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Photography Class
Bong S. Eliab
First Semester
Humanities Division
School of Arts and Sciences
Ateneo de Davao University

Syllabus | NotesPapers | Projects


Photographing Landscapes:

A Philosophical Approach


Landscapes are at the same time one of the easiest and most difficult subjects to photograph. They're easy because landscapes are so familiar, accessible and permanent. Usually, there are no extreme technical difficulties. A GREAT landscape photo takes a lot of thinking, however. On a practical level, you can follow a few useful compositional techniques. Incorporate classic compositional techniques such as horizontal or vertical lines, warm and cool colors, contrasts in textures, and more. Simplicity helps. The relationship of nearby objects to a distant scene, such as ripples in a sand dune to a desert horizon gives a three-dimensional aspect. Telephoto lenses are great for isolating elements and compressing perspective. But there's a lot more...

When photographing landscapes, think of transitions or edges. Change is what gives life to landscapes. Transitions can encompass many categories: the transition between dark and dawn, between sunset and night. Transitions may include a breaking or building storm, the first flowers of spring or the last leaves of autumn. Effective composition also falls into the "transitions" category: dark to light, warm to cool, silhouettes to detail. A great landscape photograph is dynamic rather than static. Even though a photograph is two-dimensional and captures one moment, it should be about time and change. Eliot Porter, one of the first landscape photographers to work in color, wrote, "All the cycles of life are beautiful. Much is missed if we have eyes only for the bright colors. Nature should be viewed without distinction."

Light is the paint that a photographer uses. The Golden Light of daybreak and sunset has built entire photographers' careers. Mountains often have clear, crisp, hard-edged light, while coasts and rainforest are bathed in soft, misty light. Light transforms the land. "There are consistently different qualities of light all over the world," says Art Wolfe, best-known for his wildlife photos. "The light complements the subject matter. It defines the composition. The composition dictates the type of light I'll shoot it in--then I have to find the right light." Wolfe does a lot of previsualization; he says, "I rarely drive through a landscape where the light is great at that moment. When shooting landscapes, you're at once a photographer and a meteorologist. Is the weather clearing? Where will the sun be at five o'clock as opposed to 10 this morning?" He adds, "When the sun is on the horizon, a mere matter of seconds can have a profound effect. It's just as fleeting as wildlife--if not even more." Wolfe says, "There are two common errors made by beginning photographers. First, they identify a subject, but they don't know how to capture it so that it is the clear subject in the final image. Second, they think that a good photographer just goes out and gets a great landscape because he or she knows where it is...Knowing when NOT to shoot is more important than knowing what to shoot. You have to decide what will make a good shot and what won't. There's a difference between documenting what you're seeing and getting a great shot."

On lenses: Although wide-angle lenses are most commonly used for landscapes, Art Wolfe says, "You must use the lens that will bring out the best composition. This is accomplished by becoming familiar with the perspective of your lenses. That comes from experience. I tend to shoot more with telephoto lenses because I like to pull the little compositions from the greater landscape before me. Telephotos not only isolate and allow me to eliminate distracting elements, they allow me to get compositions and subject matter that nobody else has. I can stand at one spot and shoot 20 different landscapes...With telephotos, I get a lot of private compositions."

Of course, most great landscapes are made in the magic hours of dawn and dusk. In California latitudes, figure an hour or so at each end of the day for this great "window" of photography time. This time frame stretches at higher latitudes so that in northern Canada several hours may be available to you. Use your meter, but bracket until you understand what your film gives you. You'll find the different interpretations of so-called "under-exposed" and "over-exposed" film very interesting. Great composition is essential. Follow the rules presented earlier for effective photographs. Especially think warm and cool colors. Because landscapes don't move, you can use slow shutter speeds and great depth of field, if that is the creative effect you want. Go ahead and blur the foreground (such as tree leaves framing your subject) for another kind of effect.

In-focus foreground can add a lot to a landscape photograph because it can add a three-dimensional quality to a two-dimensional image. The ability to include an arresting foreground in a landscape photograph will provide more information for the viewer, while giving an perspective to the entire image. Wide-angle lenses are great for this because of their inherent depth of field and stretching of foreground/background distance, but beware of exposure problems. Spot-meter (take close-up readings) of your areas of important exposure.

Landscape photographer Jeff Gnass says that a great landscape photo requires the deliberate, sometimes painstaking arrangement of support elements such as boughs, plants, rocks and land contours to enhance the central subject. Gnass of course does not physically arrange these elements; rather, he moves his camera or changes lenses to create his arrangements. The framing can be as important as the subject itself. Paradoxically, support elements may even dwarf a subject while actually enhancing the impact.

But you must add your own personality and experience. Says Dewitt Jones who has just published a book of California landscape photography, another addition to his decades of work for such publications as National Geographic and Outdoor Photographer, "If you don't give it your own spin, you can buy postcards and ready-to-go slides in the curio shops that are going to be a lot prettier than most people can take. Unless you just like pushing the button, your enjoyment of being there is the joy of seeing and photographing." He says you must come up with your own personal view and memories of the place. He adds, "You certainly don't want to be a slave to the pursuit of difference for its own sake. I am not thinking, 'What can I do to make this shot different from any photograph I have every seen?' Rather, I am asking myself, 'What's turning me on? What's exciting me?' By trusting in your own feelings of the moment, you can rest assured that your photography will have its own individuality...but you have to take those few moments and ask the right questions." And then, "It's a fine line between pictorial and graphic. If you become so "tripped out" in your own art to the point that a memorable place is reduced to pure line and light, people back home are going to say, 'It's pretty...but what is it?'

Jones talks about "being there"..."My first step is to put myself in the place with the most potential for things happening. At noon, the odds aren't good. If you are there with a breaking storm, the odds are better. You have to keep going back until it happens, and then you have to know your equipment well enough to know what to do during those 60 seconds of great light. You don't want to suddenly realize you are on frame 36, or be unsure whether to use a 20mm or 28mm. Beyond all that, you still have to look for things that excite you. You still have to fall in love with something."

"The whole picture has to talk to you. You should be able to look at it day after day and continue to see something new, says Jim Brandenburg, known for his wolf photographs and recently of a unique book of Minnesota landscape photographs, Chased by the Light. "In my photography, I seek to be more abstract rather than rely on literal symbols like an old tree or a historical monument. The bright light of day obliterates the mystery of the murky past....There's a sense of spiritualism that I try very hard to achieve. That's an odd word to use, a bit new-age or hard for some people to relate to, but places like this [the sequoias, in his example] are my religion to the point that I can be deeply moved by what I see. If I can capture a tiny bit of that reverence, I'm gratified."

The very act of photographing," says philosopher/photographer Freeman Patterson, "intensifies one's visual experience. Even if my photographs are never seen, I feel that the critical visual examination will enrich my experience. So for me, photography is important in its own right, quite apart from the end product."..."I always think of a photograph as a statement of a relationship. The subject matter contributes something and the artist contributes something. Given the same subject matter, two people will draw two different conclusions."..."when people become serious about nature photography, they often begin with close-ups. By taking a very small area, they can limit the visual elements, understand them and organize them in the picture space...Once a photographer matures, he or she should be able to step back and apply the same exercise in simplicity of composition to a whole sweep of landscape...More is not better. One can have more food and have a poorer meal. Often, success comes from selecting portions of the vast landscape that adequately speaks for the whole. This move to simplification always takes place, but I think there should come a point when the photographer can go back to the enormous sweep again, but somehow see it with a kind of simplicity; compose the photograph so it does invoke the whole...The natural designs are the shapes, lines and textures created by the earth-building processes. They exist quite independently of the play of light on the earth's surface. On top of these natural designs we get light. On an overcast day, natural designs are less affected by light's graphic alterations. The natural designs are neither diminished nor enhanced. When the sun fall across the natural designs, then portions are either obliterated (by shadow) or enhanced (by highlights)."

Sierra Club large-format landscape photographer Philip Hyde says that figuring out what draws your attention to a particular area is essential. Is it the light? A circumstance? A physical object? He stresses that "creating a photograph is a process of struggling to bring the different elements into some kind of relationship, some kind of balance or tension that makes the photograph." To Hyde the camera movements, lens choice and the willingness to walk away when you realize that sometimes the elements just aren't right, are the most important tools to have when making a picture.

Okay, Okay, a Few Nuts and Bolts...

Most photographers use wide-angle lenses for landscapes. In addition, they usually strive for maximum depth of field, which means slow shutter speeds and hence, tripods and cable releases. Because landscapes stay still, photographers also use the finest-grain film possible, such as Fujichrome Velvia or some of the new Ektachromes. Some photographers begin their careers working with 35mm SLR cameras and soon move to medium-formet or view cameras, because of the higher quality made possible by the larger film sizes.

Try putting a person in your landscape. As a distant silhouette or spot of warm color, the person can add scale and color contrast to your landscape.

Another effective landscape composition technique is to take advantage of reflections, whether your subject (a building, tree or mountain, for example) is reflected in a mud puddle or ocean. Wide-angle lenses are especially effective for this trick.

As mentioned above, light is everything. Try shooting into backlit scenes at sunrise and sunset. Photograph into the sun, stopping down to f/22 and half-hiding the sun behind a tree branch; you'll get a beautiful "star" effect.

We tend to think of stormy days as no good for landscape photography. Sometimes that's the case. But a foggy, light-rain day can be fabulous, with delicate pastel tones and bejeweled plants. Some areas-such as the coastal redwoods-are nearly impossible to photograph except on such days. There are some technical challenges: wet equipment that must be somehow kept dry, plus low light levels. Also remember that if you try to meter a landscape with lots of rainy-day sky, the white of the clouds will throw off your exposure and you'll have a foreground that's way too dark and lacking in detail because there's no sun to add a three-dimensional effect.

Use a polarizer for maximum color saturation. If you're shooting black and white, use red or orange filters on a sunny day to darken the sky and maintain the tactile sense of white cumulus clouds.

Experiment with shutter speeds: try slow shutter speeds in a field of grass on a windy day. Waterfalls take on a gossamer texture when photographed at 1/2 or 1 second. (If you can't use this slow a shutter speed because of bright conditions, consider using a neutral density filter.)

A split neutral density filter will correct the problems of mountains or skyline that's too bright and foreground that's too dark (see the filter section of this manual).

Try different angles for your landscapes. Get down on the ground with a wide-angle lens, for example, and use a field of flowers to frame distant mountains. Climb a tree or a flight of outdoor stairs for an unusual angle.


Syllabus | NotesPapers | Projects


All Rights Reserved 2001
Ateneo de Davao University
10 June 2002