Landscape photography is my personal focus. It’s where I started out in photography and I love the hunt for a photo out in the world. But, very often my landscape photography is dissapointing. Based on the questions I get asked during my various workshops, the same is true for a lot of other people.
Ansel Adams once said about:
Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer, and often the supreme disappointment.
In a little more sarcastic and self deprecating way AzulOx Workshops co-founder Josh Baker jokes that he likes to make one landscape photo a year to remind himself that he is terrible at it. I’m sure he could be good at it, but landscape photography is something that requires focus to do well.
Landscape Photography: Simple but not Easy
Landscape photography requires very little specific technical knowledge beyond basic photography knowledge: an understanding of the exposure triangle, how to manipulate your camera, and some basic post processing skills.
Just about any camera and lens will work too, from a cell phone, ancient dSLRs or film camera to the latest technical wonder from Nikon. You can use a full auto scene mode, or full manual. Any lens will work from an ultra-wide to a super-telephoto. You can make great photos straight out of camera or you can go in for complex post processing.
Its a very simple genre in terms of the minimum technical knowledge and equipment required, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. The difficulty leads a lot of people to go down the technical rabbit hole: learning to produce HDR images, buying more complex equipment, shooting composite images and using heavy post processing.
A boring photo in HDR or with a ton of processing is still a boring photos. The most expensive lens in the world, won’t rearrange the element in a poorly composed photo to give it meaning.
Composition and Vision
Making good landscape photos ends up being more about composition than other technical aspects. If you find a great composition with your cell phone, you can make a great photo. Same with an dSLR. That of course leads to the question:
How do I compose an interesting photos?
At this point most material on the matter devolves into a list of “rules” from composition and a set of example images showing how great a photo that uses the “rule” turned out.
The thing to realize about the “rules” is that they are largely post-shutter-click rationalizations of why an interesting photo is interesting. They are an attempt to impose simple rules onto a complex thing.
Don’t Follow the “Rules”
Lets take for example the “rule of thirds,” probably the first “rule” of composition you heard. I know it was for me. In short, it asserts that placing your subject (you have a subject right?) on one of the third points (think tic-tac-toe intersections) will make a more interesting photo. You can certainly find good photos with important elements on the third points. It’s an easy trap to say “See! They USED the rule of third” when you see a good photo that happens to confirm to it.
For every good photo that appears to adhere to this “rule”, I can show you hundreds of others that follow it and are bad, or at least not interesting.
The real problem with “rules” of composition is that they try to codify what makes a photo good in terms of purely visual relationships in the final frame, absent the meaning of those elements in the real world. They generally loose the “why” that lead to their becoming “rules.”
The “rule of thirds”, for example, came about because early cameras had their focus point or aid in the center of the frame. Most photos ended up using a centered composition with the subject right in the center where the focus point was. That gets really old, and isn’t a good composition in many situations (like the jumper above). Someone got sick of it and started telling people to put things on the third points, to follow the “rule of thirds.”
But centered compositions are not bad when appropriate, any more than “rule of thirds” compositions are good when inappropriate. Instead of following the “rule of thirds,” I follow the “rule of put stuff where it belongs.” How do I know where stuff belongs you ask?
Know Your Intention
If you can’t follow simple formulaic “rules” of composition, how do you know where to put things in your frame? Simple:
Know your intention.
What do you want to show the viewer of the photo? What is the story? Simply photographing what is in front of you, however pretty, usually isn’t enough. As photographers, or job is to help the viewer see the scene the way we want. We manipulate the view to give them an experience.
Before you can start arranging elements in your view finder, you have to know what you want to achieve, or at least have an idea to start with.
The first step is to understand what is drawing you to the scene. Is it the light, the color, the motion, the shapes, semantic relationships or something else? Figuring this out is hard. To do so you have to really see the scene, and break down what is attracting you. And then you have to figure out how to best convey that feeling to the viewer of your photo.
The Work of Others
One way I’ve learned to convey my intentions to viewers is to look at a lot of other landscape photography. I don’t just glance at it but try to reverse engineer it. What view point did the photographer choose and what relationships does it create in the photo? I think about how I experience the photo and then try to figure out how the photo was made to lead to that experience.
Did the photographer’s lens choice exaggerate any relationships and if so, how would they have looked in person? Where is the light coming from in the photo and what effect does that have on my experience of viewing the photo. Are colors playing a significant role in my experience? Does the photo feel balanced or unbalanced and does it matter? Can I tell the photographers message? Is it clear what they wanted me to see?
Trying to discern the intention of others, and looking at the tools they used to show it to you, will make you a better photographer.
Practice and Be Honest
There is no substitute for structured practice. Structured practice means setting out with a goal, attempting to fulfill that goal and then evaluating your own performance. That applies to any endeavor, not just photography. Set out to make a landscape photo with intention. Take the time to think it through, then make the photo. When you get home, evaluate how we well you did.
While I’m out shooting I consciously think about my intention for a photo, and what I want the viewer to experience when seeing it. More importantly, when I review my photos, I try to “see it fresh” without consciously thinking about shooting it. I try to look at my own photos in the same way I look at the photos of others, breaking them down and guessing why I made the choices I made.
I also always try to come up with hypothetical ways to have made a better version of the image. Those might include things that weren’t actually possible at the time like “wait for better light” or “use an ultra wide lens which I don’t own yet” or simple things like simple changes in framing. Whatever those things are, I’m honest about how I could have made a better image.
The Opinions of Others
Asking other people for their opinion of your art can be a questionable practice. Your mom and best friends are going to say they love it. They wish to affirm you. The people in that one Facebook group you know are likely either going to ignore your image or take the opportunity to bolster their own self esteem through their comments. The people most likely to give you quality feedback probably won’t speak up for fear of being lumped into one of the other two groups.
When I seek the opinion of others, it happens mainly in 2 ways:
First, I take part in a well organized critique based competitions. A judge shows and critiques every image publicly. Generally the judge has no vested interest in flattering or insulting anyone. And, they are going on record publicly with their opinions in a face-to-face setting. There is real pressure on a judge to give good feedback in that scenario. That doesn’t mean you can’t get poor advice or meaningless critiques, but I’ve found that there is great feedback to be had in this scenario, especially over multiple competitions.
Second, I will ask a trusted photographer for their honest opinion in a private setting. Because there is a trust relationship, and because it is private, they can give me honest feedback. The real strength of this situation is that there can be a dialogue about the image, and about what works and doesn’t for them.
In both scenarios, don’t look for praise. In many ways, praise is the least useful feedback you can get. Instead, listen for the indications of whether they “get” what I was trying to show them, and how I could have done that better.
Beyond Simple Rules
I wish I could hand you a simple check list, a procedure or even an algorithm for arriving at a vision for your images, or finding intention in the world, but I can’t, at least not yet. This is part of what makes landscape photography so soul crushing for me personally. When I succeed, it is sublime. Much of the time, it is just depressing because I see a great image in my head but just can’t bring it together in reality. Those failure just cause me to search that much harder most of the time. Landscape photography, at least for me, is about the hunt for photos.
We started with an Ansel Adams quote, and I think I’ll end with another:
Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.
Find great landscape photos is a slow process. It’s as much about being ready when a great scene presents itself as it is about finding a great scene.
Andrew is a photography instructor teaching students of all skill levels in Austin, TX through Precision Camera and independently in San Diego, CA. He runs workshops around the United States.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.
Andrew is a full time wedding and commercial photographer in both Austin and San Diego. Andrew is a club founder and multi-time past president of North Austin Pfotographic Society.