Landscape photography, part two: applied landscapes

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In the previous article, we looked at some of the fundamental principles of landscape photography. Today, we’re going to question more of those assumptions and see how those principles apply equally to a very diverse range of subjects.

Let’s start with what is, on the face of things, a fairly obvious question: At what point does a landscape turn into a cityscape turn into architecture turn into urban reportage/ flaneur photography? If you have an expansive natural scene with one remote house on it, is it still a landscape? I think nobody would argue with you on that one. Two houses? A small town? Maybe it’s a question of scale, or visual dominance? What about a physically small scene with predominantly natural elements – that’s a landscape, surely. But what if the scene is man-made with merely the inclusion of natural elements? I’m sure a carefully-planned Japanese garden is definitely landscape material. Regardless of the answer, I think we can all agree that the lines become increasingly blurred.

What I fundamentally believe is that the principles of landscape photography can, and should be applied to anything static. What I’m going to do in this article is discuss a few examples in detail, showing just how cross-disciplinary things can be. I can definitely attest to the value of recognizing fundamental structure in an image – even if it’s something as simple as foreground-midground-background – and ensuring that all of the subject elements receive the correct visual prominence and are properly lit etc. What you won’t see in any of these images are dominating temporal elements: by this I mean any moving subjects that have to be frozen in time, lest the whole composition be irrecoverably changed. Even though a long exposure of a waterfall will give a different impression to a fast one, it doesn’t change the structure of the composition: the water still flows in the same course. It’s not the same as street photography, in which if you get the timing wrong, it can make the difference between having a person/ subject in the scene and a completely empty, boring image.

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We’ll start on the less controversial end of things. I think there’s no question about the image above: it’s a landscape in an urban context. Things look a little too regular to be natural, but at the same time, too natural to be entirely man-made. (It is in fact a semi-man-made lake in Yangon; some of you may recognize this image from my Myanmar set.) The perspective is clearly telephoto and enhanced; the time of day and light a conscious choice on my part to convey the feel of a warm evening.

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The next image is about the interaction between the natural, the cultivated and the man-made: we’re looking at the tiny vineyard adjoining the Strakhov Cloister in Prague, and the city of Prague itself in the background. Structurally, the image is fairly classical: we have our dominant foreground, our contextual midground, and recession into a more general background. Except in this case, the mid and background is entirely man-made and contextual.

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It’s clear from both the brightness, color and contrast in this image that the rather spectacular sky is the subject here; everything else is merely context – you get the impression that the buildings are no more than to put things into context size-wise. The structure of this image is inverted – yet we still have the fore-mid-background relationship; the context, and the juxtaposition of natural and man-made elements.

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Now we move to an image that’s entirely composed of manmade elements: there’s nothing natural here at all. Yet at the time of shooting, I composed it according to the same principles I’d use for a landscape: the scene was static, so I had time to pick my perspective to reflect the visual prominence of the subjects I wanted; wait a little for the sun to hit the facade and bridge in the background, and carefully position the camera to balance out every portion of the frame.

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We are getting slowly more and more removed from the traditional landscape. Once again, we have static subjects, a conscious choice of perspective and precise framing, but we’ve lost the sky. You might recall from the previous article, that depending on the prominence of the upper half of the frame, the ‘sky’ can either be background or foreground; here, as the inclusion of a lot of heavy, dark sky gives the impression of impending rain, choosing to make the bridge the dominant element creates a sense of overbearing expectation/choice/commitment (take your pick).

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Uh oh. We’ve now gone on a huge tangent. Or have we? Take a moment to consider the structure of this image: the reflective elements could well be water; the background subjects being reflected could be trees. A sense of scale is completely absent. The camera could have been sitting in the middle of a stream somewhere, instead of on a bannister at SFMOMA.

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You might have seen these two images before, from my work in Tokyo last year. I shot these while setting my workshop students their final open assignment; I wanted to both push myself creatively and try something different. Rather than just go out and shoot cinematics, or people, or architecture, I came up with the idea of treating the people like water, and the buildings like the rest of the landscape: very much an urban landscape, if you will. The reason I’d never tried this before is because you obviously need a lot of people walking in clearly defined thoroughfares to make it work! Technically, it was actually quite challenging because I’d have to use longish exposures, find stable platforms and the right vantage points – in the middle of a crowded city, with no tripod handy. I made do with various street furniture and the OM-D’s excellent stabilizer. I think you’ll agree that it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the pedestrians flowing through the streets like water in a river.

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Here’s where things get very conceptual. I’ve always treated photographing a plate of food like photographing a garden – there are deliberate, arranged elements to it, but at the same time, there’s an element of measured uncontrollable chaos in the way the salad leaves fall, or the rice bunches. In short, though the overall form of the arrangement is controlled – again, like a garden – the individual elements are not (like exactly where the flowers grow on the bushes, or the shape of the trees, for instance).

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Foreground-background relationships matter. Which ingredient or component is the focus of the dish? The quality of light matters, because that’s the only way we have to control the perceived texture of the food, and thus the impression the viewer gets: is it fresh? Crispy? Tender and juicy? Or possibly oily and unpleasant?

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Rocks, a log and an interesting plant: I leave your imagination to figure out which could be which.

Can we do the same with watches? Absolutely, though the physical size of the objects being photographed brings about challenges of its own – the perspectives are somewhat limited simply because the working distance of a wide-angle macro lens is almost nothing if you want to get sufficient magnification (severely limiting your lighting options, and introducing all sorts of problems when it comes to uncontrolled reflections); couple that with the huge geometric distortion and it’s difficult to use these lenses effectively. I’ve found that these techniques tend to be more effective when part of a larger arrangement; it’s mainly because it’s just easier to execute.

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Of course, a greater fundamental challenge is that the subject itself must be conducive to such photography to begin with; there are few that actually are. This image was shot with an adapted Zeiss ZM 2.8/28 Biogon on a D700; the combination did not focus to infinity due to the difference flange distance between M and F mounts, but it did happen to yield the right perspective and magnification for certain applications, as you can see here. Unfortunately, the lens was really not optimized for corrections at this distance, and so the combination proved unworkable from an image quality standpoint on the D800E – too much difference between images shot with that and my usual lenses.

The bottom line I’d like everybody who reads this article to take away is that as with everything else in photography, there are no hard and fast rules. The ability to learn, imagine and experiment through application of techniques that do not obviously apply are perhaps the greatest skills any photographer can have. MT


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  1. There is a sort of danger in cityscapes. I’ve seen photos that dramatize the architecture of structures, showing the lines and the flows and the rhythms. I’ve seen photos of parks with trees and ducks in the near ground, bodies of water or unique trees in the middle distance, say a classical structure in the distance, with hills or mountains way off there.

    They make for beautiful photos.

    They should, because they were designed that way. An architect with an eye for beauty, and landscape architect or architects for the way an urban area fitted with a designed and built green area.

    But these are the work of the architect, of the engineer, of the designer. Not of the photographer. The photographer just walks up, takes a shot of a beautiful crafted scene, and expects admiration, taking credit for having discovered it.

    But the works are not his. He is just taking a photo of what the artist has already wrought.

    This is just a peeve of mine!

    • I disagree: you can present something in a way that makes it ugly or beautiful; that’s most of my job when I shoot product commercially. If you add nothing to the scene but represent only what the designer intended, then yes, you’re pretty useless. However, you have a) no way of knowing whether that was what the designer intended – from experience and speaking to designers/ architects, it often isn’t – it is simply impossible to imagine every single sight line from every single vantage point, or know how a building is going to interact with its environment 20 years from now after the surroundings develop; b) aesthetics are all subjective anyway, so what the designer intended may be ugly to everybody else, however if you can turn that into something beautiful, then you’re adding something; c) Most people can’t really use their eyes. Even if the scene is in front of them, they won’t be able to see it. So the photographer is still required.

      An analogue to your argument is that the camera does all the capturing, the photographer is therefore redundant. You could argue the same thing about anything static – landscapes, still lifes, portraits. The photographer makes nothing because he is merely taking a picture of something that already exists therefore the work is not his.

  2. Let us leave aside, for a moment, the “cityscape”. Two natural landscape photographers I respect a lot, one the ultimate (at least US ultimate) landscape classicist, Ansel Adams, and the other a present day New Zealander, Tony Bridge, both have spoken and written a great deal about spiritual elements in the depiction of landscape. Mr Adams spoke of trying to convey the sense of transcendent connection within a larger cosmos as his defining goal in undertaking the process of producing an image of a place in nature and Mr. Bridge talks about the landscape “speaking” to him and of his primary task as discerning correctly what it is trying to say and then capturing that in an image. I believe that others have echoed these two, for instance, Galen Rowell.

    Maybe it’s an admission on my part that I have not read your posts here as carefully and closely as I should, and I certainly intend no criticism, but sometimes I think it seems that when you write about your experiments you emphasize the “material” elements of the process, its rational elements, rather than the intuitive, instinctive, or spiritual components. I’m sure there was a pull on you from a scene like the very first one in Part One of this post of the cloud out over the water that involved more esoteric considerations than light and composition and maximum technical competency. And, please, I want again to emphasize my hope here is only to expand the discussion (maybe) a little bit, not to complain or criticize. I would offer as a premise for examination that good landscape photography must originate within a fundamental spiritual and/or emotional connection with a particular place and only then can technical excellence be brought to bear to (hopefully) translate that into an image. You must hear the tune before you can hum along, though, surely, the better trained and “musical” your voice, the more engaging the song can be.

  3. Hi Ming, not want to bother you with the old FF vs cropped and m43 argument, but my friend send me the link of a well known pro photographer in my country, he is a Vietnamese American, and was trained to be a pro in the US. In his article,, he said FF is the only way to become a pro (ok, agree to some extend) and even an old FF like Ca 5dm1 can beat all modern cropped DSLR or m43 in IQ, so all but FF are craps (ok, this view varies from one to another).
    But here is something sounds strange to me, making me wonder if he mentions dynamic range, tonality and color depth. He said “In principle, the image from the lens after going to the sensor will have 2 of the following characteristics: (1) sharpest at the center of the frame and gradually become less sharp when stretching all the way to the edge. (2) get the most light at the center of the frame and become darker and darker when stretching all the way to the edge. Therefore, foreign reviews often crop picture at the center of the frame and not at anywhere else.
    Those characteristics make a picture beautiful and have a sense of depth, and cropped DSRL, mirrorless and m43 do nothing but cropped those most important characteristics.”
    After a weeklong use of Fujifilm MX1 and AX1 he claimed that only Fuji sensor can regenerate such FF effect on the pictures, mostly portraiture, he took, and no any cropped and mirrorless can do so.
    As a journalist, I found most you insight and ideas, shown in you vid training series, work for me, but what this guy put raised some questions about those stuffs. Can you help clarify some points?

    • Yes. Spend more time on your composition and less time on your gear. It doesn’t matter how much technical mastery you have, or which sensor is better, a poor image on a higher technical quality camera will just be a bigger lousier file.

  4. Mike Sanchez says:

    I just love your processing style.

  5. BenneFashion says:


  6. Reblogged this on saturn1ascends.

  7. Why not cross apply the techniques and experiment, right? We might just interesting results. It is through that process that a discovery happens anyways. Great article as always Ming!

  8. You are a true artist in all of your photography. Thank you for sharing it so generously.

  9. randomesquephoto says:

    Love your take on this Ming! I’m going to have to take these concepts and utilize them in my urban decay shots. It’s just the type of thoughts and challenges I’ve been looking for. But have been struck on what to conceptualize next. My work has been getting boring. Stale. My mind has been stuck in a box. I hope something like these ideas will open up great possibilities. Thanks.

  10. József Oldal says:

    This is not about landscape photography, nor english is my native language, sorry about that. These are just my thought after reading it.

    I found this site this year and after a couple of weeks of occasionally visiting it, I realized that I started my days here almost every day. After a while I have read back the whole site. From about this September, I have a sort of disappointment if I do not find new article on the page.

    I have to tell you that I have learnt more about my hobby here in these previous months than any other way and anywhere else in the past couple of years. I have learnt that being an old dog does not mean you cannot learn new tricks – from a good source (like your thoughts, images, videos). And beside other things I got from you and your blog – not to mention for example, how much you can squeeze into your days when you are really driven -, now I am a proud owner of your fantastic London image which gets immediate attention and praise by whoever visits my home.

    So I just wanted to say Thank You for everything you gave me/us. I wish you excellent health for the future, if you have that, you can have anything. (OK, I wish you a brand new BMW with special permission to “really” use them :-), and with the trunk full of assorted Cuban cigars). And I wish all of us a full 2014 Ming Thein blog!

    Happy Holidays Ming!


    • Thanks Jozsef – there are a lot of articles on this site, you must have spent a lot of time here! I post at least every alternate day; sometimes more often. Reality is it takes quite a lot of time to put the articles and images together, and this isn’t my main job, so I’ve got to balance things out – usually with a lot of coffee…

      Happy holidays! 🙂

      • József Oldal says:

        Oh, sorry, it was not intended to be a complain – I wanted to describe a mindset, a sort of excited expectation. I also realized that I wished you excellent health with a ton of cigar… :-)))

  11. Intersting read. Firstly, I think as you that the rules that make a good image are universal and applicable to any style or type of photography. That said, I think there is a property of a “classical” landscape that you have not mentioned directly, particullary when
    it comes to food, clocks, macro (fine art items?) that is the photographers ability to influence the subject with artificial light and to move the subject for the purpose of a different perspective. In traditional landscape you must live with the lights that’s there.

    • Yes and no…there are a lot of examples of light painting of foregrounds or midgrounds and blended exposures that work well for landscapes too…

  12. Thank you for another thoughtful article. You are quite unique amongst photographers in your ability to express yourself in words as well as photographs. Thanks for a year of excellent articles and good luck for the future. Merry Christmas. A.

  13. Wonderful article and very helpful to see your description of the pictures. Amazing images. The first photo would fit great in Episodes 1,2 & 3 of you outstanding images videos. The truck under the bridge as well. I would have walked right past that one…

  14. First off, this is the kind of thought-provoking post that makes your website so unique! Thank you!

    Second, while trying to wrap my head around this abstraction of the landscape concept, I noticed that most of your pictures presented in these two articles have pretty deep depth of field. The exceptions seem to be the macros, due mostly to the physics of the situation. So far, the best way I have to sum this up is that a landscape-style photo shows a certain kind of relationship between fore-, mid-, and background where all 3 are relatively clear and identifiable.

    I was trying to figure out why your 3 apples picture couldn’t be considered a landscape, and I think it’s mostly because the background occupies a large part of the image, but is mostly indistinct. Compare this to your last picture of the watch which has a pretty compressed perspective, but all 3 “-grounds” are clearly identifiable, and occupy all of the image.

    Anyway, just thinking out loud some half-baked thoughts …

    • My pleasure. The thoughts seem pretty well-defined to me – you’re not imagining it. I think of landscape in general terms as an environment in the setting of related objects and contextual environment – so I suppose that falls neatly into the near-mid-far model. You don’t always have to use something wide, but wide does give the maximum flexibility to include a wide range of spatial distance in the same shot – and therefore maximize context.

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