Landscape Photography Workshops

"Landscape Aesthetics & The Old Masters"

Gondola Builders, Venice, Italy Photography Workshop. Taken September 2019 by David Osborn

Tutorial What Makes Good Photography 01. Logo. David Osborn

01. Landscape Aesthetics
& The Old Masters


How many times do you walk away from a scene saying ‘I couldn’t see a good picture? The tourist location is generic by definition – everyone standing in the same spot will get the same photograph as you; but this does not mean it cannot become a great artistic photograph. The key is ‘What you do to the photograph’. We tend to stop short – we expect the camera to do all the work for us; create the finished image. This is totally unrealistic – the camera can only record what is in front of it. You may record the same photograph as everyone else – but you can create a different photograph to everyone else. Continued below …

David Osborn | Professional Photographer London

Learn This Digital Workflow On …

Learn Landscape Aesthetics From The Old Masters

“The camera records. Photoshop creates”

‘Great’ pictures rarely ‘just happen’ – those are your lucky shots. There was a saying in my Reuters news photography days – ‘if you saw it, you missed it’ – by the time you set up, it was too late. It is the ability to ‘create’ pictures not ‘take’ pictures that defines the creative photographer. Being creative is intensely enjoyable and creates unique images that stand out; essential in a world today awash with generic images. The skill of creative photographers is to gain inspiration from a scene that may at first glance, appear uninspiring even bland but see creative potential in the detail. Use the camera as the starting point only, not the end. The subject is not unique to you – your transformation is. ‘Seeing a good picture’ is not judging the scene in a literal way, but ‘seeing how you can transform the scene’ – then decide if you can ‘see a good picture’. Decide if it is worth the time and effort to pursue for full production.

Aesthetic Skills – The Missing Link

However, just because you ‘can’ transform a scene, does not mean every scene will be a great picture – it won’t. How do you tell which will and which won’t? You need a set of criteria to provide the answer – to spot the rough diamonds you can polish into sparkling gems! The ones worth investing time in.

Creativity needs an idea then technical skills to turn that idea into print – Yes – but there is a missing link: Aesthetic skills. Aesthetic skill is the artistic ‘language’ of image making. Aesthetic skill turns crude ideas into beautifully crafted and refined artistic statements – the bridge between your abstract idea and the cold mechanics of making the image; technical skills. Think of a car engine analogy: Your aesthetic skill is understanding the ‘whole concept’ of how a car engine works. Technical skills, only the ability to take the engine apart. Technical skill is only a means to an end; production. Aesthetic skill is understanding how to craft concepts like beauty, composition, harmony, light, mood, drama and atmosphere into your pictures throughout the whole process; craftsmanship. Without aesthetic knowledge, the creative flow from idea to technical skill is broken; the result crude and unsophisticated, unrefined, having no artistic quality. Aesthetic skill is the core creative skill and aesthetic skills are best learnt from history’s most qualified and best practitioners: The Old Master Painters like Rembrandt.

Why old master painters – they create their paintings from scratch, photographers don’t. Painters are forced to understand aesthetic quality because it dictates their very first brush mark on the pure white canvas. Digital cameras give you a ‘ready-made’ picture; even without thinking. The ease of getting the image removes the pressure to understand the aesthetics of image making like painters do. The result; you stop the creative process short, accept what the camera gives you with just a minor polish and your photograph ends up looking like everyone else. Photographs with low aesthetic quality. Knowledge of old master painting contains many lessons that are as relevant today as your camera and post-production skills. As photographers we can underestimate this knowledge and the sheer volume and diversity of this fantastic resource; hundreds of painters, hundreds of years – all trying to solve the same visual questions and problems you are. The old master painters were all commercial artists in the very highly competitive world of gaining lucrative commissions from the church, royalty or aristocracy. They had to create visual solutions that worked and appealed – to earn a living. Creating works of ‘art for arts sake’ is only a modern concept. Why would their solutions not appeal now? Why not learn from them?

Creativity requires a fundamental change in your whole approach to photography; from a fragmented ‘shoot then polish’ approach to a far more holistic approach. After running workshops for a few years, I realized what clients were really wanting to learn was not the Photoshop skills, but learn aesthetic skills – aesthetic quality was what was missing in their work – they just couldn’t put their finger on it. The holistic workflow I teach, factors-in all the essential aesthetic techniques the old master painters used because their techniques work – they are the aesthetic masters. Aesthetic quality is not just for painters, it is also the essential quality of all good photography. Their lessons are directly responsible for me creating the look and feel of all of my images shown on this website – all popular views and available to every tourist, but these have more aesthetic quality. The most common comment on workshops is, ‘I don’t know how I want my pictures to look’ or ‘I don’t have a personal style’. The solution is to keep looking at works of art, photographs and paintings, you love and that inspire you. Be influenced by them. Learn from them.

How to Learn Aesthetic Skills from Old Master Painters

When I say ‘Old Master Painters’ – did you think of Rembrandt. If I said ‘Rembrandt’ – did you think of ‘light’. Rembrandt was all about portraying light – light creates the life, mood, drama and atmosphere. Light is the soul of all pictures, photographic or painted. If you understand how Rembrandt communicated light in his paintings – would it not provide invaluable knowledge for how you could also treat the light in your photograph? Why not learn the same skills and employ the same techniques as a photographer?

How do you learn from old master paintings? Ask the paintings questions. Pick a specific subject, light, mood, drama etc. How did they portray spatial depth? Ask: How did they separate buildings and make buildings look three-dimensional? What techniques did they use to emphasize the main subject? The questions you can ask is endless! See what answers they give; what their solution was to very specific problems. See if other painters used the same solution. When looking at your answer in the painting, run through in your mind, how can you recreate the same effect in Lightroom or Photoshop. Dutch painters painted street scenes, landscapes and seascapes – how much of the light and mood, the drama was really in front of them while painting the image? – how much was ‘created’ from their imagination? – their scenes may have been just as bland as my photographs are before post-production.

Now, when you ask: ‘Does this make a good picture?’, you can ask yourself, ‘How would Rembrandt treat the scene?’ – your aesthetic knowledge learnt in part from studying the old master painters, gives you vast new points of reference to now see the creative potential in the scene you are looking at.

Creating a good photograph is communicating your idea with high aesthetic values and executed with quality technical skills. Photography previsualization is exactly the same process as physical production, just done mentally before taking a photograph while you are looking at the scene and before you touch the camera. You run through the production process in your mind in order to get a good feel for what the final photograph could look like as a final print. The more knowledge you have in all areas, the better you can previsualize ‘what the scene could become’ before taking the photograph. This is the criteria you use to decide ‘if you can see a good picture’. Can I create a photograph with aesthetic quality? How many scenes have you walked away from in the past that could have become beautiful diamonds?

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Fly Fishing, Cumbria, England

Landscape Photography ~ Aesthetic Quality 01

Aesthetics 01. Emotional Response

What makes good photography above all else, is the ability to evoke an emotional response in the viewer, a feeling, a reaction, an opinion. Photographs that we respond emotionally to, we connect with and form a bond. We are grabbed by them and want to study them. An emotional response is an instant sub-conscious response without any logical thought. They communicate. On a physical level the subject content, on an emotional level the mood. Without that emotional response we glance and walk by, forgetting we had seen the image. An image that fails to create an emotional response, fails totally. Emotional response is the ultimate end goal of all good photography.

Aesthetics 02. Captivate the Viewer

The photograph with light, form, mood and depth, even a feeling of time, creates a photograph that you mentally walk into, around and explore. Good photography really captivates the viewer. They hold the viewers’ attention, taking you on a personal journey, creating a personal experience in your imagination. They offer enough to grab our attention, but not enough to tell us everything. They ‘imply’, making us fill in the gaps and make the viewer work, engage and explore. They leave something for our imagination to fill in. A good test, is that you should be able to easily write a short narrative on paper about what the image evokes in your mind. If it only inspires ‘castle on hill’, it probably failed!

Aesthetics 03. Clear Idea

Would you write a book without an idea? How much time do you spend doing things without any idea of why you are doing them! So, why take a Photograph without any clear idea of why you are taking it! All you end up with is an image that has nothing to say. What I call a product shot or a, ‘so what’ picture. What makes good photography is communicating an idea and a story to tell. A purpose. The most effective way is to have a ‘one picture, one idea’ rule. This avoids confusing mix messages. A single idea with clarity of thought, is most likely to communicate fast. Communicating fast and with a clearly defined purpose, is a photograph well on the way to being successful.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria, England

Landscape Photography ~ Aesthetic Quality 02

Aesthetics 04. Geographic Signature

Good photography capture the feel and soul of the location, its geographic signature. A photograph taken in America should ‘look’ American. An image taken in France should ‘look’ French. Geographic signatures capture unique physical objects whose style are clues to the photos location. Ask “What does this location have, that you will not find anywhere else?”. This can be the feel of the hills, style of mountains, architectural design of the buildings even the weather that is ‘typical’ to that part of the world. When we first look at the photograph we must have edited down its location from ‘the world’ to Norway, Dubai, Qatar, Germany. All different countries with different style signatures.

Aesthetics 05. Story of light

Light is the aesthetic language of good photography. Light communicates the life and soul of the scene, the mood, the emotion. The objects are the physical description, the light is the story. What makes good photography is mood. A cohesive story of how the light interacts with the scene and creates mood. Taking inspiration from the old master painters such as Rembrandt, I teach Photoshop techniques taken from the principles of old master painting where light was such an important quality. A photograph without a sense of light will be have no soul. Portraying light is the heart of good photography.

Aesthetics 06. Clean Composition

Composition is simply deciding what content is relevant to communicate your idea, then placing those elements in harmony both with each other and as a complete image so your idea is communicated well. There is no neutral content, everything in the photograph works either for the idea or against the idea. The aim is to keep only the most minimal yet relevant content. One object is a fact, two objects make a story because we want to understand the relationship between the two. More than two, means more complexity to analyze and therefore less speed, The more minimal the content, the clearer and faster the message. Simple and clean compositions, make strong photographs.

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Castle Stalker, Scotland

Landscape Photography ~ Technical Quality

Aesthetics 07. Optical Illusion

Technically, what makes good photography is creating an optical illusion on paper, fooling our brains into thinking that what we are looking at has depth, form and light, the three-dimensional quality. Technical craftsmanship gives us the means to create this illusion. If the technique is of a poor standard, our brain is unable to go beyond seeing the literal ink on paper. There is no convincing illusion created. Psychologically we always remain disconnected from the scene. Create that illusion and we enter a whole new world psychologically. Combine this with aesthetic mood, we create the two critical elements required for an emotional response. Optical illusions with mood.

Aesthetics 08. Rich Tonality

Rich tonality is the technical language of all good photography. On a technical level alone, photography courses spend a great deal of time teaching Photoshop editing techniques to control tone and contrast; to create correct tonal relationships that convey the mood, atmosphere, object form, spatial form, texture and distance. Rich tonality and having tonal control is essential. In a photograph we only have tone and color as our language to use in creating the image, the optical illusion. Heavy tones create the pictures structure, its foundation, the subtle silvery tones the life and sparkle. The more tonal range we have and use, the more the photograph comes alive.

Aesthetics 09. Sharpness

We see the world sharp; we need to make our optical illusion sharp. The more we remove all signatures of the photographic technique like noise, grain and keeping the image sharp, the more we enhance the optical illusion. We have less to remind us, that what we are looking at is not real, but only a photograph. Signatures of the photography technique create psychological barriers; preventing us from getting into and exploring the photograph in our mind. Have you ever embarrassingly walked into a glass door? You did that because the glass door was so clean. It had no signatures to remind you of being a door; you had psychologically, already entered the room making you hit it.

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Edinburgh, Scotland

The Main Reason Why Landscape Photographs Fail

What is the most common reasons images fail to make good photographs? Two reasons. A lack of thought and over emphasis on technical quality alone. The common approach to photography, is to shoot hundreds of frames from all different angles, then choose the best frame after the shoot at home. There is only one problem with this approach. If you take an image without an idea, the picture ‘communicates’ a lack of idea to the viewer. If we shoot hundreds of frames, then all we end up with is hundreds of frames – that ‘communicate’ a lack of any idea to the viewer. How can it communicate something it never had? Volume will never replace ideas, thought and planning. Less is quality.

With my photography tuition, I place enormous emphasis on transferring the questions you ask yourself when editing your images back home, to being THE questions to ask yourself – before shooting. Asking “What makes good photography?” – at the camera while you have time to make changes. The theory that by pure chance, you will find one you ‘like’ is flawed. What happens if you ‘like’ the angle in one photo, the light in another, the people in a third? The number of possible variables is enormous. Without an idea, you will never get all the perfect elements you ‘like’ together. Remove luck by thinking first, shooting second! Photography is also very intellectual.

The second failure, over emphasis on technical quality alone is a big mistake because technique is only the language of photography. Like a foreign language, the more fluent we can speak it, the better we can express our ideas, but it is only of value when we have an idea to express. Language on its own is pointless. What we want to communicate is our ideas, not how well we speak. All good photography communicates, uses a location as a prop for an opinion and a mood. Compose the subject, shoot the light, print the mood; create a personal artistic statement that evokes an emotional response through aesthetic quality and technical craftsmanship together in harmony.

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