A Simple But Powerful Exercise For Any Landscape Photographer

Beacon Light, New York

In my last post, I shared photographer David Ward’s take on making evocative images; how we should do more than just describe the landscape. We need to let others see what we think about a place, subject, or a moment in time. How to go about doing this leads to all sorts of questions, including whether it’s possible in a single photograph. Perhaps an approach that considers our mindset, goals, and what we bring to this creative process is worth considering.

Connection and Instincts

One of the things I slowly realized when I started photographing the landscape was that there was an instinctual response inside. In other words, there were conditions that just felt right to me; the light, or mood, vivid colors, or a particular subject that gave me a sense of beauty, or truthfulness about what I was experiencing. In short, I could not imagine being anywhere else at that moment. I had a deep connection, and that seemed a good reason to press the shutter. Now of course there’s more to it than just pressing the shutter—there’s the important question of how to compose the image, carefully considering what to include and what to exclude.

That is one of the most critical decisions in any landscape photograph. The more we include in the composition, the harder it gets to create balance and harmony in the picture, and hence the amount of expression it provides. This makes it difficult for the viewer to get a true sense of that connection I mentioned before. Thinking in musical terms, the degree of harmony we imbue can always be unbalanced with dissonance, or tension. That often creates mystery, or a sense of incompleteness that allows the viewer to develop their own feelings about a picture.

For example, I often use areas of deep shadow or bright highlights to add tension to an image. In other images, I try and exclude as much as possible without losing the essence of the moment, whether that’s the vastness of a grand landscape, or the feel of a dramatic sky. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity, not to be confused with vagueness, that helps move an image forward in the imagination.

Flowers at Bowtie

Practice and more practice brings us closer to connecting with our instincts—trial and error becomes our great teacher…believe me, I know.

A Simple Exercise

Lots to think about for sure, but I’d like to recommend a writing exercise I practice often and has been helpful for me. Grab a blank sheet of paper (yes paper works best, forget the digital equivalent, ) and find a quiet place to sit for 5 or 10 minutes without distraction.

Now imagine being able to transport yourself to any place or location, real or imagined, which would make you most inspired to share it with others. If it’s an actual place, where would that be? Think specifically about the location – what you would see, hear, experience, and how it would feel to be there.

Once you’ve contemplated that for whatever length of time you choose, write down two things in a free flowing manner…

  1. Why did you choose that location? What makes it meaningful for you?
  2. Why would you want to photograph it?

I’ve tried this exercise many times, and the interesting thing is that I often get slightly varying answers. When you write something down, it forces certain parts of your brain to think more clearly about the questions than if you just thought about them. And writing down your thoughts in general is a great way to gain clarity and insight into what’s important to you. The writer Ingrid Bengis said, “Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change.”

Ultimately, the closer you bring the viewer to the answers you wrote down, the more effective your images can become. And most interestingly, as David Ward says, it can instigate a dialog with the viewer, which is far more interesting than simply showing them a vista or scene.

Try this exercise, maybe several times, and share your feedback below. Did it help you in any way? Did you discover anything unexpected?

Quote of the Day

20110515_moab_085

Klondike Bluffs, UT

“To have a sacred place is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room or a certain hour of the day or so, where you do not know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody or what they owe you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” – Joseph Campbell

Extracting the Landscape

Canyon Paint

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/200 sec @f/5.6, ISO 800, 95mm
Beautiful patterns turn surreal with a slight breeze across the water. Here I tried to balance the 3 primary colors for visual balance and harmony. No plugins needed.

“It’s very important to know what to leave out, thereby emphasizing what remains” – Tony Bennett

I came across this quote by the great singer recently, and it stuck with me as I hiked along Negro Bill Canyon in Moab, Utah a few weeks ago. It’s an amazingly beautiful canyon with a flowing creek, lush vegetation, and varnished stained rock walls rising a hundred or more feet on either side of the trail. During early morning and evening hours, the walls reflect the sunlight down into the opposite side of the canyon creating beautiful soft warm light. Knowing where the light will be, and when, is key to finding great photo opportunities, which is why I visit as much as I can.

As I walked along the trail, I thought about the challenge of keeping it simple. With such a variety of subject matter to photograph—rocks, water, flowers, reflections, wildlife—and equally many distractions, how could I capture what I was seeing and feeling as simply as possible?

For me it starts with breaking things down visually into simple shapes, colors, lines, highlights and shadows. When you look carefully enough, they’re all there waiting to be discovered, and most importantly, either included or excluded from the composition. But it takes patience, and slowing down without having any place to get to, either physically or mentally. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, just being in a place and taking it all in, with all active senses. Our eyes are our strongest reference of course, but there are other cues; sounds, smells, touch. These can all be factors in how you react to and interpret nature, and you can use them to help you make compositional choices.

2013-05-19 11.24.47-1

iPhone 5, Camera+
Yes my iPhone 5. I wanted to see what it was capable of, and I wasn’t disappointed. Of course I can’t make a big print, but it was a useful exercise in composition. See how the simple leading line from the top right leads into a spiraling pattern of circles? Do you see the contrast in visual rhythm between the top and bottom portions of the image?

Learning From Babies

I see and appreciate this every single day with my 5 month old infant daughter. Whether seeing, touching, tasting, or hearing, it’s all interesting to her. She constantly scans her environment, observing with a focused curiosity, as her brain tries to make sense of everything she’s seeing and experiencing for the first time. It truly is an amazing thing to watch, and I find myself trying to see the way she sees, with that same intense curiosity and an eagerness to discover. We can all learn from this simple practice, vital to her development, but so useful to us as photographers. Try and see things as if for the first time. Look beyond the labels, and instead focus on how it’s different from what you’ve seen before.

As I walked along the canyon, and thought about her, I was overwhelmed with the amount of visual information, and how much there was to photograph. And so many ways to fail, as well as learn from those failures.

“The key to success is for you to make a habit throughout your life of doing the things you fear.” — Vincent Van Gogh

Curves of Rock

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/40 sec @f/8.0, ISO 200, 200mm
Shapes, patterns, and circles. How many ways can they lead the eye and make for an interesting image vs one that seems random?

Limiting Your Field of View

Ok, so I’ve talked about the concepts, the ideas, and the approach. But how do you actually put this into practice? One approach is to limit your field of view.

A long zoom lens, like the 70–200mm, is so useful in these types of exercises because we can isolate and “extract” small parts of the landscape. That’s a great term that I first heard Ansel Adams use because he preferred it to “abstract.” In his view. we can only create “abstracts” from our imagination, and since we’re really just isolating part of what already exists, then it is really just extracted from reality. Whether you agree or not, I think it helps to think of it this way when your’re actually out in the field looking for compelling compositions.

 

_W3D2238

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/400 sec @f/4.0, ISO 400, 145mm
Colors again, but this time I tried to play with the warm and cool nature of light, and the dark patch at the top right makes for a nice pattern of 3 colors.

Looking at nature through a limited frame allows you to see more, not less. Colors become more intense because they are allowed to “breath” and complement or contrast neighboring colors. Lines and shapes take on a greater importance because they interact with the edges of the frame more directly. And certainly, we can create mystery and interest, and raise questions about what each of us thinks is important and how we wish to express that to others. For me, it’s all in the details, and that’s where nature shows us her true brilliance. Photographing that is pure joy for me, and that’s what I try to bring across in the images.

  • Look for how shapes relate to other shapes. Do they create depth when one is in front of the other? Do they create lines that lead the viewer to what you found most interesting?
  • Lines are strong visual elements, but they don’t always have to be obvious. Can you find implied lines that create strong diagonals?
  • Maybe a simple pattern can be interesting enough on it’s own to make a statement about the subject, instead of just being an image of the subject.
_W3D2380

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/200 sec @f/8.0, ISO 800, 200mm
Lines and texture, and a single color made that much more interesting with variety and subtle hue changes. Looks much better in a large print :)

 

_1010348_E

Panasonic GH2, 1/30 sec @f/8.0, ISO 160, 280mm
I love to photograph reflective surfaces, and create depth using reflections and shadows. Painting uses this to great effect, and I’ve learned much from the masters such as Church, JMW Turner, and Sanford Gifford.

Learning From Printing

Making large prints of these photographs is both fun and illuminating for me. The prints really make the images come to life in a way that only a print can. And I also learn more about how these types of images, and my technique capturing them, translates to paper. As I’ve said before, printing your own work is one of the best ways to improve both your photography and your technical skills. If there are any flaws, you’ll see them. Whether or not they detract from the overall success of the image is up to you, but that’s much better than not knowing they exist. Looking at your work outside the confines of a computer monitor or other electronic display is richly rewarding and humbling at the same time.

 

Canyon Paint II

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/125 sec @f/8.0, ISO 800, 200mm
Two colors, but so many hues and shapes to work with. Again, a very small section of this creek, but enough variety to fill a memory card.

 

_W3D2037

Canon 1Ds Mk III, 1/25 sec @f/8.0, ISO 200, 75mm
More lines and shapes, plus a single color that helps create both simplicity and emotional content. Tonal variety is key to this image, from highlights to shadows.

I truly hope this was helpful in expanding your opportunities out in the field when photographing nature. These ideas can be applied anywhere, not just in canyons or other pristine locations. I’ve used them in my own backyard. Have any questions, feedback, or comments? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading.

June 2013 Free Desktop Wallpaper

The June 2013 Free Desktop Wallpaper is now available for download. The snow capped La Sal Mountains are a prominent landmark around Moab UT and offer a beautiful contrast to the red rocks and dry heat of the desert southwest.

As always, come closer to nature in southern Utah.

WP-June-13_thb

1920 x 1200

1920 x 1080

1680 x 1050

1280 x 800

Instructions:

First determine your screen size. Your Current Resolution Is:

Then click on the link for the correct size. When the image opens in a new browser window, right click on the image and select “Set as Wallpaper” (on a Mac, select “Use Image as Desktop Picture”).

The Tide of Changing Expectations in Landscape Photography

I’ve been noticing a trend recently in people’s attitudes and perceptions on landscape and nature photography. I see it across different segments of people I talk to and work with—photographers on workshops, print buyers in galleries, people I follow and who follow me on social media, and just talking to friends on the street.

But I’m also seeing it in the industry as well, whether that be professional established photographers or leading magazines.

What trend am I talking about? The trend towards a more organic manipulation and processing of images, a return to reality, veracity, and hopefully art for art’s sake.

I’m getting a strong sense that the tides are changing against a heavy-handed approach to digital processing and manipulation. People are not impressed anymore with super saturation, or technical perfection, or perfectly exposed images where every tonality is perfectly captured and presented leaving little to the imagination.

On my recent talk at the Sierra Club in NYC to about 65 members, I mentioned how HDR has gotten a bad reputation because it has been abused, and how in many cases it hurts an image, and many nodded their heads in agreement.

Now to be clear, I’m talking about images that are shared with the intent of being fine-art in nature. I don’t think anyone cares if you’re up front about what your work is (or isn’t). But if it’s landscape or nature photography in the lineage of Elliot PorterAnsel Adams, Galen Rowell, or David Muench, then there’s a tradition of veracity and artistic merit that is expected.

Here are a few real world examples that I’ve come across that made me think of this change, and where we might be heading.

Facebook

I frequently post images on my Facebook page, and enjoy the feedback I get from followers and friends - positive and negative. It’s a great way to get a reality check on my own work and it keeps me honest. I also look at other photos that are posted, and it’s easy to see that images where there’s lots of manipulation or extreme HDR processing are often shunned by others.

National Geographic

We all know how NG symbolizes the epitome of the nature photographer, working under difficult conditions to capture rare, evocative moments in nature that tell a story. It’s what got me excited about photography as a 9 yr old when I couldn’t understand the words, but the pictures were so captivating.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I noticed recently that the rules for their photo contests prohibit images processed with HDR. I suspect this is not because there is anything wrong or dis-honest about HDR, but because it has been used in a way that exceeds people’s expectations of reality.

Tom Till

Tom Till is one of the worlds best landscape photographers, and based out of Moab Utah. His work is primarily of the southwest, has his own gallery in Moab, and has been influential to many including myself.

Recently however, he wrote an article for Outdoor Photographer Magazine where he regretted how overly saturated his prints have been over the past two years. This was very interesting to me since I had visited his gallery in Moab earlier this year and thought the very same thing. Why was a photographer of Tom’s caliber and experience going too far (in my opinion at the time) with his processing? Surely he didn’t need to given his mastery of composition, light, and ability to capture truly unique images in such a popular location.

Or did he? I wondered, and thought about where photography was heading.

Then he wrote this truly eye-opening article which was timely and brutally honest. We can all learn from it, and I have a deeper respect for Tom and his work after reading it. (And I certainly respected him before.) Read it now, then come back when you’re done. It’s that good.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us as landscape photographers? I think there a few points we can take away and I want to share them here with you.

  • Perceptions Matter – Regardless of how we chose to express our creativity, people have perceptions of what is real vs what is not. Yes there is lots of room for interpretation and opinion here, but there is a line where I think many have crossed with HDR and other types of manipulation. If you’re work is photo realistic or similar, then say so. But, I do believe the subject matter and aesthetic content of your work has to reflect that as well.
  • Digital Processing is a Tool – Just as great painters master their medium, so we as photographers must master our tools. This includes our digital tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. There’s no excuse not to become as versed as possible in your chosen RAW processor, the alternative is to be mastered by it, and it’s easy to see how that can lead even the best artists astray.
  • Find Your Voice – Composition, vision, and story will always trump the impressive yet short-lived approach of over saturation, processing, and eye-catching manipulation. Focus on your opinion, your way of seeing, and make that an integral part of your work. And stop comparing yourself to others.
  • Think Long Term - Sure instant gratification and immediate feedback is great, but what about after a month, a year, a decade? Will your images stand the test of time? I believe they can. Images that transcend the subject, location, or specific techniques will be valued and appreciated for much longer than those without these timeless qualities. An image may have a high initial impact, but if that’s because of ultra-realism, will be at risk to have the same positive reaction in the future.

Finally, please remember these are my opinions, and only mine. I’d love to hear yours if you have a differing one, or perhaps just a different perspective. I’m always open to hearing your feedback. Thanks as always for reading!