The art of landscape photography is never simple. And, for me, it’s not about what you shoot, but how you shoot. It’s not about subject matter, it’s about style.
Back in the days before I retired, when I was really serious about landscape photography I shot thousands of pictures and thought a lot about what I was doing. I wrote this essay back in those days, about 2005 I think.
This essay ends up with a description of what goes thru my head as I’m trying to turn what’s out there in front of me into a good landscape photograph. Some of it is pretty much a photographer‘s stream of consciousness while shooting. So, some of this essay is probably a bit more than you really want to read, but if you are interested in what goes through a professional photographers head while he is shooting, maybe this will interest you.
Any way this essay was interesting for me to read, fifteen years after I wrote it. I’d quite forgotten about a lot of this stuff.
Good landscape photography is always a combination of good camera technique and a more creative element that is usually called something like artistic vision. (Words like art and artistic sound hopelessly pretentious to me, but I can’t seem to come up with a better word so I guess I’ll have to use them.)
The technical part of photography consists of things that can be fairly easily learned like getting the proper exposure, making sharp rather than blurry images, choosing the right lens, and using filters correctly.
The artistic part of landscape photography deals more with composition, aesthetic balance, light, how the photographer sees the world, what he thinks is important in life, and what he is trying to communicate in his pictures. However, when I’m actually shooting I don’t think much about art. I tend to take pictures more instinctively than logically. The art of landscape photography is a lot about instinct.
I started thinking about all of this about fifteen years ago just after my wife and I decided to spend four months in Maine. When we got there I really had no idea of what to shoot or even where to get started.
So I started thinking seriously about what kind of pictures I was really interested in making and what I was trying to say with my pictures and where I might go to take such pictures. The fall foliage in New England was peaking and it wasn’t going to last long–maybe another week or ten days. It was probably my last chance at getting fall color for another year.
Did I want to go to the lower lying areas of Vermont which is mostly a lot of small villages and barns and covered bridges and churches, or did I want to go to Stonington, Maine where the pictures are mostly the harbor full of lobster boats with a background of great old Maine victorian homes, or did I want to go to Acadia National Park or did I want to go to the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Actually I ended up going to all of these places. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was not so much where I went, or whether I shot churches or wilderness rivers or lobster boats. I began to realize that it was more about how I shot the pictures rather than where or what I shot.
In short, I began to realize that the art of landscape photography comes more from my photographic style than from any specific subject matter.
And then I realized that when I shoot pictures I always shoot in basically the same way, with basically the same goals in mind, no matter what the subject matter is. In other words, for me style is more important than subject matter. It didn’t really matter where I went, what mattered was how I did it when I got there.
So, this essay is how I go about taking pictures and what, for better or worse, my personal artistic style is.
To me, the most important part of making pictures is color, light, composition and what I call magic. And actually magic is a big part of the art of landscape photography.
When I shoot, I look for warm, rich colors: reds, yellows, oranges, browns, tans. Great color often comes from autumn leaves, summer wildflowers, sunsets and dawns. It seems to be important to me that these warm colors are not huge swaths of color but are instead accent colors in a larger background of neutral or cooler colors like grays, greens, blues or cyans. A whole picture of just warm autumn leaves is boring, there has to be a contrast with complementary and contrasting colors like warm oranges contrasting with the cool greens of the trees and the neutral grays of the rocks maybe.
As a matter of fact, I think that most good art is based on some kind of contrast.
For instance, the dark grays and blacks of a stormy sky contrasting with the warm colors of a tranquil country church are what really make a picture sing. Or the contrast of dark green firs against the brilliant oranges and reds of a Southwestern canyon also work well. The warm colors and the cool colors by themselves don’t seem to make it, the contrast between the two is the important thing. The same thing seems to be true in music; it is not the notes themselves that are important, it’s the spaces between the notes, the intervals, that make music work. A lot art I think depends on intervals and contrasts and juxtapositions.
The second thing about the art of landscape photography that really interests me is the quality of the light. The worst kind of light to shoot in is the kind of light that most people associate with a nice day: sunny blue skies and no clouds. This kind of light creates high contrast scenes with extremely bright highlights and very dark shadows.
Often the contrast between light and dark is too great for the camera to record and the result is either blank white skies or totally black shadows with no detail. But even if the camera can record all the extremes of light and dark, flowers or leaves or foliage or any kind of fine detail will look absolutely awful in this kind of light. In addition, light coming from a big, bright sky is very blue and it gives a cold, harsh, blue cast to any kind of scene.
On the other hand there are many kinds of wonderful light: dawn light, dusk light, sunset light, backlight, side light, morning light, afternoon light, storm light, overcast light, winter light, foggy day light, rainy day light, and almost any kind of soft light that comes from a sun that is very low in the sky or filtered through clouds or fog.
In other words, soft light is the light I am always looking for when I take pictures. If there is no soft light, no pictures get taken. For me, it is just a waste of time to shoot in harsh, direct sunlight. The art of landscape photography is largely about soft light.
One of the very best kinds of light is the light of early dawn. If I can find a great combination of soft, dawn light, warm colors, and maybe a little bit of mist or fog I know I can make a great picture, no matter what the subject matter is.
The picture above and the one below were both shot in this kind of soft light.
When I find light like this in combination with good color and a scene that looks like it has good compositional elements I start taking pictures, any pictures. The pictures are almost always very bad at first, but they get better as I start seeing more and more in the scene and start putting more and more elements of the picture together.
My style is to shoot a lot. I try one lens and then another, I try this composition and then that, I move closer and farther away. And I’m shooting as I go, not just looking at the scene through my camera. Finally things start clicking and going together. For me the whole process is intuitive; a good picture feels right to me and a bad picture feels wrong. I don’t think about rules of composition, I go by my intuitive feelings. I keep shooting until the picture feels perfect and then I shoot several variations of perfect just to be sure.
And when that is done I cover all the bases with a little technical variation to make sure the exposure is right and that I have all the shadow detail and all the highlight detail I want. I also shoot a few duplicates and check that there is no wind blurring a critical part of the shot or that an odd background object is sneaking in that will ruin the photograph.
This usually ends up being quite a few shots. One of the first places I went to on our Maine trip was the White Mountains in New Hampshire. One day I ended up shooting a single waterfall and the surrounding fall foliage for almost an hour and over 100 shots. This is actually quite a few more shots than I usually use to capture a scene but I made some early mistakes so I had to do the whole thing twice.
I’ve always been a believer in shooting lots and lots of pictures. Back in the days when I went on two week photo shoots and shot dawns and sunsets and morning light and evening light every day I would shot well over 2000 images in those two weeks. And I would end up getting maybe twenty or thirty really good shots out of that two week shoot. I guess it’s a good thing that for most of my career I used a digital camera. However, I used to be almost as bad when I was shooting medium and large format film.
The magical part of photography is the non-rational, instinctual part that just happens; it‘s usually something that is mostly outside of my rational control. When the great light and warm colors and good composition all click together in just the right way then, sometimes, if I am lucky, magic happens. A magical picture happens when all the pieces of the picture combine to make something more than just the sum of the individual parts.
What happens is really just serendipity. I’m building up a lot of picture pieces and keeping some parts and throwing others out until I get something I love. I’m moving fast and doing what feels and looks right. This fast, intuitive shooting really helps in getting good images. At least it does for me.
When things are right, I get excited by what I am seeing in my viewfinder and I keep varying the combinations and the exposures and the framing and pretty soon good and unexpected things begin to happen. By shooting rapidly, taking lots of pictures, and making decisions intuitively rather than logically I’m deliberately pushing magical stuff into happening. I need to be a tiny bit out of control to get beyond the ordinary.
I also don’t really worry about whether pictures are good or bad at this point in my shooting. What I am really looking for is the feeling, “Wow, that’s really beautiful,” or “That’s great, I love that.” When I start saying things like that to myself as I shoot, I know I’m getting some good pictures. I know this sounds a little crazy, but it seems to get me beyond shooting what I think I’m supposed to be shooting to what I actually think is beautiful.
What is interesting about this whole process is that I seem to have to actually shoot pictures for this to happen. I can’t just look at the scene and know how to shoot it perfectly the first time.
Some photographers seem to be able to do this. Ansel Adams used to talk about pre-visualization where he would look at a scene and see exactly the picture he wanted to create in his mind. He would then shoot just one or two pictures and get the great shot he wanted.
I can do this to a degree; I can look at a scene and know that there is probably a great picture in it somewhere, but I have to go through the many shots process to get the picture I really want. And sometimes the final picture is quite different from the one I pre-visualized.
Another interesting thing about this process is that I end up with a really unique, un-repeatable picture or maybe several pictures that are each un-repeatable. Each picture ends up being one very unique moment in time that I just cannot repeat. I once took a really nice picture of a small Colorado back country road lined with Aspens, the picture that you see below
I have gone back to that exact spot several times hoping to capture something similar to the original picture but I can’t come even close. The scene and the colors and the light and the composition will never come together again in the precise way that created that original aspen road picture. It looks like it would be simple to do a good variation of that picture, but believe me, I have tried many, many times and I can’t get anything I even want to keep as a possible picture.
Below is an example of my picture taking process in the real world.
One day when I was in Maine, I was on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. At first I couldn’t find any good, warm colors. The top of the mountain where all the tourists congregate was pretty much boring, dull green and gray vegetation and rock slabs with all the lichen worn off by millions of tourist feet. So I spent an hour or so exploring down the sides of the mountain until I found some wonderfully bright red blueberry bushes mixed with warm yellow clumps of grass and pink granite slabs overlaid with green mosses and lichens.
The sky was overcast and thus the light was perfect for the scene I wanted to capture. As I mentioned earlier, soft overcast light is really necessary to capture foliage like this; bright red and yellow leaves are especially difficult to photograph properly in bright sunlight. Impossible really; full-on, bright sunlight completely destroys all the tiny, beautiful detail in a picture like this.
(Don’t be fooled with how wonderful full-sun lit flowers look to your eye. Bright sun-lit leaves and flowers look great in the view finder but the picture will be awful. This seems to especially true with digital cameras where the transition between lights and darks isn’t quite as smooth as it is in film. Wait until the sun is behind a cloud or just over the horizon and then shoot. Autumn leaves and bright flowers will always be much more brilliant in the final picture if you shoot them with an overcast sky or even better, in a light rain. This is hard to believe but true. )
Well, back to my shoot on top of Cadillac Moutain. Unfortunately the wind was blowing hard on top of Cadillac mountain that day and all the branches and leaves and grasses were blowing around quite violently. So I had a technical problem I had to solve before I could even think about finding a good composition.
I wanted to use a small f-stop (f-32) so I would get a long depth of field so that both the close foreground and the distant background would be in sharp focus. With this small f-stop, my shutter speed was about a 1/30 of a second and the moving foliage would be very blurry in the final picture. So I decided to change the film speed on the digital camera I was using (changing ISO on a digital camera is very easy compared to changing it on a film camera where the only way to do so is to use a whole new roll of faster speed film).
Anyway, I changed the ISO from my usual 100 to 1600 which changed my shutter speed from 1/30 to 1/500. Don’t try to do this with film or with a lower end digital camera. A film speed this high in a lower end digital camera will result in an extremely grainy and noisy picture. The result will be a very bad picture. However, I knew that I could get away with this on the high-end digital camera I was using with just a very slight picture degradation, a very slight white speckle in the picture that I knew I could remove later on in the printing process.
So with the technical problems resolved, I started shooting. I first used a very wide angle lens, which is how this kind of scene of very close foreground and distant background is usually shot. But this just wasn’t working at all, nothing felt right. I was ending up getting a lot of stuff that just wasn’t important to the picture like empty sky and rocks that didn’t fit in with how I thought the picture should feel.
So I went to the opposite extreme and put a long 200mm lens on my camera. Now I had to move way back from the foreground to keep everything in focus. I was now getting lots of the foreground which was what I was really interested in and just that part of the distant background that I liked. The long lens compressed the scene into a picture that felt really wonderful. Luckily, the scene sloped away from me all on the same plane, all in a straight line, so that I could include everything I needed in the picture to make it work. Only rarely is it possible to use a long lens and get both foreground and background into the same picture like I did here. Actually I was quite surprised to see that the long lens worked as well as it did.
Then I started changing the angle I was shooting at and the light was immediately much better, but I was now getting a lot of cold, hard reflections from the blueberry leaves that I didn’t like at all. So I added a polarizing filter to the lens that cut the reflections. Without all the glare from the reflections, the picture became immediately warmer and richer. As soon as I turned the ring on the polarizer to the correct setting, I knew I had it right.
The picture was getting more and more magical by the second and I was getting more and more excited. Unfortunately, the more excited I get the more dumb mistakes I make. So after making several dumb mistakes like forgetting that I had temporarily changed my f-stop to 5.6 to see how that looked, I started getting pictures I knew I wanted to keep. So I shot a dozen or more compositional variations of the picture, situating the rocks and bushes and grasses and logs in various relationships to each other and the background. I ended up with several very nice images that I knew I would be happy with.
A couple of paragraphs above is one of the images I got that day on the top of Cadillac Mountain.
Here is some more reading about the art of landscape photography