Landscape photography, part one: a few principles

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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So what are those fundamental principles?

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).
  9. 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.
  10. Think about the human element: do you want it in or not?

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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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Comments

  1. Beautiful images. I would like to add images 1 and 2 to my big print off The Forest :)

  2. Just wanted to stop by and say Great images!

  3. My Gut Pick: Photograph #5, foreground tree with naked roots, and similar background trees. The motion is great – trees dancing. Works really well in BW. Second Pick: the color cloudscape. Majestic.

    There’s one beef I have about amateur landscape photographers: the desire to go somewhere exotic and the corresponding tendency to neglect local not-so-“photogenic” opportunities. I expect to photo locally until I can make my own opportunities for interesting photos on ordinary land, and have more techniques and better planning abilities than I have at the moment.

    As for the generality of “landscape must be super-sharp”, anyone remember the Pictorialists from their history of photography class / text? Not to mention the occasional photo with cross-wise tilt/swing to give an “artificially” narrow DOF. All that said, I am going to worship at the altar of St. Ansel someday, I have been reading up on view cameras (the Stroebel “VC Techniques” book and Adams’ camera-negative-print book).. I really want to play with movements for cliffs, angled subjects, etc. I hope there will still be some ordinary black and white film around by the time I get around to trying a 4 x 5.

    • Thank you. I’m not a big fan of the artificial tilt/swing stuff, but some of the more interesting things I’ve seen have used blur in one direction very effectively to emphasize verticality or water etc…

      4x5s also work with digital backs :)

      • Currently digital backs are rather expensive. I’ll try an entry level 4×5 camera and lens with B&W film developed by myself, investment $1,000.00 to $1,500.00 all things considered, screw up a lot and see if I like shooting LF, then if I want to commit I may look into backs, otherwise sell the lot to another curious hobbyist.

        • I think you might well prefer the 4×5 results – a digital back will render very differently to 4×5 because the capture area is smaller, and as a result, the rendering for a given FOV will be different due to different FLs required to cover the same area.

  4. Very interesting article. I think the most valuable input so far, is what you think about “exploring” into other realms in photography; interest in other type of photography (besides the one that usually we like most) is perfectly understandable, it just opens our mind to new and different approaches that, just like you said, can lead us to interesting new forms of art.

    Real landscape photographers (or at least successful ones), get in touch with Nature, live with (not only in) it. Just like a portraitist get to know his subject so good that is able to capture his essence, the landscape photographer gets involved in such a way (with Nature) that is capable of rendering his vision of the excellence of a scene.

    Well written article, as usual, kudos from Panama.

  5. Have the pleassure of reading Ansel Adams “The negative” these days, and as far as I can see your thoughts are not in conflict with his teaching. Its down to light, capture of light and doing this in a way that tells your story in the best possible way. As natural landscapes by definition are static (at least measured in the scale of human lifetime) the tools available for the photographer is angle of the light (where is the sun), the weather (stormy, sunny or somwhere between) and the effects these have on the subjects of interest in combination with the photographers chosen perspective.

    From here its down to what is your story and what means (read gear) do you have available for telling it. Finding yourself on the top om Kilemanjaro with a light compact camera provide different options compared to being there with a medium frame camera, but what makes a good photography is not the machines in themselfs but how you are able to use them for your purpose.

    • I’m not sure why it should fundamentally be different, so long as your end objective is still the image…each system has its strengths and weaknesses. Though I doubt most are going to lug a large format cameras up Everest, for instance…

  6. I don’t care what type of images you take Ming. They are always inspiring…

  7. Sebastiao Salgado who is (in my opinion) one of the most accomplished landscape photographers said: “[I want my photography] to create a discussion about what we have that is pristine on the planet, and what we must hold on this planet if we want to live.” If I ever show that deep level of understanding of nature in an image, then I will have fulfilled a true depiction of her.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Light, yes.
    Fog is another friend, but even more frustrating than light – you can’t wait for it, except occasionally in certain seasons (other climate zones may behave more regularly).

    Other friends – at least where I live – are frost, snow and ice.
    Snow in itself, but also as a cover of too much detail and it can emphasize the shape of a landscape.
    ( As the fog helps doing in your second photo. )

    Ming, a _very_ nice selection of photos!
    Especially as the first and the fifth are rather far from traditional photography.

    • Thanks. Fog is a good point: useful because it provides simplicity, separation, and more than that, the very obvious distance cue of having things that are further away become less prominent by having them fade away into the distance…

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        Exactly.
        ( As does snow, except for the distance cue. )

        • Snow, rain, hail etc – all have to be very, very heavy to show in a photograph. Persistence of motion with our vision is what makes it appear much heavier to us in reality; photos are more ‘instantaneous’ in that sense.

          • Kristian Wannebo says:

            Sorry, I wasn’t clear.
            I meant snow on the ground (and everywhere), anything from some snow powder to inches and feet of snow.
            ( I live in Sweden. :-) )

  9. I think an important point is the distinction between Landscape photography as documentary – photography of landscapes in other word (“here’s a photo of the Grand Canyon”) and Landscape photography as photography which uses landscape as a primary material (“here’s a closeup photo of the shadow of a leafy tree reflected on a wall in the Grand Canyon”) which may convey something about the essence of the place – or an interpretation of of it. The first category tends to be what photographers who specialise mainly in other areas consider Landscape to be. This also underlies this bizarre (to me) assumption that Landscape = wide angle and that no Landscape photographer can live without at least a 24mm lens. The vast majority of landscape photography, including the endless, mindless “look I took my Lee Big Stopper to the local beach” stuff is (in my opinion of course) empty trivia. It would be nice to steer the debate away from GAS, location bagging, and (spit) “image quality”,

    The very few people who have managed to come up with a philosophical framework for landscape photography tend to gravitate towards the intimate. As a great example of this I strongly recommend reading the outstanding and influential “Landscape Within” by David Ward. Of course this then disconnects, generally, from any specific location, and from the postcard approach. But also it moves from the trivial, the mundane to something approaching art. And more to the point the emphasis moves back from “landscape” to “photography”.

  10. Photography, to my humble opinion, is a way to i n t e r p r e t the world. To tell people about your perspective on the “conditio humana”.
    And every landscape you shoot is in a way also an inner landscape. We should therefore try not to produce “sugar icing” on a cake of which we sometimes feel: it is more and more poisoned, but find ways to research the relation of mankind and nature with our photographic work. The social and biological understanding of a particular landscape is much more relevant than photo-technical understanding. Otherwise photographers step from one “clichée-trap” into the next. The web is ful of this decorative and unreflected visual bla bla.

    • Which is precisely why I spend a lot more time writing about the psychology and philosophy behind the image than anything else; perhaps a quick look in the archives would be advisable before you accuse me of adding to the noise.

  11. Stunning shots! They are amazing. The one from the CFV-39 is simply wonderful…

  12. Really like how you get so much detail in the skies in shots 1,2 and 3, with 2 being my favourite shot. Whenever I do this, or rather, TRY to do this, I always end up with either boring washed out skies where all the detail has gone or blocky dark foregrounds. Would love to hear more about this. I remember in your workshop you talked about knowing the dynamics range of your camera and workflow, I suppose these are live examples!

    Looking forward to part 2 of the post. Really enjoy landscape photography, I find the process of sitting in the country and scouting, waiting, chasing, hoping for just the right light quite therapeutic. (Although there are parts where one gets angry at clouds parked in the wrong place :P )

    • Thanks – part of it is knowing the DR of your camera, part of it is waiting for the right time of day until luminance in the actual scene balances the way you want it to – this is much easier and more natural than fiddling around with filters and PS…

  13. NailsOnChalkboards says:

    THESE PHOTOS ARE UNREAL!!!

  14. That color photo with the trees reminds me of one I did on Kauai. BTW, I starte a thread over at Nikongear about Nick Brandt’s comments on film vs digital. It was not taken well to say the least. I don’t mind if people disagree with me, but what I got was impolite to say the least.

    • Ignore them. I think results speak volumes; if people have no results worth showing, then they tend to start getting evangelical about their gear. I can happily use an iPhone, a D800E/Otus or a ‘Blad loaded with 120. I choose which works best based on my end artistic objective, as does Nick – no big deal…

      • I have to say that I was a bit shocked by their reactions. I shoot a D800 most of the time, because that is what I have. Besides, I really can’t handle a mobile phone that well. I hear these guys talk about detail like it was the holy grail. Sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t.

        • The trick is to know when :)

          • Thanks for the thought-provoking article, but I doubt any reasonable person will come after you for what you’ve said. In a way, we are just taking pictures of photons reflected off whatever happens to be around us. I think the verisimilitude of photography is a huge obstacle to people taking photography as a serious art because they expect “reality” instead of taking what the camera gives them as a thing unto itself.

            I haven’t bothered registering on Nikongear to read what sounds like Nikon-flavored DPR gear angst, but here’s a philosophical extension of the “What’s your subject?” part of the 4 qualities of an outstanding image: if you obsess over gear, you are ignoring your subject, because your photography is about your gear instead of your subject, and you’ve already lost before you’ve taken a single picture.

            • You’re not going to get any arguments from me on that last one :)

              • I also should point out that Ansel Adams was probably one of the most accomplished technical practitioners of photography in his time, but no one today would probably care or know who he was if he didn’t make the pictures that he did.

                • Sometimes I wonder what the old school masters would have made of today’s internet forum train wrecks…on second thoughts, for all we know, it was like that back then too.

                  • Ansel spent his time in Yosemite and Sierra Nevada trekking through snow with his donkey and living his images. A bit like Nick. He wouldn’t have had time to jump on the forums. Do we ever see Seagado, Leobovitz and others on forums….anyone? I assume not.

                    • They’re all too busy making images and probably managing the business side of things. I do sometimes wonder why I bother with this site…it’s not as though free time is in abundance.

                    • It’s kind of humbling reading Adams’s 40 photographs book, which describes how he took 40 of his pictures. He’d talk about hiking up some mountain for the better part of a day with his view camera, tripod and film on his back, or when a crate of his exposed negatives fell into a river, and he could only recover a few of them.

                      And to get back to landscapes, it’s interesting that Adams spent a lot of his time and energy on a cause that’s helped by his photography, like Brandt and Salgado, and his pictures played no small part in the establishment of several areas as federally protected lands. Landscapes have power: more recently, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s underwater film of a region near Hawaii (a landscape film?) convinced the president to quickly designate that area as a national monument. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papah%C4%81naumoku%C4%81kea_Marine_National_Monument

                      I wonder if the observation of the subject moves one to try to protect it …

                    • Definitely. You need to appreciate something in order to want to protect it…and there is no better way to do that than by observation.

          • My favourite is picture 2, it is simple and very dramatic. I can’t wait for part 2.

            About the film vs digital comment, ditto about results. A lot of people in the internet nowadays talk about gear like there’s no tomorrow but that’s almost all they do. I bet you, a very small percentage spend more time shooting and actually producing worthy images.

            • And I forgot to mention it’s all about preference and what people like. In Nick’s case he preferred the imperfections of film. I have not read the thread but I think Nick’s work has spoken volumes and I think a lot of people like his work. If someone or a group doesn’t agree with his preference I don’t see anything wrong with it, it’s their choice.

              • And now we return to subjectivity: ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like’ are fine; sweeping statements like ‘this IS the best/only/rubbish’ are not fine. We are all entitled to preferences – but not entitled to force them onto others.

            • That’s because it’s much easier to do that than actually make pictures, let alone good ones, let alone do it consistently and submit yourself to public scrutiny…

              Small trivia: there are over 3,500 images on this site alone :)

          • Good one.

    • dallasdahms says:

      Ron, you started a controversial topic with one of the most technically astute and argumentatively well endowed online photographic communities in existence. Did you expect them to all agree with you? I have just read through that thread and I didn’t see anyone as being impolite (except maybe Taran, but then he’s Taran and he has the chops to back up his approach – and he was right).

      http://nikongear.com/live/index.php/topic/52312-is-digital-too-perfect/

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  1. […] the previous article, we looked at some of the fundamental principles of landscape photography. Today, we’re going […]

  2. […] the previous article, we looked at some of the fundamental principles of landscape photography. Today, we’re going […]

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