How to Take Great Landscape Photos Close to Home

In my dream I’m standing on the rim of a deep, verdant canyon. Far below, a river glinting crimson and gold in the setting sun snakes toward jagged mountains dusted with snow. My camera’s viewfinder perfectly frames this epic vista in the wilds of northern New Mexico.

Excitement makes my thumb tremble as it hovers over the remote release…but wait—don’t I have to catch a flight to Patagonia in 20 minutes? Or was it Iceland…? Then I wake up, and reality sinks in; I’m at home, I have a Zoom call at 8, and I have zero plans to travel to exotic photographic locations.

Fortunately, I have options when it comes to landscape photography, and so do you. Limited time or a tight budget needn’t stifle your creative ambitions and the joy you feel taking photos outdoors. Capturing compelling, memorable landscapes doesn’t necessarily mean trekking to iconic locations in national parks or overseas; seemingly prosaic settings close to home can also yield portfolio-worthy images—if you open your eyes and mind to the possibilities.

I live in the Upper Midwest, a region of the U.S. not known for visual grandeur. Yet many of my treasured landscape photos were taken within a two-hour drive of home. And I didn’t have to shell out thousands on accommodation and airfare, and fight for elbow room with hordes of photographers, to get the shot at these locations. Read on for tips on scouting locations, finding compositions, and packing the right gear on day trips and weekend excursions from home.

Exploring Landscapes Writ Small

Even terrain that seems unremarkable at first glance offers opportunities to shoot great landscapes if you take the time to explore and immerse yourself in your surroundings. Finding beauty and meaning in less-than-sweeping, more intimate scenes requires a subtle mental adjustment. Rather than dismissing the view for its lack of grandness and moving on, try focusing on elements—sinuous or angular forms, vibrant or pastel colors, golden light, or deep shadows—that catch your eye or kindle your imagination. Does what you see evoke an emotion, or tell a story? When I took the photo below, I was struck by the juxtaposition of grain silos and wind turbines, emblematic of the growth of wind power in the flat farmlands of western Minnesota.

Skillful composition is the key to capturing striking images that may be hiding in unassuming landscapes, waiting for their big reveal. Look for relationships among shapes formed by clumps of vegetation, leaning trees, rocks, clouds, and reflections in water. Are there leading lines—actual lines like a road or fence, or those implied by the alignment of objects in the frame—that draw the viewer into the scene? Do repetitive forms, textures, or colors bring disparate elements together to create a harmonious whole? In the image below, taken at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in suburban Minneapolis, a red barn poking above the trees echoes the autumnal hues of sumac in the foreground.

If a composition doesn’t jump out at you, try altering your perspective by moving around. A few steps to the right or the left, or a higher or lower vantage point, may reveal visual rhythms and details that weren’t apparent before.

Locations That Keep on Giving

Chances are you know places close to home—woodland, lakes, marshes, seaside towns, park trails, and rural lanes—with photographic potential. Or shake off the creative cobwebs and discover new locations on a weekend road trip to destinations within a two- or three-hour drive. I never tire of taking short overnight trips, often with family and friends, to the North Shore of Lake Superior, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and other scenic areas in the Upper Midwest.

I’m drawn to bridges, docks, grain elevators, fences, and rail lines in the rural landscape; rather than detracting from the composition, these human-made structures can serve as a focal point in the foreground or middle distance of a landscape photo.

One of the benefits of shooting close to home is the opportunity to return repeatedly to the same location to explore different lighting and weather conditions and dabble in a fresh color palette. Brilliant sun or dark clouds; water reflecting the sky or ruffled by wind; trees stripped bare or resplendent in fall color: the daily and seasonal cycle of change can transform a scene and the mood—joyous, tranquil, somber, mysterious—it conveys. I frequently visit a state park on the Minnesota River, where I shot the image below. Within a day or two the spring flooding in the park had receded, leaving the trees high and dry and erasing the shimmering green reflections.

The Upper Midwest has distinct seasons with vibrant fall color and snowfall that blankets the land—and thousands of frozen lakes—for up to five months of the year. Many of my favorite photos are monochrome images shot in the winter when snow and ice simplify the landscape, create strong contrast, and impart an ethereal, serene feeling. I came across the composition below on the wooded banks of the St. Croix River, a federal wild and scenic waterway that forms part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Another benefit of pursuing images in your own backyard—rather than in places that grace the pages of National Geographic and photographic magazines—is freedom of movement. No need to get up at 4 a.m. to hustle to your location before the crowds arrive; no jostling for tripod room with other photographers who rose even earlier than you. Unsung locations give you time and space to park, walk around, and consider different viewpoints and compositions without having to say, “Excuse me, you’re in my shot.”

Keeping it Light

I keep my camera bag light on short forays from home. Foregoing extra weight makes me more agile and able to hike farther to new viewpoints that would have remained out of reach if I had been burdened with lots of gear. Unless you plan to photograph wildlife, you probably don’t need a super telephoto lens. Or that ultra wide-angle you brought along on that trip to the Grand Canyon five years ago. A midrange zoom—say a 24-70mm or 28-200mm—will do fine for everything from woodland glades to lighthouses to small-town streetscapes.

In my rambles around the Upper Midwest, I’ve rarely needed a focal length longer than 160mm; in fact, many photos—including the St. Croix River scene above—were shot with prime 40-50mm lenses on vintage medium-format cameras. But bring a tripod (I have a light travel model that fits in a daypack) if you anticipate shooting in low light or taking long exposures of moving water, like the swiftly flowing creek in this photo:

One of these days—or years—you’ll get to shoot at those iconic locations you dream about. No doubt you’ll return home with some awesome pictures. In the meantime, landscapes close by beckon. When your shutter finger starts twitching, grab your camera bag and head to a place where you’ve enjoyed shooting before—or to a new location that you’ve wanted to check out. No matter how often I revisit a location or drive or hike familiar routes, I come across fresh material for captivating landscapes.

Just by getting out more often to a variety of locations you’ll increase the likelihood of coming home with some great images for your portfolio. More relevant to your journey as a landscape photographer, by exploring the world just outside your door you’ll hone your shooting skills and have more fun out there.

About the author: Phil Davies is a writer and landscape photographer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Visit his website to see more of his work. Davies’ close-to-home travel book Scenic Driving Minnesota (Globe Pequot Press) is slated for publication in the spring of 2024.