Since the earliest days of photography, landscapes have made a compelling subject and we still take more pictures of outdoor scenes than of anything else except people. Few photographers can resist documenting the natural world. The panoramic view of a grand landscape seems especially irresistible. After all, it's often breathtaking and it's all there for the taking. The moment you press the shutter release you just know your pictures are guaranteed to be winners.
And yet, when viewing those photos later, you may be disappointed. It's difficult to translate a sweeping impression or the depth and grandeur of a wide vista to a tiny image. Especially in an area that many others have photographed, how can you make landscape photos with a unique slant? American photographer Eliot Porter offered one solution in his book, Order from Chaos. Make more intimate images by recording smaller individual segments of a scene. Let's take a look at the value of this approach and some specific techniques.
The documentary wide-angle shot (above) of Albion Falls in Hamilton, ON (courtesy of Wikipedia), indicates the scene that we all encounter when hiking down into the gorge. It's often not very appealing overall. But with the right techniques, and in better light, it's certainly possible to make beautiful "intimate landscape" images, such as the photo below.
Avoid competing elements. While judging a monthly photo contest, I've noticed one common problem in many scenic photos: several pictures crammed into one, with four or five subjects competing for the viewer's attention. When you find a beautiful scene, take a few establishing shots of the overview. Then, zoom in tightly on a striking individual detail; take several photos of the scene, each depicting one of its appealing element. Most of your photos will be nothing like those of other photographers. Instead, they will reflect your own style, your personal interpretation of a well-traveled location.
An extremely successful outdoor photographer, Art Wolfe, considers a telephoto zoom as his favourite landscape lens. He has used it often for the stunning images in his highly acclaimed books. (Note: BetterPhoto instructor and Outdoor Photographer columnist William Neill is also known for his unique intimate landscape photos captured via telephoto.) By excluding the foreground, a bald sky, or anything that interferes with a close appreciation of detail, a longer lens can help shape a more selective vision.
Move Closer: Admittedly, a wide-angle lens can be useful too. By including a nearby subject and one that's more distant, it can help produce an illusion of depth in a two dimensional photo. When using a short focal length, move in close to simplify the image by excluding any non supporting elements.
When using a wide-angle lens, the key to making intimate landscapes is to move in close to a dominant subject and to find a suitable vantage point. Usually, that means shooting from an angle that will include only a complimentary background, excluding distracting elements such as the many other tourists and their cars at the North Window in Arches National Park, Utah. (c) Peter K. Burian
Take advantage of the light. One factor that often takes an image from the realm of the snapshot into one of high-impact photography is creative use of light. When it's raining, shoot foliage and hillsides covered with blossoms to capture the soft, muted tones that are not washed out by bright sun. Or take advantage of the lower contrast for photos of a waterfall; when it's evenly lit, you won't get very dark shadow areas and very bright areas as you would in harsh sunshine.
On brighter days, the "warm" low-angled light in early morning and late afternoon is particularly pleasing. At these times, the subject may be bathed in a golden glow as the reddish light produces a warmer, mellower image. If the scene includes foliage, shooting toward the sun will makes the translucent leaves glow with a beautiful shimmer. The lower angle of light will pick out details far better than the illumination from above around noon.
Explore the scene. When you first discover an area of interest, perhaps the moss-covered rocks in a stream, start by viewing it from a variety of positions. Circle the scene if possible to find the strongest vantage point. If the background is distracting, search for an area of contrasting color or lighting. Try climbing a rock to find a high viewpoint to eliminate a confusing background or bright sky.
For the next shot, consider lowering yourself to ground level even if this means getting your feet wet or your knees muddy. Often this approach will provide a far more intimate involvement with your subject. If this seems to work, get down and dirty. Let others move on looking for something more convenient and dramatic, like the waterfalls below. Chances are, you'll be the only one to capture the most appealing components of the entire area.
Just do it: The most important requirements for effective landscape photography are a good eye and being in the right place at the right time. Many photo enthusiasts list landscapes as a favourite subject but they're often too busy with work and family. If you fall into that category, examine your schedule. What do you do at 6am during a vacation or on a glorious Sunday morning at home? If you’re sleeping or reading the newspaper, you may be missing out on opportunities for landscape photography, perhaps at a nearby park or nature area.
- Peter Burian teaches two terrific online photography classes - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's digital photography school online.
- In addition, Peter's photography appears in two recent books co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager: The BetterPhoto Guide to Photographing Light and The BetterPhoto Guide to Creative Digital Photography.