August 19 is World Photography Day, "an annual, worldwide celebration of the art, craft, science and history of photography."
Golden Hills Project Coordinator Lance Brisbois is an hobby picture-taker who takes many photos of western Iowa's Loess Hills and surrounding landscapes. Here are a few of his tips for taking landscape photos using your smartphone.
Before you go
Some basic photography tips
The “Rule of Thirds” is one of the easiest ways to improve overall composition of a photo. This “rule” is one of the most important for framing your subject. Imagine your frame has two horizontal lines one-third the distance from the top & bottom of the frame, and two vertical lines one-third of the way in from each side. Most camera apps have a setting that will show the lines when you’re taking a photo. Avoid placing major lines or subjects right in the middle of the image or too far towards the edges. Focal points don't need to be exactly on the lines or points, but close to them.
Level the horizon – Camera apps can help you straighten the horizon showing the one-third lines. Make sure the horizon is level with either the top or bottom third line and not higher on one side of the photo.
Spatial inhomogeneity is fancy way of saying add some diversity. Layers help create depth and different spatial dimensions. Some negative space--unoccupied areas around a subject--is often good. But you can have too much of it. A photo that is nearly all empty blue sky, a grassland from a distance, or a large body of water with nothing in it can be too much negative space. If your photo includes a large prairie, for example, try to find a rolling hill, or treeline, or a stream to add to the lower third to create a sense of depth. Instead of having two-thirds of the photo without many features, try to limit it to one-third. A photo of a lake could include a boat or dock to break up the negative space.
Difference in elevation (hills and valleys) is one good way to introduce diversity. A mixture of natural and human-built features is also visually appealing to many people--this could include a crop field with trees in the background, a river with a boat, or a hiking trail through a prairie or woodland. A large tree surrounded by grassland, such as an oak savanna, is another good way to break up homogeneity.
You can, however, have too much spatial inhomogeneity. A photo with many lines and objects can be overwhelming. Experiment by framing one, two, or three or more subjects and see how the photos compare.
Use "leading lines" to draw the viewer's eyes through the scene. Trails, roads, rivers, and streams are all good ways to create depth and draw the viewers’ eye along. Place a leading line along a vertical one-third line and/or make the point end at a horizon on the horizontal one-third line.
Frame before taking shot – The best way to crop a photo is to frame it before you take the shot instead of afterwards. It's often more difficult to crop to the rule of thirds
Try different angles and heights. Move around from left to right and closer & farther from the subject to capture the best lighting and color. Place the camera higher or lower than eye level. This can also help you align better with the Rule of Thirds and play around with negative space.
Take many photos and sort later – If you’re shooting different angles and distances from the subject, you will take a lot of photos. To save time in the field, take a lot of photos from different angles and delete duplicates later.
Take advantage of the magic hour – The “magic” or “golden” hour is within about an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset, depending on time of year and other factors. The sun is low in the sky and casts warm, golden hues. Harsh lighting and shadows are limited. Human activities cause more air pollution throughout the day, so sunsets are generally less clear than sunrises.
For sunrises and sunsets, you want some clouds to create colorful and interesting skies, but not too many clouds that they completely drown out the sunset. Western wildfires in the summer can create interesting orange lighting, but too much smoke can completely wash out the sunset into a gray haze. If you're going out during the Golden Hour check what time the sunrise or sunset time.
Don’t zoom or use flash—photo quality typically suffers on smartphones when you zoom or use the flash.
Scenic Solutions lists several important variables that can help determine what might appeal to more people:
"Coherence is the ease of cognitively organizing or comprehending a scene – “good gestalt.” It involves making sense of the scene. It includes factors which make the scene more comprehensible to organize it into a manageable number of major objects and/or areas. Research indicates that people hold onto information about scenes in chunks and that up to five can be retained in the working memory. A scene with about five major units will be coherent. Repetition of elements and smooth textures help to identify an area. Changes in texture or brightness should correspond with an important activity in the scene – where it does not, the scene lacks coherence."
"Mystery is the promise that more information could be gained by moving deeper into setting, e.g. a trail disappearing, a bend in a road, a brightly lit clearing partially obscured from view by foliage. New information is not present but is inferred from what is in the scene, there is thus a sense of continuity between what is seen and what is anticipated. A scene high in mystery is one in which one could learn more if one were to proceed further into the scene."
"Complexity is the involvement component – a scene’s capacity to keep an individual busy, i.e. occupied without being bored or overstimulated. Often referred to as diversity, variety or richness it used to be regarded as the single most important factor. The Kaplans describes it as how much is “going on” in the scene – a single field of corn stretching to the horizon will not have the same level of complexity as many fields of many crops on undulating land with hedgerows and cottages. The more complex scene will tend to be preferred to the simple."
"Legibility is the ability to predict and to maintain orientation as one moves more deeply into a scene. It entails “safety in the context of space” (Kaplan, 1979) and is similar, though much broader, to Appleton’s concept of refuge. Legibility, like mystery, involves an opportunity to promise to function, to know one’s way and the way back. It thus deals with the structuring of space, with its differentiation, with its readability. Legible scenes are easy to oversee, to form a mental map. Legibility is enhanced by distinctive elements such as landmarks, smooth textures, and the ease of compartmentalizing the scene into parts. While coherence focuses on the conditions for perceiving the scene, legibility is concerned with movement within it.".
For much more detail on these variables, check out Scenic Solutions' Landscape Theory page.
The science behind the art
While every person is different and like different things, there are trends and factors that tend to be more universally appealing. Certain types of landscapes are more attractive than others to the public overall. The reasons behind this is not fully known, but several theories exist. The next few paragraphs may be way too much information for beginning photographers, but can be helpful for figuring out what makes a "good" picture and why.
“The philosopher Dennis Dutton has suggested that the open rolling plains with occasional trees, that are so often represented in landscape art, are beautiful to us because they resemble the savanna of the Pleistocene epoch, when Homo erectus was first developing an aesthetic sense (Source: Science Focus).
"Habitat theory postulates that because the habitats in which humans are believed to have evolved were dominated by grasslands and scattered trees with water in close proximity, this became a preferred visual landscape for humans....The preference for park-like landscapes is the only landscape form that appears to have endured across the millennia. (Source: Scenic Solutions).
Research across cultures shows innate preferences from a young age for savannas and even specific types of trees (Source: Psychology Today.)
The chart below from Howley indicates that "Water related landscapes attracted the highest mean scores by respondents. Cultural related landscapes are also highly regarded by respondents as all of the images in this category also attracted relatively high mean scores. In relation to the agricultural landscapes, respondents rated all of these quite highly as all the mean sores were at the upper end of the 6 point scale. The agricultural landscapes that respondents appeared to like least, however, were the more intensive farming landscapes such as the images showing wheat, potato and sugar beet fields. Wild unmanaged vegetation and bogland were the landscape types that respondents liked the least" (Source: Howley).
One reason the Golden Hour lighting might appeal to us is because "Red sunsets would have been a familiar part of these landscapes and in an era when night was the most dangerous time, making sure you were safely back at camp to appreciate the last dying gasp of the day was probably especially important" (Source: Science Focus)
It's possible the golden lighting is also preferable because it reminds us of the golden glow of a campfire. Cooking around a fire is one of the factors that made us human. An evening fire with family and tribal members would have provided a sense of community and safety that was not as prevalent while roaming the savannas during the day.
A person's life experience can also affect what landscapes they prefer. Farmers tend to like agricultural landscapes more than non-farmers, for example (Source: Journal of Landscape Ecology). Familiarity with a specific landscape also makes places more attractive to certain features. "People prefer landscapes experienced during childhood, but seem to attach more easily to qualities that are suggested to have an innate significance" (Source: Landscape Research).
The rule of thirds relates to the Golden Ratio, and Fibonacci sequence, which occurs commonly throughout nature, science, mathematics, and art. The Golden Ratio has been used for many centuries to create broadly appealing visual artworks. In addition to the composition of a photo, the dimensions (length x width) can also look better if closer to this ratio.
Fractals are another variable commonly found in both nature and art, that human eyes are drawn to and find aesthetically pleasing. River systems, tree branches, and our own circulatory system are examples of repeating fractal patterns. Although the reasons are not fully understood, research indicates that looking at fractal patterns can reduce stress levels (Source: The Smithsonian).
Hopefully all this wonky science stuff isn't too overwhelming. Golden Hour, Golden Ratio, fractals, and some complexity & negative space (but not too much of either) are a good summary of things to look for when taking photos of the land. Our landscape in western Iowa was once dominated by grasslands with a few scattered trees. If you can find an oak savanna, you will likely find it to be beautiful. The dramatic bluffs of the Loess Hills and meandering waterways also tend to provide attractive scenery good for photographing.
After taking photos...
Editing - I use the Snapseed app, which is free, but there are many others available. I turn up the brightness on my screen when editing. I usually start by increasing the "Ambiance" setting, then "Shadows," then any others to fit my preference. The "Saturation," "Structure," and "Sharpen" settings are good in moderation but can easily be overdone. Keep in mind that a photo that looks good on a phone screen may not keep resolution or look good when enlarged. The best way to edit is to practice and play around with the different settings to see what you like best.
Organize – This can take a lot of time, but in the end you’ll thank yourself . Name photos based on the subject and put the date in the file name. For example, “Old Town sunset 10-20-20” will make it easier to search and find a photo than the string of numbers that the file is automatically named. This is useful if you want to find a specific photo of a place or time of year. I do this by tethering the phone to a computer and finding the files.
A few more general tips: