Perhaps you’ve heard the term fine art landscape photography.
In this article, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about fine art landscape shooting. I’ll start by explaining what it actually is – and I’ll go on to give you plenty of tips you can use to improve your own landscape photos!
Let’s get started.
What is fine art landscape photography?
Some terms are hard to define, and fine art photography falls into that category.
“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”— Ansel Adams
That said, fine art photography is less about the subject and more about the photographer. Your goal in fine art landscape photography is not to simply to show your viewer what you saw; it’s to communicate how it felt to be there and how the scene made you feel.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”— Don McCullin
So how do you communicate feelings through photographs?
Here are some tips to consider when capturing fine art landscape photography.
1. Think about what would make your image unique
Have you ever been making a landscape photo at a location where other photographers are lined up next to you also working the scene?
Most of us have.
The question to be asked is:
How will your photo be different, unique, special? What is it about your image that will stand out? How can you put your unique signature on the shot?
The choices you make to create an image that is uniquely yours matter. Any cook can follow a recipe, and if a dozen cooks all work from that same recipe, the dishes will be essentially indistinguishable. The gourmet chef making their signature dish, however, will strive to make the meal unique.
And as a fine art landscape photographer, your objective ought to be the same.
“Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.”— Peter Adams
2. Be intentional and deliberate
When the light is rapidly changing, a landscape photographer might need to move quickly. However, most landscape photography can be done at a slow and thoughtful pace.
Rather than simply seeing a scene, positioning your tripod, shooting first and asking questions later, do the opposite. Before even touching your camera, thoughtfully observe the scene. Slow down.
Ask yourself what first attracted you to the scene. How does it make you feel? How can you best compose the shot? What if you moved higher, lower, to a different vantage point, used a different lens? What can you do to best capture your feelings in the frame?
Never be a one-and-done shooter. Take advantage of the instant playback capability of your camera, evaluate your image, and decide what might be better.
Then make a few more shots.
While he’s not a photographer and not talking about fine art landscape photography, famed hockey player Wayne Gretsky still offers advice photographers would do well to remember:
You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.Wayne Gretsky
3. Practice previsualization
You will know your skills are growing as a photographer when you can see your photograph before you even put your eye to the viewfinder.
Eventually, you should previsualize your finished image, have the vision, and then simply use the camera as an instrument to capture that vision.
It’s a beautiful loop:
The more you photograph, the better you become at seeing – and the better you become at seeing, the better your photographs will become.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”— Dorothea Lange
But while previsualization is important, fine art landscape photography should always be open to serendipity: those unexpected moments when the light changes, the angels sing, and the miraculous appears for a brief moment for you to capture.
There have often been times when I’ve previsualized a shot, got set up, and waited for the light, only to have something amazing appear behind me out of the blue.
Practice working with your camera controls so that, when such a moment occurs, you can respond quickly and get the shot.
4. Fine art landscapes aren’t just monochrome
Google “fine art photography,” and you will mostly see black and white (monochrome) images. Due, perhaps, to its long existence, as well as a good number of early photographers for whom black and white was the only option, monochrome photographs may outnumber color images in the world of fine art.
But that’s not to say that color images can’t also be considered fine art photographs.
Circle back to our definition: Fine art photography is more about the artist/photographer and their vision than the content of the photograph. Whether color or monochrome, the best way to portray a vision will depend on the maker’s intent.
“What I love about black and white photographs is that they’re more like reading the book than seeing the movie.”– Jennifer Price
Now, bear in mind the strengths of black and white photography. Without the addition of color, monochrome images rely more on the basics, the “bones” of a good photo: line, shape, form, tone, and texture.
Black and white images are typically simpler, with greater attention paid to the subject. Sometimes, a monochrome image can convey a look or mood better than its color counterpart.
When deciding whether an image might be best in color or black and white, the fine art photographer needs to come back to the objective, and ask themselves:
Which version best conveys the feelings and vision I had when making the image?
That, and not some notion that fine art photographs are always monochrome, should dictate the direction the photographer takes.
5. Don’t be afraid to alter reality
We talked about fine art photography being less about an accurate interpretation of a subject and more about the photographer’s feelings and vision.
So who says you can’t completely change your image to better convey those things?
Infrared photography or other techniques that shift colors? Sure!
Art is totally subjective, and so is fine art landscape photography.
How you choose to portray a scene is your prerogative, where the “right way” is whatever best communicates your feelings and message.
“I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them.”— Diane Arbus
6. Experiment with interpretive editing
I’ve read much about the phrase “getting it right in camera,” something with which I both agree and disagree. Yes, I do believe one should master their camera controls so as to get the best possible exposure of an image while in the field.
Yes, making the best possible image in the field is important. Never should an editing session be a rescue mission where you try to overcome mistakes made when shooting. Fixing an image in Photoshop is an option, but usually not a good one.
However, enhancing an image with dodging, burning, or any of dozens of other editing techniques is the mark of a skilled fine art photographer. Using editing skills to further interpret an image, to convey feelings and intent, is part of the craft.
People who like to brag that their images are unedited and straight-out-of-camera have likely never studied the work of perhaps the most renowned landscape photographer of all time, Ansel Adams. He didn’t have the advantage of digital editing software to edit his images, yet that didn’t deter him.
Take a look at some of his before and after images, and you will marvel at how much change there was between the camera-captured negative and the final print.
7. Put in the time
Fine art landscape photography isn’t done in a hurry.
I’ve seen software makers claiming their programs will allow you to work faster using artificial intelligence. While these programs have come a long way, I’m not convinced that they can yet equal the quality of old-school human intelligence and a more careful, though slower, style of editing.
You might be able to get some interesting results with a one-click preset, but will it result in an image that communicates your unique vision? If you replace a sky with something “canned,” it might be more dramatic, but is it still your photograph?
I also have to ask: What’s the hurry?
I enjoy photo editing, seeing where I can take an image with some thoughtful work. I know there are those that don’t care for editing, and I guess that’s okay. I just believe that most carefully-crafted art takes time.
I have used such software on occasion, and so can you. But rather than just learn the tricks of the trade, how about putting in the time and effort to learn the trade itself?
If fine art landscape photography that has your own personal style and signature look is your objective, there are no shortcuts. One-click presets will only make your work look like everyone else’s!
“Once you learn to care, you can record images with your mind or on film. There is no difference between the two.”— Anonymous
8. See(k)ing the light
I enjoy various kinds of photography, from table-top still life and macro photography to flash-lit work and especially landscapes. What differentiates landscape photography from many of these other genres is the lighting, the degree of control the photographer has over the scene, and the ease of creating the desired look.
I can previsualize the look I want for a tabletop still life shot, set it up on the kitchen counter, light it, make adjustments, and tweak until I get the shot I like.
Not so for landscape photography.
Instead, I must travel to the area I want to photograph, be there when the weather is cooperative, the light is right, the foliage is in season, and everything else (none of it in my control) all comes together. If it ever does.
But this is also the joy of fine art landscape photography.
It might mean sitting patiently in the pre-dawn chill, hoping the clouds come in just right and the sunrise hits just so. You might hike miles to get to that overlook for a sunset that never comes, or get lucky and have a sudden thunderstorm come in over the canyon with dramatic clouds and lightning.
The lack of control is part of the attraction of landscape photography, the knowledge that luck really is when preparation meets opportunity.
“My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport.”— Steve McCurry
So if you want to be a great fine art landscape photographer, then you’ll have to work at it. You’ll need to sacrifice a bit, get up before sunrise, stay well after the sun has set, hike into difficult spots, seek places drive-by photographers will never see, and strive to be different with your images, capturing not just what you see, but what you feel.
9. Shoot to a theme
Sometimes, a good way to stimulate your creative juices is to shoot to a theme. Rather than simply grabbing your gear and going to a location to do some landscape photography with whatever you see, decide that you’re going to make all of your images fit a theme.
Visually describe a concept or maybe make photos as if you were doing an article on a place or a single subject. Then, use the “visual vocabulary” that are your photographs to describe and define that subject.
Add your own style as a fine art landscape photographer to determine what you want your viewer to know and feel about your subject.
“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”— Elliott Erwitt
10. The print is the performance
Today, most photos that are made are probably never printed. Instead, they’re viewed only on monitors or LCD screens, and sometimes projected. In the film days, photographers had no such options. After shooting and developing their film, they were only halfway to being able to show their photograph to viewers. Prints were mandatory.
Ansel Adams viewed it this way:
The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score, and the print the performance.– Ansel Adams
When discussing fine art landscape photography, I must raise the question:
Can a photograph be considered fine art if it is only viewed on a monitor and never printed?
If you’ve spent any time at all in a photo gallery and closely looked at printed photographs, you will know there is no comparison between seeing a printed photograph and seeing that same image on a monitor. Prints can render so much more detail, color, and tone.
Even the type and texture of the paper or other substrate on which a photograph is printed can make a huge difference.
Finally, when viewing photographs on a screen, the light is produced by the screen itself, whereas when you view a print, the light is reflected. It changes the way you view the shot.
So to repeat my question in a different way:
Must a photograph be printed to be considered fine art?
I could argue either side, but I must confess that I’m a big proponent of printing. Yes, learning to make good prints yourself is a whole other skill, and not an easy one to learn. Simply getting the color and brightness of a printed image to approximately match what you see on your monitor is a challenge.
But I would argue that learning to print is part of the photographic craft.
You might also choose to hand off your photos to a professional printer whose specialty is knowing how to get the most from your image. That’s okay, too. I guess my point is that the difference between a printed fine art landscape photograph and the same image viewed on a monitor is almost as great as the difference between going to a concert and just watching one on TV.
“Fine art prints created by the artist, or the artist’s collaborator, are important because they best represent the artist’s vision. Images displayed on digital devices are subject to the non-uniform nature of different displays and they may appear radically different than the artist intended.”– Mac Holbert
11. Your photos are about you
What you see, what attracts your eye and your camera, and how you choose to interpret a subject says a lot about you.
Even if you haven’t consciously defined a “photographic vision” for yourself, chances are good that, if you review your archives, you will be able to identify commonalities in your work.
Hopefully, you will have developed a rating system (perhaps color coding or star rating as can be done in Lightroom) so you can determine which photos you consider to be your favorites. Take some time to look through your best shots and perhaps make some notes about defining styles, features, or techniques.
What are you consistently doing that works, and what signature style do you have?
“Only photograph what you love.”— Tim Walker
Focus specifically on your landscape images and look for commonalities. What has worked well? What hasn’t worked? How can you find ways to build on your successes and also further define and develop your personal style so that your images communicate with your viewer?
“We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”— Ralph Hattersley
When considering the subject of fine art landscape photography, you may be asking, “Does my work measure up? Am I good enough that my photographs could be considered fine art? Do I belong in the elite club of fine art photographers?”
I would suggest that what constitutes a fine art photograph is less about the quality of the image, and much more about the photographer’s success communicating something to the viewer.
“Good photographs are like good jokes. If you have to explain them, they aren’t very good.”Anonymous
If you want to be successful in fine art landscape photography, or any other genre of photography, for that matter, teach your photos to speak for themselves. If they were displayed in a gallery without you there to say a word, what would they say to a viewer? What would a person feel when viewing them?
Yes, a photo can be worth 1000 words, maybe more. But it has to speak for itself!
Fine art landscape photography: Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about fine art landscape photography.
And you know how to create some beautiful fine art landscape shots of your own!
So get out and get shooting. Best wishes in your photographic endeavors!
Fine art landscape photography FAQs
This Wikipedia description sums it up nicely: “Fine-art photography is photography created in line with the vision of the photographer as artist, using photography as a medium for creative expression. The goal of fine-art photography is to express an idea, a message, or an emotion.”
While many photographers choose to use black and white when making fine art landscape photos, and while traditional images were made that way, it’s not a requirement. The photographer should choose whatever representation best conveys their intention for the image.
Good photos are made in the mind, and the camera then becomes a tool for capturing what the photographer has already “seen.”
No, but a print can do much more to convey the photographer’s message to the viewer as a tangible, physical object with much greater subtlety of color, tone, and higher resolution. Further, while every display device will affect how the image is seen, a print retains the look of the image as the photographer intended. Printing is also part of the art and craft of photography.
Determine what you want your viewer to see, think, and feel when looking at your image, and imbue your photograph with those qualities such that it can speak on its own to the viewer.