Do you know why you are shooting the landscape you are looking at? If not then you will probably not make it exciting for your viewer either. Shoot for impact.
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A landscape ‘snap’ just does not seem to cut it…
Many landscape photos are really stimulating for the author, but few other people. The problem? It’s too easy to ‘snap’ a shot that will bring back the moment. You really need to think about what will stimulate someone else when they see the picture.
One of my favourite landscape photographers once said,
Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer, and often the supreme disappointment.
…and he was right. Most people do not have a reason to take a landscape shot that will satisfy someone else.
Insights to landscapes
Personal perspective is all important, but it can misrepresent the situation. I studied the environment when at university, including geology. I loved landscapes and knew how to read them. I could take them apart and tell you their geo-history, rock types, erosion… well, you get it, I was a geek! I loved taking pictures of landscapes. I found them beautiful and interesting. It was many years before I realised they were interesting to me because of my geeky knowledge. I realised I was taking geeky geology pictures of landscapes. I thought they were beautiful. Everyone else just did not get it. That’s the point. You should be finding elements in the landscape that capture the scene for what is attractive and what it means to everyone, not just you.
There are a number of themes that successful landscape photography hinges upon.
As with any photo, light is the key. Great light, great attraction. Early morning, sunset, dramatic weather – they all have their place. Flat mid-day, blue sky light, not so good. But even then, combined with other composition elements you can make it work.
The angle of light is important because of the creation of shadows. They define the landscape by creating bright and dark spots which really brings out the contrast in the landscape. The camera is not as versatile as our eye and a good contrast brings out the depth in a landscape picture that we can see naturally but needs to be strong for the camera.
Drama is another theme that helps a landscape picture. Think of the primal drivers of our inner being. Sunsets, uplifting because of the promise of a new day tomorrow. Storms, threatening our existence, fascinate and drive us to shelter. Dawn, captures our hopes and fears of the unknown in the new day. We all respond to these drivers. So, pick them out.
Aesthetics, what we find stimulating and uplifting. Yes, beauty is a factor. You need to find elements in the picture that are truly attractive to everyone, not just your feeling of the moment. Don’t take a shot because of a lovely moment shared with your love. Look for the attraction for everyone in this scene and capitalise on that. Show what is attractive by using composition to focus the viewer on the subject. Take a moment to consider where to take the shot to show it best. Look all around you, consider high and low, left and right. The perspective of the shot is important.
The subject is the thing you want to show most. So make sure you find ways to bring it out. Is it the danger, the beauty, the vista, the awe? Look at the landscape and sense what it is doing for you – then hunt it down with your camera. If you know why it is stimulating you, and it is a primordial driver, then you have isolated the essence of it.
More after this…
Just taking a snap is a kind of composition – even if a negative one. Remember that you are trying to create an impact others will find attractive. So, look for compositional elements that bring out your theme and then frame the shot for them.
In the shot above I was looking for ways to draw the viewer into the picture. The essence of this shot lies in the drama and the layers of the landscape. These layers make you want to go into the shot to see how the landscape changes as you go in. They give the shot depth and invite you to see what is around the next bend in the valley.
Knowing these were the reasons for my attraction to the scene informed my composition. I wanted foreground emphasis. This lead to the capture of foreground objects giving a sense of being there. In the shot on the other side of the road I could see round the corner. The scene there lost the mystery of implied discovery. The drama in the sky drew me into the distance because of the mystery in the unseen there too. Closer to me the drama in the sky created an implied threat. That was too good to lose. So I had to take several exposures so I could capture the sky without blowing it out and the hills without underexposing them. The contrast between the two was too much for the camera to capture both at once as my eye saw it. This meant I had to think about my post-processing too, including my crop. The shot was taken so I could bring out a panorama to enhance the feel of awesomeness in the landscape. A ‘letterbox’ crop gives right-left depth to complement the depth from the contrast as well as foreground, mid-ground and distance layers in the picture.
I know there are other things that made me stand right there and create this shot. The point is that I knew why I was doing it that way. I knew what it meant to me. I knew what the drivers were that would impart meaning to others. Then I composed and shot for the post processing.
One more thing. It might not surprise you to know that this photo represents a lot of time working the scene at this location. There were about 35 pictures of the general location. More takes on the exact spot of the shot. In all, there was about 50 minutes work, with tripod, to get this one shot. A ‘snap’ it was not!