In this second part of my ‘Breaking the Rules’ article I continue to explore (and challenge) some of the rules surrounding landscape photography. The article 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.
Rule 7 – Wide-angle lenses are best for landscape photography
Read any photographic magazine article or website on landscape photography and invariably you’ll be advised to buy/use a wide-angle lens. Generally, it’s good advice as they are great for photographs with strong foregrounds & lead in lines as well as enabling amazing depth of field.
But they can be difficult to use. For example, extra care must be taken with composition or the shots can end up looking cluttered because the wide view takes in so many elements that have to be considered & arranged or they can lead to vast expanses of dead space in the frame with no or a very small point of interest.
Sometimes it’s fun to use longer lenses as an optical machete to isolate and abstract details from the landscape, homing in on just a small part of a wider scene. Sometimes these smaller vignettes of a location can have more visual impact and at the same time say just as much about the characteristics of that place.
Telephoto lenses are also good for producing more graphic or abstract images that emphasise pattern, line or shape.
I have lenses with focal lengths from 14mm to 600mm and I use them all for my landscape photography. There is no one ‘best’ focal length – just the most appropriate tool for a specific task.
Rule 8 – Landscapes are best taken with small apertures to maximise depth of field
Many years ago I was approached by a man at a camera club who expressed disappointment with his landscape photography. He thanked me for showing my photographs and said he’d realised that to improve his own work he should shoot all his future landscapes at f22. This naïve assumption was based not on what I’d said but, on a belief, that increasing depth of field would give him the magic solution. If only it were that easy!
It is an undeniable fact of physics that small apertures do maximise depth of field. When shooting landscapes with bold & interesting foregrounds then achieving front to back sharpness is an important consideration.
But it’s not an approach that should be followed slavishly.
I particularly like using limited depth of field to achieve specific effects – for example: to encourage the viewer to concentrate on one part of the scene whilst hinting at the wider context or to isolate my focal point from its surroundings.
The selection of aperture cannot be made on a ‘one size fits all basis’. It is a careful blend of scientific & artistic considerations and varies from one shot to the next.
Rule 9 – Atmospheric landscape photographs can only be taken at the beginning or the end of the day
When I run workshops or give talks I’m often asked by people how they can improve their landscape photography. My response is usually:
- use a tripod, and
- get out of bed early to capture the dawn and stay out late to photograph at sunset.
The chances of capturing interesting & dramatic light are significantly increased if we do so. Going out early pre-dawn or staying out late for sunset (and frequently missing breakfast and dinner in the process!) is a risk as there are never any guarantees that light & weather will co-operate. But when Mother Nature delivers her magic then we can be rewarded with wonderful colours, stunning light and dramatic cloud structures.
However, this can be taken to extremes for there are some zealots who argue that landscape photography should be avoided during the middle of the day – particularly outside of the winter months. But follow this advice and we’d miss some great photos. Good images can be made at any time of the day if care is given to the choice of subject matter and composition.
Rule 10 – You need sunshine to take landscape photographs
I have to smile when I’m stood in bright sunshine waiting for more interesting light to manifest & passing walkers say cheerily, ‘lovely day isn’t it; I bet you’re getting some good photos’. For sunny weather may be great for hiking but it does not always equal good photography light.
I much prefer to photograph just before or after a rainstorm has occurred. I like to work on the edge of weather systems, as bad weather is moving in or away for that is when we can get the most atmospheric and dramatic light. I have a saying (that particularly applies to many of the locations where I prefer to shoot e.g. Scotland, the Lake District, New Zealand, Norway, Iceland) – ‘if I haven’t got wet then I probably haven’t got a good photograph’.
Rather than wait for ‘ideal’ conditions the trick is to try and match the prevailing weather conditions with choice of location. So, in overcast weather conditions I will:
- seek out water where the light on the water can provide a highlight in an otherwise drab scene. I will therefore seek out lakes, waterfalls, streams and rivers (an added bonus is that the low light often results in slower shutter speeds giving more options for the use of creative blurring); or
- shoot woodland scenes (these usually benefit from low contrast) & look for detail shots (e.g. tree bark, rocks, leaf details) knowing that colours are usually enhanced in duller conditions;
- search for graphic/dynamic compositions, where dramatic light is less important to the overall success of the shot.
Rule 11 – Always design your images according to the ‘Rules of Composition’
The first of the compositional rules that I want to challenge is one that seems to be much loved by photo judges (in the UK at least) and discourages us from including an even number (2, 4, 6 etc) of elements in our shots.
The principle underpinning the rule is sound enough – by including two elements in our frame, for example, the viewer can end up confused about which one is the prime focal point as their attention is drawn back and forth between the two. But there are times when the photograph is actually about the relationship between the two elements and they require equal visual weight.
The rules of composition also advise against placing our focal point too close to the edge of the frame. We are told that we should give it space and room to breathe. But sometimes, by placing the main subject at the edge of the frame, we can:
- create a visual tension; or
- a sense of intrigue that forces the viewer to look twice; or
- achieve a better compositional balance; or
- provide a better sense of scale that emphasises the vastness of other elements in the frame.
And finally, there’s the much quoted ‘rule of thirds’ which has long been recognised in art & photography as aesthetically pleasing and is based on the division of a rectangle into 9 equal sized blocks as here:
The four intersecting points on the grid are recognised as significant for the placement of key focal points within an image.
Undoubtedly it can be a useful compositional device and sometimes, when I’m struggling to resolve a difficult composition, I’ll play with placing my focal point on one of the four intersections to see if it helps.
But usually I am not composing an image consciously taking account of compositional rules. Generally, I compose intuitively – basing the design of my photograph on what feels instinctively right to me.
It was the great Edward Weston who said,
“to consult the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the law of gravity before taking a walk”
And Ansel Adams said,
“in my opinion, the so-called rules of composition are immaterial and irrelevant.”
My advice to photographers trying to get to grips with composition is to learn the rules, understand them, get to know when and why they work but then forget them – or more accurately don’t consciously apply them to every image you make. The rules should be seen as guidelines only.
Rule 12 – You don’t have to worry about getting the shot right in the camera; just sort it out in Photoshop later
If I had a pound for every time someone on one of my workshops has said “I’ll sort it out later in PS” I’d be a very rich man. The most extreme case was a workshop participant who refused to level his camera because it could be done on the computer back at home. Come on – it takes two seconds to do it in the field!
Now I’m not an anti-digital man at all – I enjoy the flexibility of digital photography and I do really appreciate the power & creative potential of Photoshop and other software packages to process my images. But I use software mainly to replicate what I would have done in the darkroom (but now with more control and accuracy).
My preference is always to get the shot as ‘right’ as possible in camera. So, I don’t clone in clouds from another image or combine multiple elements from a variety of sources. I’m not saying it’s wrong to do those things – it’s just not for me.
My preference is to wait for the elements (weather, light, clouds etc) to co-operate and if that results in me getting wet & cold in the process then in my opinion that’s preferable to spending time in front of the computer trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! I much prefer being out in the landscape – that’s never wasted time in my book.
Most importantly though, I don’t want to become sloppy in my approach. I believe that the discipline of getting it right at the time of taking the shot will help me to continue to improve as a photographer (rather than become a better computer operator).
I hope my two-part article on ‘Breaking the Rules’ have at least been thought provoking. Not everyone will agree with everything I have said I am sure. But I would like to end with one important message – that for the creative photographer there are no rules, no ‘shoulds’, no constraints. The minute you feel influenced by any ‘rules’ set yourself a challenge of deliberately breaking them to prove they have no universal applicability.
About the Photographer
Steve Gosling is an award-winning professional photographer who specialises in producing fine art landscape and travel images. He is an experienced instructor having run workshops in the UK and abroad, encouraging and inspiring photographers of all levels from across the world. As well as working closely with Phase One and Lee Filters Steve is an Ambassador for Olympus, Manfrotto & Gitzo and Permajet inkjet papers. Website – www.stevegoslingphotography.co.uk
© All text and images Steve Gosling