During the writing of Living Landscapes, I was forced to do some heavy thinking about how I approach creative landscape composition in the field. At this juncture, it is important to note that I avoid heavy thinking at all costs. Thinking truly is the hardest work, especially when you are attempting to simplify a process that is almost instinctual to you.
However, my fear of hard thinking is eclipsed by my fear of Editorial wrath, so I set aside a day, dusted off a tantric chants CD and retired to my sweat-lodge teepee for some quality time with sub-conscious me. Thirteen hours later I emerged, 12 kg lighter and armed with two revelations, the first; I approach landscape composition as a three step process. The second; my sub-conscious is a freaky place that is best avoided in the future.
Luckily for you, it is the brief overview of the first revelation that I shall share with you here today; the three component steps to creating a successful landscape image:
- Choose a subject
- Find the right light
- Create a composition
Successful landscape images result from a combination of interesting subject matter, quality light and a strong composition. This particular image nicely illustrates the point that you don’t need towering mountain peaks, blazing sunsets and extraordinary foreground features to make a pleasing image.
Choosing a Great Subject
Not everything in nature is destined to make a great photo. It is our job as a photographer to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify subject matter that will translate beautifully into the two dimensional constraints of the photographic medium.
To my mind, the best landscape subjects convey visual themes such as ‘energy’, ‘grandeur’ and ‘tranquility’ to the viewer. Mountains, bodies of water and coastlines all make happy hunting grounds for photographers because, as viewers, we instinctively know how to interpret these scenes. We sub-consciously know that a snow covered mountain peak must be big, or that a wave crashing on rocks is imparting large amounts of energy, and we know, without thinking, that a reflection on a pond occurs only under calm conditions. In short, we can easily ‘read’ these types of photograph.
The best photographic subjects communicate multiple visual themes and have a very broad appeal as a result. To me this scene speaks of tranquility (reflections), natural change (Fall color and the building cloud cover) and stoicism (the lone tree clinging to life on the outer limits of it’s natural environment). You may ‘read’ this scene quite differently depending upon your outlook on life – for example, a hardcore environmentalist may see no more than an introduced species of tree clogging a lake that has been flooded by unsustainable farming practices in the lake’s headwaters. Photography, and life for that matter, is a very subjective affair…
You don’t need to travel to Nepal (or New Zealand, for that matter, to find great photographic fodder. Sure, it is lot easier to make interesting landscape images when surrounded by Tolkien-esque mountains but subjects don’t need to be grand in scale to make great images, they just need to be visually interesting. Learn to seek form, patterns or color in a scene and you may well find a subject from which to create a landscape image.
To me, this is a visually interesting image despite the absence of towering mountains, lightning bolts and grazing Unicorns. I was initially drawn by the beautiful evening pastels and the earth shadow (the blue line in the sky near the horizon) but I needed something to ‘anchor’ the shot. The strong geometric pattern and form of the Spaniard grass created a terrific foreground element for the composition. By getting low and getting close an ultrawide lens the grass gains ‘visual weight’ – compare it to the nearly identical grasses a couple of yards back.
Seek the Right Light
I would happily argue that great light is the single most important element in a successful landscape image. In fact, I dedicated a significant number of ePages in Living Landscapes to doing just that. Great light is truly transformative.
Fortunately, seeking great light doesn’t entail shooting only Ferrari-red sunsets. In fact, I will pull out the camera in almost any light if it complements a scene. The skill is learning to judge what constitutes the best possible lighting conditions for a given location – this is where you have to practice the art of observation and pre-visualization to judge how the sun will play out during the course of the day. I use digital tools to assist in this process, namely Focalware, which is a nifty little app that shows the arc of the sun and moon throughout the day with freakish accuracy.
Great light is transformative. In Living Landscapes I detail the many steps and decisions that led from the scouting shot on the left to several portfolio-grade images of this scene.
Create a Composition
Composition is where it all comes together artistically. You may have lined up an amazing subject and be blessed with a veritable pyrotechnics show in the sky but if you combine these in a dreary, sloppy and uninspiring composition all is wasted.
I personally divide landscape compositions into two broad (and absolutely unscientifically defined) categories;
- Dynamic landscape compositions
- Static landscape compositions
Dynamic compositions are the show ponies of the landscape photography world. They employ a suite of visual ploys to imbue an image with an almost 3-D feel and/or impart a sense of dynamic energy. Dynamic compositions used to be difficult to create in ye olde film days but the learning curve is vastly accelerated by the digital workflow and easy access to educational information such as this dPS blog post written by yours truly.
Static compositions subscribe to a more traditional photographic aesthetic and, I feel, are more faithful to the two-dimensional constraints of the art form – most of Ansel Adams’ images would be considered static as opposed to dynamic compositions. I have a personal preference for beautifully executed static compositions – probably because I am fairly ancient, in internet years at least…
Static compositions rely upon a more subtle repertoire of visual techniques to achieve a sense of drama. Successful static compositions use a combination of layers, contrast, texture, form, localized lighting and color to engage the viewer.
Mixing it Up
It is important to note that there is no particular order for executing these three steps. I will often stumble across great light (always it seems when driving with a car full of tired & hungry kids ) and then have to find a subject and a composition to capitalize upon the situation. This is, of course, where strong craft and technical skills kick in – readers of Living Landscapes will know that I promote a policy of keeping it simple with regards to camera settings and technical considerations, this allows me to work fast and seek out compositions – even while being bombarded with requests for snacks from the back seat!
Todd & Sarah Sisson are full-time landscape photographers based in Central Otago New Zealand.