I have been running photographic workshops for nearly twenty years and over that period there are a number of themes or principles that have tended to re-occur. The advice given in this blog draws on that experience and I hope offers some practical guidance on how to improve your landscape photography.
The Three ‘P’s of Landscape Photography
I am a great advocate of the three P’s of landscape photography i.e. good photographs often require Planning, Patience and Persistence to increase our chances of success:
To work out the right time of day and year to be at a specific location (with reference to sun/moon position, the presence or absence of foliage on the trees, tide times etc) as well as keeping an eye on weather forecasts to increase your chances of getting a successful photograph;
As all landscape photographers know, rarely are we able to just turn up at a location, get out the camera and take a wonderful image. The old adage, ‘if you’ve seen it, you’ve missed it’ normally applies. My usual approach is to set up the camera, fine tune the composition and then wait for the light, weather conditions, cloud formations and so on to come together in a way that supports what I want to say about the location (based most importantly on what I feel about the location, not just what I see). This requires a lot of patience – I frequently spend hours standing around waiting for all the elements to coincide to give me what I’m after. And of course success is far from guaranteed – going home empty handed is not uncommon.
Which brings me to the final ‘P’. Revisiting locations is part of the job – sometimes I’ll keep returning to a location over a period of years before I get a photograph that I’m completely happy with.
Getting a fantastic landscape image usually involves a lot of hard work – turning up at random to a location to discover a perfect coincidence of conditions rarely (if ever) happens.
Look Beyond the Obvious
It’s very tempting to visit a well-photographed location and put your tripod in everyone else’s tripod holes. But do this and clichéd images, that say nothing new about that location, are the most likely result. The easy photographs are rarely the most rewarding or the ones with most impact.
It’s important to look beyond the obvious, perhaps to look at the more intimate aspects of the landscape – the little details. These little vignettes, can say as much about a location as a wide vista. Look for a way of photographing the location that reflects your unique vision and your personal reaction to that place & time.
I often recommend participants on my workshops to consider what their one, two or three words might be to describe the location or their chosen subject to someone who wasn’t there at the time they are taking their shot. By considering this they are more likely to come up with a unique response and as a result produce something different & not a clone of images they’ve seen before.
This provides a foundation for developing their own vision, their own way of seeing the world and from that evolves their photographic style.
Be clear – ‘why am I taking this picture?’
It’s important to think through (even before taking the camera out of the bag) why a particular subject appeals to you – is it shape, pattern, tone, texture, the light, colour etc. Ask ‘why am I taking this picture or what is it that attracts me?’ The answer will provide a clarity of purpose that is essential to the picture taking process and it should then influence choice of viewpoint, composition, exposure, filtration etc.
I believe that if I press the shutter without some clarity about what I’m trying to communicate it’s akin to starting a sentence before knowing what I want to say. If I don’t know what my purpose is in taking the image then it boils down to sheer luck as to what story, if any, my photographs tell.
As American photographer, Gordon Parks said:
“Those people who want to use a camera should have something in mind; there is something they want to show, something they want to say”.
Photography is About Emotion
Another aspect of this clarity of purpose is to consider your emotional response to the landscape and then try to photograph as much (if not more) of what you feel about a particular location as what you see – “Photography for me is not looking; it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at then you are never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures” (Don McCullin).
I believe that the most powerful images are the ones where we feel passionately about the subject matter. I know that if I am not stirred by what’s in front of my camera then there’s a good chance that the images (although hopefully well composed, exposed correctly etc) will almost certainly lack impact.
As photographer Ruth Bernhard once said:
“If you are not passionately devoted to an idea, you can make very pleasant pictures but they won’t make you cry”
And W. Eugene Smith said:
“What use is adequate depth of field if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?”
Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS)
My preference for simple, minimalist landscape images means that I prefer to take a ‘reductionist’ approach to composition where I ask ‘what else can I take out of this shot and still retain its key message?’. It’s a temptation with landscape photography to cram as much into the frame as we can when less is usually more.
Simplifying the composition takes practice and discipline. It is also helped if we have clarity about why we are taking the photograph in the first place – this assists in the distillation process.
Austrian photographer Ernst Hass once said: –
“the less information, the more illusion; the less prose, the more poetry”.
I think the best images engage the viewer by leading them to ask questions, by provoking their curiosity. Photographs do not have to provide all the answers or tell the whole story – the viewer should be encouraged to finish the image and interpret its meaning for them.
George Barr, in his book ‘Why Photographs Work’ says: –
“If the photograph tells you all and leaves nothing to the imagination, it may be a good photograph but there isn’t a lot of reason to revisit it and even less reason to think about the image. Those images that ask as many questions as the answer tend to stay with you, but only if they can attract your attention in the first place.”
Photograph for You
I strongly believe that we must give ourselves permission to develop our own style & vision unconstrained by the pressure to please someone else – whether that’s our family, the judges at the local photo club or the editor of our favourite photo magazine.
To be constantly worrying about pleasing others prevents us from developing our own artistic voice with the danger that our photographs stay ‘safe’ and ‘acceptable’. Our images then end up as clones of photographs that the world has seen before. Which is incredibly boring.
We have no control over the reaction of a viewer to our images. They bring to the viewing experience their life history and experiences, their photographic or artistic knowledge, their current mood and feelings and so on. And all of these things are out of our control. So ultimately I shoot for me – what I want to photograph in the way that I see it.
And my favourite quote on this comes from French photographer Jeanloup Sieff: –
“I make photographs for me. If other people like them then too bad”.
Use a Tripod
I am a great advocate of tripods. I own quite a few Gitzo tripods – from the larger Systematic series 3 & 4 to the smaller & lighter Series 2 Mountaineer. And when I’m travelling to a location by plane and the tripod has to fit into my checked luggage the Traveler tripods are ideal and a great combination with my mirrorless cameras.
I know that some people find then a pain to carry and to use but a good quality tripod will:
- give you more control over the image taking process (e.g. composition choices can be more easily made and the camera precisely placed);
- provide more flexibility (e.g. in low light longer shutter speeds are possible without the risk of camera shake);
- enhance picture quality (no matter how good you think you are at handholding the camera a tripod will give you a noticeable improvement in picture sharpness).
I couldn’t take the sort of photographs I love to produce (long exposure landscapes for example) without my tripods.
Steve Gosling runs a programme of workshops for those wanting to improve their landscape photography – for more information visit http://www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk/workshops.htm