A good travel & landscape photograph communicates more than just the location
Why would we buy a book that had no story? What we buy is the story, the book is just the tool to communicate the story. With travel and landscape photography, the literal rendition of the scene just represents having achieved the first step, making a book. If there is no story or it is communicated badly then it is not a good landscape photograph. On the positive side, technology is to be fully commended for making digital photography accessible to millions of people who gain great pleasure from travel and landscape photography as a relaxing and creative pastime. Cameras and sliders make their life easier to produce good results in a short time. I have no problem with that – the problem I do have is this. Digital photography is different to all other forms of art; we do not need any skill to produce an image. Manufacturers are driven by creating endless products aimed at automating photography to make it simpler. Naturally, people adopt these products because they require less knowledge and are easy to use. This cycle of supply and demand concentrates all the conversation on the tools; how to make the ‘book’, not on the content; how to write the ‘story’; communicate ideas visually. It’s like chefs all over the world talking only about cookers, pots and pans and not about the food they cook! Worse, we don’t even realize this is what we are now doing. Ridiculous!
This has now created a bad perception that photography is now just simple ‘automation and instant gratification’. Cameras set on automatic then Lightroom sliders to correct defects, maybe something a bit more complex. This philosophy is now perceived as the correct ‘process’ to follow, so becomes the ‘process’ aspired to learn. The great majority of people who enjoy taking pictures are very happy with the results they get and don’t want to complicate their life further. That is absolutely fine. However, if you want to be a professional chef and work in a luxury 5-star hotel then, it requires a different approach and dedication. Professional photography is no different. Many people want to work at a more advanced level and search the internet for the professional knowledge and training to achieve this. In return, the internet has created an industry of ‘self-proclaimed experts’, presenting themselves as professional tutors and teaching workshops. They present themselves as ‘5-star chefs’, but only qualified to work in a cafe, they could not earn a living as a working photographer; they don’t have the knowledge themselves which makes them unqualified to teach. This may sound a bit harsh but they have no issue promoting themselves as being better than they are, while not teaching what you need to learn and what you paid to be taught, all while eroding photography standards.
This raises the most obvious question: Maybe, I am one of those ‘self-proclaimed experts only qualified to work in a cafe’? Fair comment. I have been a ‘5-star chef’ for 35-years, but as a professional working photographer; the only job I have ever done. Hard news photographer and picture editor for Reuter News Pictures in London, followed by years in corporate photography running a studio in Australia. Companies employed me because I am a good ‘visual problem solver’. That is what you are paid to do as a professional working photographer – Visually communicate an event, story, or concept in a photograph. I am the last generation who could do photography as a full-time professional job. The ‘qualities that make a good photograph’ were very clear and understood by both client and photographer. Implementing those qualities consistently every day, was what kept the photographer in work. The better you were meant job security and higher paid, better quality assignments. Put simply, everyone in the industry knew what a good photograph was. Now this is very important: Technology has changed but the ‘qualities that make a good photograph’ – have not. They are as valid today as thirty-years ago.
Technology has allowed anyone to take photographs and post them on the internet. 99.999% of the people posting those images don’t know the ‘qualities that make a good photograph’. This tsunami has drowned out those photographers that do actually know. There is a large volume of brilliant photographers, but they are now very hard to find. My career gives me a unique perspective and knowledge of ‘what works’. To repeat, the ‘qualities that make a good photograph’ have not changed and quality is recognized, it stands out and will be rewarded. If you want create quality, they must be learnt. The purpose of this essay is to make you realize that if you want to create good quality fine art landscape photography, the volume of what you see and read on the internet is published by people who do not know how to create good fine art landscape photography – their advice is wrong, misleading, uneducated and unsupported by any career proof. I want to teach you the correct way, the qualities that formed the basis of all professional photographers’ careers. I do not begrudge anyone earning a living provided they do and get paid for ‘what they say on the tin’. I have a serious problem with those who market themselves as ‘masters’, false prophets who are totally ignorant. They make it harder for professionals who do know what they are talking about to get work and worse, for the client who has the desire to improve, they don’t get the knowledge they paid for; to improve. That’s theft. A doctor or lawyer would be sued. So, in answer: What I have written – I have ‘practiced what I preach’. It has kept me in constant work for over 35-years. My career and landscape images substantiate and justify my opinion.
Let’s STOP a minute and think about it. Simple ‘automation and instant gratification’ is one way, but not the only way. As said, if you are happy with the results and the time it took to make them, then it makes it the right way ‘for you’. But it comes with limitations. If you limit the tools, you limit the creativity. Lightroom is convenient but massively limited compared to Photoshop. If everyone works within the same creative restrictions, it must create a similar look to everyone’s photos. Limitations limit diversity. The result is all Lightroom pictures look similar. That is the price you pay for speed and ease. The worse problem with this ‘automation and instant gratification’ process is, it requires little or no intelligence or thought. It assumes intelligence, craftsmanship, skill, can all be reduced down to the choice of a Lightroom slider or worse, a preset. This whole process never makes you think about the bigger picture; the ‘Art of Image Making’. How can you be a good chef if you don’t know how to cook? As visual communicators, we must know what ingredients make a good landscape photograph, a foundation of visual knowledge. That’s what nobody is teaching, yet is the core skill required to create images.
What does this all mean? The ‘automation and instant gratification’ philosophy combined with a lack of visual knowledge is making people produce ‘traditional and predictable’ landscape photography because the knowledge, tools, and often desire, are not there to create anything better. The result is clinical renditions without soul or creativity that look like everyone else’s. Automation is flooding the world with soulless images while creating lazy attitudes. It’s time for a reality check. If you want to create quality fine art landscape photography you will have to use Photoshop and it will take time, effort, practice, and thought. Good old-fashioned craftsmanship and a complete change in your approach to photography at the most fundamental level. If you want to create something better than other people, all it takes is more effort than other people.
Learning how to create good quality fine art landscape photography is not hard, in fact it’s very enjoyable and personally rewarding. First, you need a teacher that can actually ‘create good quality fine art landscape photography’ themselves. Second, an easy to follow and logical teaching structure, communicated well. I break-down the workflow into the four major subjects, then break-down those subjects into small, easy to learn, ‘bite-size’ steps. Learn only one step at a time, add the steps together and the ‘Art of Image Making’ workflow is learnt. Photoshop is a large part of the fine art landscape photography workshop, but must be kept in perspective, it is only a means to an end; where we bring everything together, a tool. Photoshop is irrelevant if we haven’t got the photography correct first and both are irrelevant if we haven’t got the visual theory correct.
Creating good fine art landscape photography requires broader knowledge than the ‘automation and instant gratification’ approach. Aesthetic knowledge to understand how to create artistic quality and scientific knowledge to understand how to create technical quality. Aesthetic quality being how to visually communicate your ideas and emotions using artistic principles without needing words. How to communicate the light, mood, drama, and atmosphere then create an optical illusion of reality; spatial-distance, three-dimensional form, and texture, with composition, balance and cohesion. The old master painters are history’s most qualified practitioners of aesthetic quality for hundreds of years. They have refined the skill and their universal principles have lasted the ‘test of time’. Learn their principles and you have a great head-start because the quality of your photography is defined by its aesthetic quality, not the camera or technique. We respond and judge images on an emotional level first, content, and technical second.
So, how does this all come together? The following may help your landscape photography straight away, by helping you look at creating fine art landscape photography the correct way, the intelligent way. First, we must grab the viewer’s attention by using simple, bold composition then keep that viewer our prisoner; captivated by the detail. We must then reward that viewer by communicating a clear idea or story to give the landscape photograph purpose. Finally, create an emotional response in that viewer through communicating the light, mood, and drama in the landscape. Achieve all this and you have a great landscape photograph, indeed it applies to all photography.
Think of creating the fine art landscape photograph as a theatre stage. We must have one, clearly defined, main subject. The ‘lead actor’ and hero of the landscape photograph. Secondary objects are the ‘supporting cast’ and distant landscape is the ‘theatre backdrop’, setting the context. Finally, sky supplies the ‘stage lighting’. Everything in the fine art landscape photograph must center around making our main hero look fantastic. Bold, clear, and center stage without conflict. The essential emotional response is the synergy created from the cohesion of everything working together, content and craftsmanship towards a single goal. Photographs that create an emotional response, we bond with, they draw us in psychologically and invite us to walk in and around the landscape, searching, exploring, and discovering. They trigger our imagination providing a rewarding personal and emotional journey. We look at those photographs longer, they are the photographs we want to buy. Why buy a photograph we don’t connect with?
A powerful way to create that psychological connection in a fine art landscape photograph and so draw them in, is to give the viewer a convincing optical illusion of three-dimensional reality because that is how our brain expects to see the world. We need aesthetic knowledge to know how to create that optical illusion of three-dimensional form and spatial distance, this is where we look back to old master painters. The camera alters the tones we see and flattens the three-dimensional quality during capture, so we must manually replace, then exaggerate it. We need scientific knowledge to understand how the camera alters the tones during capture so we can counteract the defects and create rich shadows the way we see them in reality. In reality there is minimal pure black in the world we see, yet in landscape photography it is very common to see very black, filled in, heavy shadows. This breaks the illusion of reality; stops us connecting with the photograph creating a barrier that stops us accepting the landscape as real.
Why would a fish bite a hook, that had no bait? If the fish doesn’t bite the hook, you don’t get the fish! – Fishing requires more knowledge than just putting a hook in the water. The simple ‘automation and instant gratification’ approach may make images, but they don’t captivate the viewer because they don’t have any bait. That’s like fishing and never catching a fish! Pointless. ‘Traditional and predictable’ photographs made with this ‘automation and instant gratification’ approach only offer us ‘what we expect to see’ or ‘this is what I saw’. The fish wants a free meal and we want more than just a polished recording without any soul. If there is no reward, why should we invest time looking?
‘Think first, act second’ makes you take less landscape photography, but what you do take will be high quality landscape photography. Invest all your time and energy in one well thought out and beautifully crafted fine art landscape photograph, not hundreds of variations you discard later. Plan for only one landscape composition, then invest all your time and effort making that one landscape composition, a great landscape photograph. If you keep moving about, shooting hundreds of various angles all you achieve is getting certain elements correct in certain pictures, but you don’t get all the elements correct in one picture. Stay put you get the best elements and the best composition. Winner! Transfer all the questions you ask while editing your hundred images at home after the shoot, to being THE questions to ask at the camera – before you shoot. Try to imagine what the photograph could become, ‘Photoshop’ the landscape in your mind and then ask: – Is this a good photograph? If so, start production, take photographs. This way you create your own success, you don’t rely on one lucky shot in a hundred. You goal is just to create one stunning beautiful fine art landscape photograph of pure quality. Above all else, think about why you are taking the photograph. It’s not about the book, it’s about the story. What do you want to tell me as the viewer about the landscape you see? Compose the subject, photograph the light, print the atmosphere. Tell me a story visually communicated with aesthetic quality and technical perfection.