In this article, I want to explore (and challenge) some of the rules surrounding landscape photography. It is an article that was initially prompted by my experience of giving talks and running photographic workshops across the world. I’ve been struck over the years by the number of photographers I meet who seem hampered or constrained by the need to adhere to so-called ‘rules’; under pressure to conform to a set of expectations (or myths) that had been fed to them about what they should or shouldn’t be doing.
And I’m not alone in perceiving this. Here is a quote from photographer, Michael Kenna:
“I think that we photographers can confine ourselves too easily by our dogmatic rules. This happens a lot in camera clubs, where horizons should be straight, the foreground, middle ground and background should be clear, the golden section should be used for positioning the dominant subject and we should have fine grain. We all know how easy it is to settle into a pattern of ‘shoulds’ like this. If we impose a set of rules on the game, we can judge an image more easily and decide whether it’s a winner or a loser. But I don’t think life is like that, and neither is art. I like to think that there is an element of creativity hidden in the camera.”
So, what I am trying to encourage in this article is photographic anarchy – to urge all photographers to break the rules and ignore the ‘shoulds’!
Rule 1 – You should set out to take photographs that will sell or will win competitions
I’ve read this advice in photographic magazines in articles on ‘how to make cash from your camera’ and heard it from workshop participants who are obsessed with doing well in their local photo club competitions or international salons.
But how do we know what our audience is going to like? Should we buy a crystal ball or develop the ability to time travel? Good idea but not feasible of course. I’ve been taking photographs and selling them for over 30 years but I still have no idea about which images will sell or prove to be popular – in fact I’m often surprised by the images that get a good reception. I’ve learnt that at the time of firing the shutter the only person I should be aiming to please is me.
To be overly concerned with the viewers’ reactions to the final image, to be influenced by the desire to try and please others (and often others unknown) is constraining and restricting. I strongly believe that we must give ourselves permission to develop our own style & vision unhindered by the pressure to please someone else.
George Barr (in his book, ‘Why Photographs Work’) says:
“Attempts to create an image to please others will usually fail; the image can seem trite or simply lack the spark that signifies great photography. You can however produce an image that means something to yourself and let the viewer have his or her own reaction”.
And Fay Godwin, the British landscape photographer, when asked why she took photographs replied: “ultimately it’s about creativity and that has to be about doing it for yourself – not for judges, fellowships or other things like that”.
Rule 2 – You need to be in a great location to take great landscape photographs
I wouldn’t deny that an exotic, photogenic location can help to activate the creative juices. That’s one of the reasons why I spend so much time travelling to picturesque locations across the world from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica, from the USA to Asia & Australia.
But most importantly I believe that we must feel some connection with a location and have an emotional response to it if we are to make photographs with impact. I know I produce my best images when my senses are overwhelmed by the beauty of a place – the drama, the scale, the light and the nature of the landscape. That could be close to home or the other side of the world.
However, I also know that an iconic location doesn’t guarantee great photographs (I know – I’ve got the rubbish shots to prove it!!). In fact, there are times when photogenic locations can make it too easy, encouraging us to be lazy. I frequently find that the harder I must work to find a shot the better the final image. It’s often the struggle, the process of making an image in difficult situations that forces me to be more imaginative, more creative and to take some risks to come up with a shot that’s different.
Experience has also taught me that there isn’t really such a thing as a ‘bad’ location – good photographs can be found almost anywhere. Light, weather conditions and composition can generally transform a normally uninspiring scene into an attractive image.
Rule 3 – Anyone can take a good landscape photograph if they are in a great location
Following on from the previous point there are those that argue that even a monkey can be trained to produce a good image if they are taken to a ‘great’ location (whatever that is!).
These people believe that it’s the scenery, the location, that makes the photograph not the photographer. But those of us who have tried our hand at landscape photography know this to be a complete under-estimation of what’s really required to get a good landscape shot.
Good landscape photographs often require planning, patience and persistence to increase our chances of success.
Planning – for example, hours spent pouring over maps with a compass to work out the best position of the sun in relation to the landscape;
Patience – waiting several hours in the wet and the cold for the light & weather to co-operate with us is commonplace; and
Persistence – sometimes we must revisit a location numerous times before everything comes together.
Rarely are we able to just turn up at random to a location and take a stunning photograph.
Rule 4 – All landscape photographs require planning, patience and persistence
However, I wouldn’t want to imply that only landscape images that involve planning, patience & persistence have any value. I certainly wouldn’t argue that. Sometimes we must respond quickly to rapidly changing circumstances to grab shots that we hadn’t planned for.
It’s always important to keep an open mind, to respond to a location rather than turn up with pre-determined ideas of the photograph we want to take. It’s imperative to remain flexible in intent and be responsive to situations as they emerge.
Rule 5 – Always use a tripod for every shot
I must admit that I’m a great advocate for tripods – I have several Manfrotto & Gitzo tripods all designed to do different things (some are specialist travel models, others are best suited to low-level macro work or landscape photography in rough conditions and inclement weather). I use a tripod for 99% of my image making.
Tripods offer so much control, allowing the use of slow shutter speeds and fine-tuning of compositions. A sturdy tripod will also result in a noticeable increase in quality compared to a handheld shot. It always amazes me when photographers spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on lenses and then risk handholding a shot because it’s too much effort to carry or set up a tripod! Even with the best image stabilisation systems, a tripod-based camera will give superior results at slow shutter speeds.
And there are situations when a tripod is not just a good choice but is essential. For example, I frequently shoot exposures lasting several minutes or work up close with a macro lens when achieving ultimate sharpness will require a tripod plus mirror lock up and a cable release to fire the shutter.
However, I’m realistic enough to acknowledge that there are occasions out in the landscape when tripod use is not ideal or simply not possible. For example, we don’t always get the time to use them – I’ve missed shots in rapidly changing light that required a more spontaneous response because I’ve not been able to get my tripod set up in time. In some situations, it’s better to get the shot handheld then to miss it completely.
At other times it can be a creative choice not to use a tripod – for example where camera movement is combined with a slow shutter speed to produce a particular effect.
Rule 6 – You need good (= expensive) cameras & lenses to take good landscape images
How many of us have heard this comment – ‘wow, that’s a great photograph you’ve taken; you must have an expensive camera’? The best reply to this I’ve heard is ‘oh you mean like Picasso had an expensive set of brushes’.
Of course, the equipment we use is secondary to our artistic vision but I’m sure that most of us have been guilty at times of assuming that a new camera or a more expensive lens will result in us producing better photographs. But experience teaches us that it’s just not the case.
For my more conventional landscapes, I do use the best cameras and lenses I can afford – they’re usually expensive and excellent quality but neither fact prevents me from taking a terrible photograph with them!
Conversely, I’ve taken some shots I’m very happy with using cheap cameras & lenses (including a pinhole camera that is no more than a wooden box with a hole in the front). Making the best use of whatever kit we already have is far more productive than agonising over how we can get the cash to buy new equipment.
Eamonn McCabe (the photographer and former picture editor of the Guardian newspaper) has said:
“It doesn’t matter what camera you use; it’s what you can see that makes the difference”.
I believe that capturing the image & communicating mood & emotion in it is far more important than obsessing about acquiring more camera gear.
And I frequently find that the simpler the kit I‘m using the better the images I produce. By restricting the amount of gear I use, by keeping choices to a minimum, it encourages me to rely on my creativity more than a bagful of lenses to produce an interesting photograph. It forces me to use:
- my eyes (to seek out potential shots);
- my head (to come up with an interesting or creative approach to capture them); and
- my feet (as a substitute for a zoom lens).
Sometimes the complexity of the equipment can just get in the way of the picture making process.
…To be continued.
(This article will be concluded in part two. © All text and images Steve Gosling)