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'Photographing Landscapes' by Graham Coleman.
A discussion of the thought processes, techniques and procedures I use when photographing landscapes...
I think landscape photography should be described as the art of seeing (and capturing) ‘beautiful’ compositions of the outside world. The word ‘beautiful’ is of course open to a lot of personal interpretation, but virtually everyone can notice and admire ‘a good view’ and there is usually a consensus between people that a particular view is beautiful, much like as in music most people will instantly recognize a great singing voice or musical composition.
For me the enjoyment and challenge of landscape photography is not only about capturing views that everyone admires, although these pictures are popular, but to also look at any view as a possible composition of beauty and; may be by ‘zooming-in’ or by finding a different angle to exclude distractions, or by including reflections or dramatic skies or something; ‘create’ the composition and reveal the beauty of a view that might otherwise go unnoticed.
They say that familiarity breeds contempt and it often seems that people who live in regions that I consider to be of spectacular beauty seem immune or oblivious to the beauty of the place in which they live. I suppose it would be impossible to carry on a normal life, if every time you turned your head you had to stop and stare in wonder. However, what a great landscape photographer you might be!
But how do outsiders regard my city - Bristol? There are certainly a lot of nice views, but most Bristolians take it all for granted, I suppose I do most of the time. What I am trying to say is; It is not about traveling hundreds of miles, it really is about seeing – looking deeper, and noticing and appreciating the beauty in the surroundings where ever you are!
Studying Landscapes, The Time of Day, The Time of Year and Weather Conditions
The time of day has a massive impact on the way a particular location looks and I often return and take pictures several times, to be able to see and realize the differences. Most views look better when side lit as the subject matter will have longer shadows and will look more three dimensional. This involves photographing in early morning or evening light, when the sun is low in the sky. These times of day also tend to produce darker and more colourful skies and the colour of the sunlight is a very pleasant, golden colour compared to the cold blue light of mid day. Other things that may need to be considered with regard to time of day are: position of shadows (i.e. getting the main subject matter to be lit up), when tides are in, when traffic will be at minimum etc.
The time of year also has a big effect on the way a landscape looks. And the seasonal features can be used to instantly tell the viewer what time of year the picture was taken, for example, snow in winter, autumn leafs in autumn, bluebells in spring etc.
The position of the sun changes during the year also, so that shadow positions move and as I have found when trying to retake sunsets that I have previously witnessed, I may have to wait until the same time of year to get anywhere near the same type of view! Landscapes tend to change over time quite dramatically anyway and on occasions when I have tried to re-shoot the same view, it has often been surprising at how different the pictures look!
Weather conditions have a major impact on the appearance of a location. But a bright sunny day is not always the best. Dark or colourful skies always look good in a landscape, so if I have black stormy clouds rolling in but the sun is just breaking through, lighting up the foreground – I get the camera out quickly!
Mist is great for adding a sense of depth to a scene (by aerial perspective) and obscuring distracting backgrounds. Snow completely changes the landscape and hides any mess. A snow scene looks great with blue skies. (I will be discussing ‘exposure’ later in these essays but as an instant guide, remember that snow and mist scenes give an abnormally bright view, the camera meter will try to compensate and will underexpose giving a mid grey snow or mist, therefore I add (+) at least 2/3rds of a stop to the exposure to re-compensate for snow and mist scenes.)
The composing of a photograph is a very personal process, and is one of the main artistic inputs that a photographer makes to a photograph, which is, in many other ways, just a two dimensional scan of the three dimensional view that the camera is pointed at. Composition is one of the ways that a particular photographer stamps his individual style on to an image. Composition for a landscape photographer is often much more of a challenge and therefore more of a prized process than may be for a landscape painter, because unlike the artist, the landscape photographer deals with a real life scenario and is simply unable to shift elements of the picture around. He has to find a way of composing the elements by the positioning of the viewpoint.
There is some debate in photography as to whether composition can be taught or is an innate talent, i.e. nurture or nature. On the face of it, it may seem that you’ve either got it or you haven’t, however, from my personal experience I would suggest that there is an element of both, You probably need to have a disposition towards composition, but by studying and practicing you definitely can develop your skills: I have always felt that composition was something I was capable of and was reasonably comfortable with and I always believed I could see (or feel) when the composition was ‘right’. But, also, early on I spent some time studying the rules of composition and I spent a lot time analyzing the pictures that I had taken, trying to work out why certain pictures worked for me and also cropping (trying to recompose) some that I felt didn’t. I believe that all of this was a very important learning process and an invaluable exercise.
There are rules of composition and I think it is worth taking a look at these and getting to understand some of them, with the proviso that these are really tools or techniques of composition and not rules at all! I have found the rules of composition to be very useful in analyzing my work (or other people’s) after it has been taken.
Rule of thirds is probably the most widely recognized rule of composition it involves dividing the frame of the picture in to three equal sections both horizontally and vertically using imaginary lines and then composing the picture so that the main points of interest of the view lie roughly upon these imaginary lines. I would estimate that possibly two thirds of my landscape pictures could be classified as rule of third type compositions.
However, in practice: if I am taking a picture of a main subject, for example a church, and I place the church smack bang in the middle it tends to make for a very static and rather obvious image, but if I position the church slightly to one side and include some of the surroundings around the church, it generally makes a much more interesting and pleasing picture, the main point of interest (the church) then falls roughly on the third line and the picture becomes a rule of thirds type image. Similarly horizons look very static if placed along the middle line, by positioning the horizon off of the centre line, the viewers’ eye is directed more towards the sky or to the land and this tends to give a more pleasing picture, but again the image then becomes more of a rule of thirds type composition. The third line just seems to be a comfortable sort of average place to position the main subject, as it is not dead centre but also not too far off centre!
Linear perspective basically describes the way that objects look smaller the further away they are. Linear perspective naturally figures a lot in landscape photography, and gives a feeling of depth to a picture. A landscape will generally be more interesting anyway if some foreground detail is included, but, for example ,by positioning a relatively small plant in the foreground superimposed against a distant massive mountain you can really give the viewer a sense of the scale and depth of the scene. .
A particularly striking example of linear perspective is the way that parallel lines when viewed at an angle, appear to diverge at some distant point (because the gap between them appears smaller with distance). In landscape photography the parallel lines scenario usually involves photographing the lines of architecture or the parallel lines of a path or railway line for example
Leading lines perhaps are a way of mimicking the parallel line scenario and involve composing the picture so that a constant line in the scene (perhaps a railing a traffic trail or something) leads the eye from the edge and foreground to the main subject matter or more distant regions of the landscape. A leading line nearly always has to be on an incline and into the central area of the picture and often leading lines look good if positioned to enter the image via the corner. Leading lines with a double bend so that they form an S shape in the image look particularly spectacular.
Aerial perspective relates to the way that distant objects look less vibrant than closer objects due to haze or mist in the air. Artists have been employing aerial perspective to create a sense of depth in scenic paintings for centuries, depicting bold colourful foregrounds against faint pastel colour backgrounds. Aerial perspective in landscape photography involves positioning brighter or darker foregrounds against misty backgrounds. Aerial perspective is obviously more pronounced in hazy or misty conditions and so is very much dependant on weather conditions.
One of my favourite types of weather situations for landscape photography is when it’s windy and the sun is shining but there are a lot clouds in the sky, creating shadows and beams of light that race across the landscape. In a similar way to aerial perspective the different levels of brightness in the scene create a sense of depth to the picture. In practice, getting the picture that I want (usually this means having the main points of interest in the image lit up) often involves a lot of luck and a lot of waiting around. I did mention that landscape photography is not really an instant process didn’t I?
Certain shapes and forms supposedly make for a good composition. The S shape has already been mentioned, in practice this shape can often be found in landscape views as the double bend of a pathway or a river.
A triangle is formed when there are three points of interest, this can be reinforced by positioning lines in the scene along the imaginary sides of the triangle.
The L shape is another form that supposedly makes for a pleasing composition and is formed naturally in a landscape view by a tall subject and its shadow.
Repetition: repeated objects or shapes in a scene always attract the eye; firstly to scan and check the similarities and then to check the differences. Repeated objects that are the same size and stretching into the distance, offer a great way of adding a sense of depth to a picture (i.e. use of linear perspective.)
Foreground interest gives a real sense of depth and scale to the image as well giving the viewer more of a feel that they are there at the viewpoint ( thereby making the view seem more real!) Landscapes with only middle & background lack an anchor point and seem to leave the viewer floating in mid air.
Framing the subject, finding a point of view from where the main scene is completely surrounded by a foreground border often makes a more interesting picture, for example: a view through the branches of a tree. The border directs the eye onto the central area of the picture and also creates a sense of depth. Partial framing of the subject can be achieved when the foreground border extends only on two or three sides of the picture.
A sense of balance: One (very mathematical) theory for balancing a composition suggests that the picture should be treated like a seesaw resting on a fulcrum in the dead centre of the frame, and that the points of interest (subject matter) in the picture act like weights, but the smaller or more important a point of interest is the more weight it carries. So that if you were to compose a view with two main points of interest, a large and a small one; to create a perfectly balanced picture, the larger one would need to be placed on the outside edge on one side of the picture whereas the smaller one would need to be placed nearer to the centre on the opposite side! In practice I would say that if you take the basics of it, it does sort of make sense, but it would be a very long winded process if you were to actually stop and try to consciously allocate amounts of weight to different points of interest in a real scene to compose your picture. However, may be this is something like how the brain does subconsciously decide when a particular composition is balanced…
Using colour: I think that a good awareness of colour really puts the icing on the cake when composing a landscape picture. And for me I would say it’s generally the fewer colours the better! Most of my personal favourites of my own pictures are predominantly one or two basic colours. Complimentary colours such as blue & orange, Red & green and yellow & purple always work well together as do other combinations.
Finding an interesting landscape view that is predominantly one colour, (other than green) is not as easy as it sounds, but it creates a very congruent and in my opinion a very peaceful and moody picture. I would suggest that this is why black & white and toned landscapes continue to be so popular. But for me achieving the effect naturally (i.e. in real life colour) is much more satisfying.
Often I find a great view is spoilt by one brightly coloured element that stands out like a sore thumb. The choices then are: to find a different viewpoint and avoid the distraction; to find away of living with it or to consider removing the distraction after capture, by converting to monotone or perhaps by cloning over it.
Breaking the rules (although really the rules are just techniques anyway, remember?): Sometimes a particular scene just doesn’t fit with the rules. Sometimes it just feels right to do something different. Often the results look quite abstract or have a sense of tension or awkwardness about them. Its like music - the musical scales and keys help to create the most harmonious or sweetest results, but sometimes it feels right to have a few ‘off notes’ or discordant chords mixed in. – if it works go for it!
Personal taste: It is important to remember that composition really is very personal and if the picture works for you then that is ‘right’ - it is an art form and there really isn’t a right or wrong! It’s a bit like musical taste. In practice, when I compose a picture, I am usually not thinking too much about rules of composition; I simply move the camera about until I find the view that ‘works’ and that is it! It often happens quite quickly and not really in a very calculated way.
Having said that I have in the past, deliberately set out to use most of the rules of composition, and some of them I think have become second nature, it would be unusual for me to exclude ‘foreground interest’ for example. Other types of composition such as symmetry and leading lines I suppose I’m less use to and I think I am aware that those particular techniques are being employed when the picture is being taken!
A few years ago I took some pictures of a frozen forest in the Brecons, South Wales. One picture really appealed to me, it featured three trees in a row, I have more recently realized that this basic form (i.e. three objects isolated from a row) has been used numerous times in various locations in my work, though I’m sure this hasn’t been a deliberate process. I think if you take a lot of landscape pictures and spend time assessing them your brain sort of soaks up the form and type of composition that works for you and you find yourself repeating the basic form in different situations and may be this is partly how you develop a personal style of composition.
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