To make good photos, you need a good camera, knowledge to operate that camera and nice scenery. That is what many believe. And It’s pretty far from the truth.
If I say portraits are easier if you have good people skills, you probably won’t be surprised. For wildlife photos, you’ll need knowledge about the habits of animals. And sports photography without understanding of the rules and nature of the game: a tall order. For documentary photography, a knack for story telling will help a lot.
For nearly all types of photography, it is fairly easy to see what other skills you need. Except, maybe, landscape photography. To catch a beautiful landscape, you just need to go there. Right?
It seems difficult to argue against it. Of course it’s not always easy to ‘go there’, in fact that can be a massive undertaking in itself. But as a personal skill, what does it take?
Part of the answer surely is “knowing the place”. If you want to get good results, you need to know how the seasons play, how the light varies through the day, where the nicest viewpoints are. Things you learn by trying and failing, so clearly you need stamina, and you need to understand that instant results are rare.
Still that doesn’t seem to be all.
A finely trained sense for composition, but frankly you need that for any kind of photography. Though landscapes will reveal flaws easier, in my view. Good composition is critical; that doesn’t necessarily mean following golden rules, or any rules. In any case, composing the image is a skillset that needs constant learning, constant attention and constant consideration.
Still that doesn’t seem to be all.
Guess what? Landscape photography isn’t easy. At all. It’s freaking hard. Getting decent, presentable and enjoyable results isn’t that particularly hard, but getting results that rise above the crowd: very, very hard. In any case, for me. And if anyone would tell me “oh, not for me, I think it’s quite easy“, I’d be extremely suspicious.
The modern landscape
A lot of the contemporary landscape photos I see, follow a rather simple pattern. Wide angle, emphasising size and vastness, cloudy skies, vast depth of field. And in most forums, the first tip you’ll get for landscape photography is getting that wide angle. And increasingly: the wider the better.
Well, it’s a recipe….
And a matter of taste. But I will argue that many of these photos lean completely on the effect of the wide angle to wow us. Beyond the exegerated perspective, there is little on offer. More often than not, the composition lacks a focal point, something in the foreground that will help guide the viewers eye around the image. It’s in your face, big, bold.
Sure such images can still be very pretty, but are they prettier than the real thing? Does the photo add a twist of its own, that secret sauce of the photographer? Usually, sorry, no.
Does this mean that I think lowly of these photographers? No, though I would suggest to try a longer lens every now and then, and try bring out something specific. And when using wide angles, do make sure there is something in the foreground.
So what’s the issue?
Making an interesting and engaging landscape photo that draws you in as a viewer, that goes beyond the sheer beauty of the landscape itself, is the issue. A photo that really adds something, where the photographer manages to express something that touches you beyond the “oh what a beautiful place“: rare, very rare.
The awe and sense of humility that an impressive view gives you – it somehow never translates into the photo. That majestic mountain view, that extreme tranquility of a motionless lake, the density of a large forest: photos don’t do it any justice. Well, most photos and in my case: all.
It’s a frustrating experience. I like strolls around nature, and as a result make a fair share of landscapes. And I like seeing them, because I liked making them – the value for me is simply triggering those memories. Like holiday pictures do.
But as a viewer? Mwah. Shallow, photos that don’t transmit any emotion, nor create a story. Photos that don’t captivate me, don’t inspire my imagination and don’t tickle my fantasy. Boring, even when beautiful.
Rather than continuing with my opiniated drivel, an honest question for whoever reads this: how do you try to go beyond it? What tips and tricks do you know to make landscapes more interesting and engaging to viewers?
P.S. Of course there are exceptions. Ansel Adam’s The Tetons and the Snake River is something to aspire too. Or this Galen Rowell photo from the Sierra Nevada…