The Art Of Landscape Photography

By Way Of Introduction

There are many ways to photograph the landscape and many kinds of landscape photographs we can make. As far as the different types of landscape photos are concerned it’s useful to group them into a variety of sub-genres which I’d like to discuss in more detail.

A spectacular view of a low lying cloud hovering over mountain peaks on South Georgia, Antarctica

Traditional Landscape Photography

Needless to say these are relatively traditional photos of our natural world. Often straight in style and relatively representative or descriptive of the scene being photographed such images, to be successful, usually rely upon great lighting, a large depth of field and strong composition.

As photographers it’s good to remember that a photo of a beautiful landscape cannot compare to the beauty and majesty of that actual landscape. So why make the photo? After all it’s just a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional reality.

There is no depth in a photograph. There is only an impression of depth created by visual clues (e.g., light and shade; large and small subjects within the frame; and definite foreground, mid ground and background elements) as well as a variety of decisions facing the photographer relating to such things as lens focal length, viewpoint, framing and a variety of other compositional concerns.

A sublime view, early in the morning, above the clouds on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain), China.

Your Photography Is Important

The reason our photographs are important and worthy of attention is due to the fact that they represent our experience of being in that landscape at that particular time. They are moments in time, tiny fragments of existance that have been recorded (I don’t like the word captured) in a way that communicates, preserves and allows us to share our relationship with the landscape, at that moment, and any connection we may have felt to a greater, universal experience or truth. Such images rely more on suggestion and interpretation than on a mere factual reading of the scene in question.

Importantly our photographs can also be more about the weather than the actual topographic nature of the landscape we're photographing.

Photography allows us to speak to the world as much about ourselves, as individual creative souls, and our relationship with the universe as they do about the subject or scene depicted.  

A mountain peak, bathed in warm light, is framed by ice encrusted treees on the spectacular Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China.

Moving from Realism to Suggestion

The stronger the composition the quicker our images move beyond realism towards suggestion. That’s because composition allows the viewer to concentrate on compositional elements such as line, shape, color, texture and tonality and, in doing so, begins to separate the viewer from their connection with subject matter like rocks, trees and sky.

Likewise an impressionistic landscape produces a more elusive sense of reality. It’s more about the impression of the landscape, and how light interacts with it, than a true visual representation of one.

Magnificent God Rays illuminate the landscape in the Highlands region of Central Iceland.

Fine Art Photography

Your photographs become art when they move away from a two dimensional interpretation of reality. That’s where they start but, to be art, a visual departure from reality is required. The use of metaphor is an example of this kind of departure.

A porter, loaded with goods, walks a windy and exposed path on Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain), China.

Does your photograph document a bushfire/wildfire or does it explore the awesome power of nature and our desperate need to survive such a catastrophe? Whether directly or via the use of metaphor I believe most great photos explore the Human Condition.     

A scattering of snow, on and around the mountain trail, on Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), China.

Wildness and Wilderness

These words appear similar, but there differences are as much political as actual.

What is wilderness and does it cease to exist after we’ve experienced it?

I don’t think so, nor do I feel that mapping topographical features of a landscape makes it any less of a wilderness. But what about the effects that the inclusion of roads, buildings and modern forms of communication have on such an environment and our relationship to it? 

Clearly our experience of the environment is altered as is our relationship to it once modernity is introduced into it. And, by implication, that means cameras as well.

Now I wouldn’t want any of this to stop you making pictures in such places. It’s one of my great loves and privileges to do just that. This discussion is probably one for the philosophers. Nevertheless, when it comes to describing and presenting our photography or, for that matter, branding our business it’s good to have thought through what it is we do and why we do it. A wilderness photographer sounds more specialized than a landscape photographer. Right?  

Lush terraced rice fields and palm trees on the island of Bali, Indonesia.

The Cultivated Landscape

While our planet retains small populations of hunters and gatherers, I’m not expecting many of them will be reading this post. Over the millennia technological advancements allowed us to move from (sometimes nomadic) hunter/gather societies to rural farming communities and then to urban dwellers.

Many folk find connection with the notion of a rural retreat, on a few acres. The notion of self sufficient living, off the grid, is enticing. Though, for many of us, the hard work associated with that form of lifestyle may not be.

This photo of a rice terrace was made in rural Bali. It’s an example of how a rich tropical environment, with plentiful rainfall, can be turned into a highly cultivated landscape able to support the farmer’s family and, potentially, supply a market beyond those living and working on the farm.

The vibrant green color of this lush landscape is at once peaceful and soothing. It quietens the mind and refreshes the soul. But being on the edge of wild landscapes, such environments are not without danger. There are snakes and a range of other nasties, including water born parasites, that could, so easily, bring a relaxing vacation to a very unpleasant end.

My advice: breathe deeply, but tread carefully and remember how unfit for survival our soft, sanitized bodies are in such environments.

When it comes to photographing the cultivated landscape it’s good to ask yourself why are you doing so. Is it because it’s visually attractive or is the scene enticing at a deeper level? What is there about that scene that connects with you and how can you better explore and describe that connection through your photography?

A protective barrier guards a beautiful tree on a high, windy pass on Mt. Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China.

Conservation and the Environment

The 3 days I spent atop Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in Eastern China during late January 2011 are amongst the best of my life, thus far. January is the coldest time of year on Huangshan with minimum temperatures dropping below -20C. Thankfully maximum daytime temperatures can reach 7C which, when climbing up and down the steep mountain trails, can seem quite warm. But, as I was out and about before sunrise and after sunset I experienced my share of the cold.

You can imagine that the winds, often prevalent at high altitude, could make conditions difficult for the landscape photographer. And I refer here to difficulties in maintaining sharpness as much as personal comfort. Fortunately I experienced very still days which, together with the thick blanket of near white clouds that surrounded me, made for fantastic conditions for photography. The huge bank of cloud greatly softened the quality of the light and reduced contrast (i.e., dynamic range) to an acceptable level.

The above photo, made near the top of a particularly high pass, is interesting to me as it depicts a degree of conservation on the mountain. It's true to say that the natural environment has, all too often, suffered with the rapid advancement of the Chinese economy. I hope this image can act as a metaphor for a future China where economic prosperity and the natural world can co-exist more harmoniously than has been the case in the recent past.

A group of old rusted oil drums at Port Foster on Deception Island, Antarctica

Finally, do you want to use your photography to make a political statement concerning environmental issues or to explore the notion of the human condition? It’s your choice. In fact, in a variety of cases, it could be argued that the two are very much interlinked. 

A surreal scene of plastic autumn leaves, hung over a window, looking out onto a winter landscape at a guest house in the Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) region of Eastern China.

The Alternate Landscape

Experimental by nature the alternate landscape is often somewhat cheekily disrespectful to the notion of traditional landscape photography.

In the world of the alternate landscape potted plants, ceramic garden flamingos and plastic flowers are all worthy of attention and consideration. As much as anything else this kind of photography explores our relationship with the natural landscape in the modern world. We no longer live within and as a part of the landscape, but we need pleasant and safe memories of it to remind us of a once vital connection with the natural world.

I'm a huge fan of traditional, picturesque landscape photography. But I'm also fascinated by alternate views of beauty. Kitsch, for example, provides wonderful opportunities to explore notions of taste and beauty.

In the above example, made from a small cafe in a guest house I was staying at while traveling in the Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) region of Eastern China, I was fascinated by the autumn colored plastic leaves, placed on the inside of the window, with the winter landscape behind. I guess they're placed there as a reminder of how beautiful the location is during autumn.

I like the vibrancy and strong shapes of the foreground leaves against the subtly of the background. The crack in the window adds another element of unconventional beauty to the image.

I must say I was very well looked after at all the hotels in which I stayed in China. Probably no more so than at this lovely guest house. The owner, Wayne, and his staff provided exceptional service.

A steep staircase leads the visitor through a narrow alleyway in the City of Melbourne, Australia.

The Urban Landscape

This is a pretty broad term that generally relates to photos made in and around a city’s Central Business District (CBD). 

Urban landscape photos often include buildings but, being more about the environment and the way people interact with it, are different to much of what is commonly referred to as architectural photography. However, just as in certain kinds of architectural photography, urban landscape photos may include people as elements within the landscape being explored.

A visitor to the magnificent Huangshan (i.e., Yellow Mountain) in China moves gracefully through the mist shrouded landscape.

The Personal Landscape

This kind of image can feature any kind of subject matter. It’s more about internal feelings, moods and ideas that are given form, through the subject matter and the art form (e.g., photography) in question, than about what’s actually in front of the camera. Think of such photography as landscapes of the mind.

A photo of mine was used on a CD cover featuring music from a Swedish group. The music was highly experimental and very non-traditional. It was, exactly as I expected it to be, a soundscape that reminded me of the mournful quiet of polar regions punctuated by the sounds of the ice moving and breaking apart.

An abstract image formed, momentarily, on the surface of water off the coast of Prion Island in South Georgia.

Personal landscapes often make use of abstraction, which uses individual elements from within the scene as graphical elements, to explore relationships and conjure up imaginings removed from the physical reality of the scene in front of the camera. In this kind of photography composition, as a way to produce or suggest an altered reality, is more important than the need to record a visually accurate representation of the scene in front of the camera.

Spectacular cloud formations are illuminated by a glorious sunset over the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia in Argentina.

My View on Photography

The world of landscape photography is a rich and varied one. There’s room for all, just as there’s room for experimentation and individual interpretation, from artist and viewer alike. I love all manner of photography, just so long as it’s well done, life-affirming and celebrates the beauty of our world and its people.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru