unusual composition with interesting lighting to great effect without any distractions allowing the viewer to hone in on the main subject. Don’t be afraid to crop your image or remove distractions that draw the viewer’s eye away or cause it to wander, even if that means your final image is a smaller portion of the scene than what you originally shot.

Rotorua Waterfall Light and Shadow
Cropping into a small section of the waterfall allows the focus on the light hitting the waterfall and ferns opposed by the shadows (ISO100 | f/5.6 | 0.5 sec)

A sense of mystery

Images that keep our attention the longest are often not the ones where the whole scene is well explained, leaving nothing to the imagination. Images where elements are hidden or unusual cause the viewer to pause and engage with your image as they try to work out what they are seeing. Using natural elements like fog and cloud or shooting a bird’s eye view are great ways to help create a sense of mystery, and ultimately the longer a viewer engages with the scene the more likely they are to feel a strong connection to your image.

Mist on Lake Rotorua
Mist and ripples on Lake Rotorua (ISO 100 | f/8 | 1/250 sec)

It's tempting just to enter images that are your personal favourites, but what is meaningful to you because of how you felt in that moment of capture may not be enough to hold the attention of a judge who wasn't able to experience the moment in real life the way you did. Knowing how to bring the emotion of the moment into your image to enable others to imagine themselves there is key. Even if you aren't successful submitting images in a competition, having to look at your images with a critical eye is a really good way to see your images more objectively and in a different light.

I hope that these tips will help you next time you decide to enter a photo competition - good luck!

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