Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Photographing The Landscape, Part II

Having discussed the WHY of landscape photography last time, in this chapter, I want to address the question of what to photograph. That may seem self evident "whatever I can damn well find!" or words to that effect but bear with me.

A lot of photographers save up to photograph at famous and photogenic locations - Yosemite, the Rockies or the Alps, or famous sea shores. They do so in the thought that the scenery around their own home town is too flat, too ordinary, or too boring. Of course what actually happens is that lacking practice and working under the assumption that if the place is famous, the shots should be easy, they struggle to find images and come home disappointed with those they do capture. Given the investment in time and money, this is not a viable proposition.

The other problem with photographing the famous is that so have everyone else, which is fine if you want to see how you stand up, but it makes it really hard to come up with something new and different. If you like that kind of challenge, that's wonderful, but otherwise... Most famous photographers built their reputation photographing near by, what makes you think you should do differently.

Does the world really need any more Arizona slot canyon pictures?

It is virtually inconceivable that there is nothing to photograph near where you live and if you haven't found anything, the implication is that your seeing abilities need improvement. Sure there are no half domes in Kansas but there are small prairie towns, gorgeous prairie skies and there must be a hill somewhere. Instead of majestic mountains there are grain silos and windmills. It wouldn't be difficult to do an entire art photography book on corn alone. You might not think of a plowed field as being landscape, but it is your available land so be flexible in how you define landscape.

There are a number of professional fine art photographers who happily show work from city parks. This includes Bruce Barnbaum, John Sexton, Michael Kenna and Roman Loranc. Joel Myerowitz did an entire book on the the St. Louis Gateway Arch. If city parks are good enough for them, how come you turn your nose up at the thought. So what if there's a winding pathway through the picture or even a street lamp, it's the light and the tones and the shapes and composition, it's the story told and the ignored illuminated that makes a photograph. Oddly enough, more people have seen pictures of the famous locations than quality images of your own town parks so one can't even make the argument that you need to get away to find fresh fodder.

Landscape can be anything from inches to infinity from your camera, can include stormy skies or no skies at all. Landscape can be completely natural or totally urban, with no plants in sight. Landscape can be night time or any time.

It's true that finding something beautiful in the ordinary is challenging, just as it is to make something more than trite out of the famous, but frankly, photography is already too easy and the competition is pretty tough out there.

Some people are still reeling from the awareness that in the days of film, being a technical expert was enough to gain you credit, or at least to feel you accomplished something, these days the emphasis is very much more on your creativity and compositional skill, your eye and how you treat your subject matter.

You might think that without knowing what you plan to photograph - desert, forest, stream or urban, there would be nothing I could offer to help, but fortunately that isn't the case. In fact, wherever you photograph, the same issues seem to come up.

1) Separation - the important elements of the image need to be seen against other objects in the image - this can be by tone or colour (filtering can help in black and white). Texture is not normally enough to separate the main subject or to define shapes in the composition. Separation can be created through lighting, camera position and depth of field. It is possible that separation can be created in the editing process as you burn or dodge or the equivalent.

2) edges - in general stronger images have definite edges - some reason to end the image where you do - it's not essential, but if you don't have an end it can create problems of the eye wandering off or simply that you have to make up for this deficiency through some other strength of the image. Of course the classic strategy in landscapes is the overhanging branches but I know none of you would resort to that. Whatever you use to define the edges of the image needs to relate to the subject matter, whether it be harmonizing or contrasting.

3) backgrounds - the cleaner and simpler the better - nothing is worse than a bunch of small trees or bushes not far behind the main subject and with sky showing through. It really helps if you can get even a little bit higher than your subject so that the trees appear solid instead of speckled.

4) tonalities - much of what makes an image, especially in black and white, is the way that surfaces of your subject handle light. In general hazy bright or just after sunset when the lighting is soft but one part of the sky is substantially brighter than the others works best to define shapes and add roundness and a sense of the third dimension.

5) foregrounds - they function as a lead in to the main subject (a favourite strategy of Joe Cornish from the U.K., often combined with wide angle lenses, or as framing or even as contrast to the main subject. Depth of field is an concern because for the most part, blurry foregrounds don't work. Like all rules I can think of exceptions but that's the way it usually works.

6) connections - by this I mean that if an image contains a series of main subjects (even if they happen to be shadows), in good images they tend to connect with each other. They can do this by overlapping, or pointing to each other (via a shadow for example) or connect through an intermediary - say two rocks connected via a path or perhaps a log. It may be that the only connection is one of balance - ie. they balance each other in the composition and are sufficiently similar for there to be a relationship that is implied even though not drawn.

Too often people show me images of pretty scenes that simply don't make sense, they are missing the connections, the clarity, the framing or perhaps all of them and thus the image does not represent what the photographer saw. One of the nice things about a Holga image is that with it's vignetting your eye is automatically centred and the drop in sharpness to the edge does the same thing, you don't have to put so much effort into composing your edges.

And that's it for now on what to photograph. Next time I'm going to discuss the How in photographing the landscape.

Till next time


Tim Gray said...

This is a great post! I'll have to read it a couple of time to fully digest.

I'll take this opportunity to answer your somewhat rhetorical question:

"Does the world really need any more Arizona slot canyon pictures?"

I'm not really concerned about the world, but I work in an office of about 50, and when I put a 17x25" print of Antelope on my wall, none of them had seen it before. Even a picture of Bryce was recognized by only one person. It may be cliché to the photographic community, but I'd guess (at least for the "lesser" icons - eg: Zion subway, Horseshoe bend, etc. etc.) that there would be unrecognizable by 95% of the population at large.

G Dan Mitchell said...

Enjoyed your post, as always. A couple comments.

1. I do think there is still more to be seen even in the famous landscapes, but....

2. It isn't so much what you photograph as it is how you photograph whatever it is you see.


chuck kimmerle said...

The more photographers that visit slot canyons, Yosemite, Point Lobos, Oregon beaches, or the desert southwest, the less I have to deal with in my little corner of the flat prairie. No need for anyone to visit up's boring. Flat. Uninspiring. Not worth the effort.

By all means stick to the traditional photographic destinations. Don't worry about me, I'll manage somehow.


George Barr said...

Good points all folks, thanks.

Len Paris said...

Great. This is a real mantra!

Bruno said...

Could you touch in the 3rd part on the subject of working with the light?
Do you scout a location and then return next morning at the first light? Or do you leave home with a 'whatever comes my way' mindset?
Countless times in my travels I find a scene that I absolutely love but it's 2pm and the light is harsh, or it's raining and there's never time to go back. But even if I could go back, I wouldn't know how to 'work a scene' with the light in mind.

Juha Haataja said...

I really liked this: "Most famous photographers built their reputation photographing near by, what makes you think you should do differently."

Don said...

Going back to the same locations, even near your home base never hurts, because there is always a picture within a picture

Matt Buedel said...

Thanks again, George, for a thought-provoking essay. While I love to travel camera in hand, there's really no substitute for traversing well-known land looking for a new way to express it. Really makes you think.


April said...

This is a wonderful article, and I wanted to pass the link along to another photographic community. However, it seems Permalinks aren't working? (They take me to a purpose statement page.)