I’ll be straight up honest here: I’m not known as a landscape photographer. Far from it, in fact. But that hasn’t stopped me from experimenting, and as we all know, experimentation is the key to artistic development and evolution: applying what you learn in one discipline to your others can result in something unique, and vice versa. I think the relationship between landscape, cityscape and architectural photography is pretty obvious. Might I approach a watch or food plating as a landscape in future? Why not! Or treat a landscape as an abstract? Certainly.
Let’s start – as usual – by throwing the rule book out of the window. Warning: I’m going to make some people very angry here. Forget the rule of thirds, fifths, golden proportion, whatever – if your subject doesn’t fit the composition, it doesn’t fit. And there’s simply no way the rule of thirds can apply universally across multiple aspect ratios; a square will have very different balance properties to a 16:9 cinematic.
Fundamentally, I actually think landscape photography is a both a lot more straightforward and a lot more general than simply images of scenes of nature, rolling vistas, seas, rocks, coasts, beaches, mountains etc. After looking at a lot of ‘landscape photography’, I come to the conclusion that it is simply an image which fulfils the following criteria:
- The contents of the image must be ‘found’, static on photographic timescales, and not movable/ changeable by the photographer
- The primary light source must be natural; flash should only be used for fill (though this is usually a consequence of the scale of the subjects rather than any hard and fast rules)
- Following on from that, time of day matters
- The primary subject may or may not encompass the whole scene, but the whole scene is of importance contextually
- Extreme perspectives are frequently used to dramatize scale
- There’s an element of deliberation and planning involved to get the best images: you might get lucky with the light and time of day, but to ensure that you have light from the right angle, you really need to have some idea of where the sun rises and what the weather is going to be like in advance.
- On the technical front, the first priority tends to be maximizing image quality, due to the static nature of the subjects. Light is definitely not static, but relative to the duration of all but the longest exposures, it might as well be.
Actually, most of these criteria apply to every image. (I’ve deliberately left out the fundamentals of every photograph covered in the outstanding images articles.) The only really unique property to consider is the first one: as photographers, we have no control over our subject, and it is static. I think you can see why the can of worms is now opened and poured out onto the table: it is actually impossible to distinguish between say, a cityscape and a landscape other than whether the subjects are man-made or not. We cannot move buildings; we cannot apply controlled lighting to entire cities, and thus for both the mountain vista and the urban panorama, we’re at the mercy of ambient light, time of day, and moving our vantage point.
This is actually more liberating than it is restricting. In fact, I think the real difference between landscape photography and other forms of the art lies in control: the subject might be static, but to re-frame, we must move ourselves. To re-light, we must wait. We have no control over either. The same might be said of anything journalistic in nature, but it’s not quite true: the actions, emotions and expressions of our subjects – people – are fleeting, the scale is generally small enough that we could control the light if we wish, and our presence as photographers definitely changes the behaviour of the subject.
I’m going to duck for cover now because I can see the old-school landscape photographers about to use their heavy view cameras and tripods as pole-axes on my head. We may choose to trek for hours and employ sherpas to carry our equipment, but that doesn’t mean the result is necessarily any more successful as a landscape photograph than something shot with an iPhone from a tourist lookout point with the right fundamental composition principles and at the right time of day (i.e. with the right light). This is not to say there aren’t advantages of better/ more specific equipment, but rather a gentle reminder that the compositional skill of the photographer always dominates first and foremost.
So what are those fundamental principles?
- Light, light, light: This importance of this never wavers, for any photograph. Except with static, immobile subjects, you are at the mercy of ambient light: consciously choose the right time of day. Noon is generally bad because you land up with high contrast, harsh shadows, and flat skies – though for some subjects, it might be just what you need (for shafts of light in Antelope Canyon, for instance).
- Perspectives: The strongest landscape photographs tend to use exaggerated perspectives; they’re either very wide or very long. I can only suppose this is a psychological thing: very wide images tend to enforce an impression of expansiveness and space on the viewer; very compressed ones do the opposite: you feel as though you’re peering through many layers to see the subject, or that there’s sufficient abstraction that you no longer quite know what you’re looking at – enough to make things interesting precisely because of that abstraction.
- Needless to say, plan your compositions: (and read this article for a more in-depth discussion). The wider the lens, the stronger the foreground has to be simply because its visual prominence increases due to occupying more and more of the frame. Midground matters, but it gets nearer and nearer to the camera the wider the lens becomes. The converse is true for telephoto use: the longer the focal length, the more dominant the background becomes. Your foreground might well be at 50m, mid-ground at 200m and background at infinity; as opposed to 30cm, 1m and 5m. Takeaway: foregrounds matter. A lot.
- Advance planning: Check your vantage point, subject orientation, and thus where you need the sun to be to light the image the way you want. Seasons and interesting weather might change things considerably; take this into consideration, too. You’ll therefore know a) what lenses you need to carry for the perspectives you want; b) when you need to be there and at what time of the year; c) where you actually need to be to get the framing you want; d) little logistical things like permits and physical entry/ access to the location.
- Time matters in more ways than one: long exposures can make things look very, very different; especially at night when the ambient light changes, or when your scene has moving elements like water or foliage in the wind.
- Think carefully about your color palette: landscapes generally invoke feelings of some sort in the viewer; the question the photographer has to consciously answer is what those feelings should be. Even if you don’t have control over the subjects themselves, you do have the ability to influence the color bias through a choice of the season or even postprocessing. This article on the inexact science of color and emotion explains just why color is so important – and to get further inspiration, have a look at defining cinematic.
- Pay attention to your skies: depending on how much visual prominence you allocate them, they can either be background or foreground. The more dominant your sky, the more important it is to have something of visual interest in it – nice clouds, for instance.
- Image quality is a priority: this is not to say that it isn’t important in other genres of photography, but I think it’s more the case with subjects that a) don’t move and/or b) can be lit, which means you have the ability to either lock the camera down and expose properly, or add sufficient light so that you can use optimal apertures and base sensitivity. (See also this article on shot discipline).
- Quality over quantity: though once again this principle should really apply to all photographs, you’ll probably find that with landscapes your overall volume is much lower, though the yield is significantly higher: this is a simple consequence of being able to work more slowly and with greater deliberation.
- Think about the human element: do you want it in or not?
The final point leads me on to the question of scale and visual cues. A landscape photograph works whether it’s of a bonsai arrangement or an entire forest, and without any clearly identifiable clues to give a sense of scale of the subject, there is really no way for the viewer to tell. Since this kind of photography asks of its viewers a suspension of reality to some extent – viewing an unfamiliar or distant location is really a form of vicarious living – it doesn’t matter, either.
More importantly though, I think you’ll have noticed that not one single one of the items in the list has anything to do with the subject itself. I’ll give that one some time to sink in by ending here, before we continue on to part two: applied landscapes. MT
To be continued in Landscape photography, part two: applied landscapes
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