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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?

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Hi Robert, I didn’t put this exercise to the test but I do feel this touches one of the most fundamental basics of photography.

    Most photographs I see, including many shots I take myself, just “show” something, a scene, people, etc. but do not necessarily convey an emotion. For example I often wander around in abandoned buildings, left behind by the industry. After such a day, I come home and usually process my photographs of that day. After evaluation, I have a series of photographs that represent the place I visited. They are beautiful pictures but they don’t really tell the story of the people that used to work there. They don’t evoke an emotional response with the viewer, in a sense that they question what it would be like to work there, who worked there, why it was closed, … They just see a “pretty vista”.

    As long as you can’t find an answer to those two questions, or are unable to answer them with a photograph, it remains a pretty image but nothing more nothing less. They question is, are there techniques (things you can learn as you go) to draw in the viewer, or is that the 10% about photography that cannot be taught but has to be the “talent” factor?

    1. Hi Tom – thanks for the feedback and thoughts. As to your question, yes there are lots of things that can be learned and not something I would call “natural talent.” To me this is one of the biggest myths around, and a look at history shows that even the genius’ like Mozart and Van Gogh worked extremely hard to develop their skills. Sure it may come easier for some than others, but hard work is often about making the most of natural ability, and so potential becomes what you should think about. What are you really capable of? Will you ever know if you don’t cultivate and refine the potential you have – we all have?

      Having a deep understanding of visual literacy will go a long way to drawing a viewer into an image. That can be learned for sure. Read my post on that here:

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