This long piece commissioned by Digital Camera Magazine resulted from extended phone and email interviews with five photographers whom I already knew, or at least whose work I was familiar with. Fitting their advice into the slightly artificial device of “ Top 50 tips for Landscape” was the tricky bit. As presented to the magazine, hence the annotation. © Niall Benvie 2006.
Anyone can do landscape photography, right ? Perhaps, but few take it to the level of these five world-class practitioners. Niall Benvie finds out what is needed to produce the highest quality imagery and learns how digital capture is changing how photographers are looking at light.
INTRO: Landscape has provided inspiration for photographers since the invention of the process one hundred and eighty years ago and the lure of wildness remains as powerful today. But just because it is “out there” doesn’t mean that fine landscape photography is any easier than photographing, say, wild mammals or birds. The subject may not be so hard to find but the quality that elevates an image from the banal to the sublime – extraordinary light – may be just as elusive as the wolf or the eagle. And it is perhaps this mix of accessibility with elusiveness and unpredictability that makes landscape such a compelling motif.
Marc Muench: Evolution of a tradition
California-based Marc Muench is as much respected for his wilderness sports photography as his “pure” landscape work. You could say it’s in his blood. His grandfather, Josef, and father, David, were and are the creators of many of 20th century’s iconic images of American wilderness. “When I was kid, my Dad promised me a dollar for every new arch I could spot when we were driving around in red rock country. That was how I discovered Teardrop Arch. It hadn’t been photographed before and since then it has become one of our trademark images – and much copied !” Marc is immersed in the world of digital capture and finds it an invaluable tool, both for teaching others and exploring a situation to the full when working alone.
[numbers in square brackets refer to the numbers on the original interview questions list that I made for each photographer]
1. Keep fit. “It’s important for landscape photographers to keep themselves in shape, especially if they want to take advantage of opportunities away from the roadside. Even when I’m working in the office, I make a point of going for a cycle run or a jog each day so that when I head into the mountains I can think about the images I want to make rather than how much I my legs hurt.”
2. Show courtesy when there are other photographers at a location already. “If I arrive at a location first, I will set up where I need to and let others work around me. If I’m not, I give them the space I expect in that situation and perhaps move on somewhere else. The only thing that really bugs me is when another professional comes and sets up right beside me – this happens ! – to frame the shot I’ve just made. If it’s a workshop, though, I expect people to do that.”
3 . Understand how light works. “I think I benefited a lot from learning how to light objects in college, with just one source and several reflectors. It has allowed me to previsualise situations where the interplay of sunlight and reflective surfaces will produce great images if I just go looking for them at the right time. These are not always big, dramatic landscapes, either. When we shot on film, it was only at the ends of the day that the sunlight’s contrast matched the film’s dynamic. It’s hard to be sure why low angle, warm lighting has the appeal it does but perhaps low contrast is a factor – it’s easier on the eye than midday light . The main thing to appreciate is the transitory nature of magical light; it’s all too easy to go to a place you’ve seen great images of before and to expect to see that light for yourself. It rarely works out that way, but if you persist, you may be fortunate.”
4 . Keep dust out. “ Sensor dust becomes a problem if you are careless about leaving the camera without a lens. Before I take off one lens, I have the other to hand with end cap off, ready to mount. You must switch the camera off too to avoid the charge drawing outside particles to the sensor. In really dusty environments, you can change lenses under a lint-free cloth ; unlike a plastic bag, it doesn’t hold a static charge.”
5. Understand your histogram. “ In a 12 bit camera image, more than half the tonal values that can be recorded are represented in the part of the histogram between pure white and one stop less. What that means is that if you underexpose, the tones in an image have to be represented by many fewer levels and this, especially in shadow areas, affects tonal smoothness and adds noise. So, expose to the right of the histogram as far as you can without clipping important highlight values. Just let specular highlights – such as sparkling water – go. There’s really not much difference between exposing well for high contrast transparency film and a digital sensor.”
6.  Learn strategies to limit problems with contrast. “Banding around a bright point such as the sun in fog can be lessened by using shorter focal length. Some photographers hold back bright skies with graduated ND filters but, if an image is worth working on, I prefer to process the RAW image twice - once to optimise highlights, once to do the same for shadows – then use layer masks in Photoshop to combine the best of each image. Since it is the same image there are no problems with registration which there can be if you shoot two separate exposures. There is no doubt that any time you shoot into the sun there will be problems with contrast but there’s usually a workaround.”
7. Don’t shun the icons. “Some places, particularly here in the US, are very heavily photographed and you might think ‘it’s all been done before’. And while some, like Teardrop Arch, offer very few alternative compositions others, such as Monument Valley and Half Dome in Yosemite, are so grand that there are many options. And of course, the interplay of clouds and sun adds to the intrigue.”
8.  Realise that you can’t force a situation. “Sometimes the light just isn’t going to do what you want, no matter how long you wait or how great the location. Move on. The expectations of a place often come from photographs that have resulted from many, many visits – and we can’t realistically expect to nail the image first time. Previsualising your shot can be valuable but don’t be so focused that your mind is closed to other opportunities around you.”
9.  Think about the possibility of including people in your composition. ” Clearly, my wilderness sports work features people in some pretty wild regions. Indeed, part of the appeal of doing it is that I go into places that have rarely, if ever, been visited and I actually feel that including a person in these landscapes makes a more powerful statement. The landscape is always the star though; the people are simply part of it.”
10.  Digital capture has opened many doors to landscape photographers. Go through some. “ Digital capture, with the possibility of expanding the dynamic range to 6 or more stops, is making me re-evaluate the way I look at light and the sort of contrast I can shoot. There is much more control now. The files I get out of the Canon EOS 1 Ds MKII, when processed, can produce very fine prints, comparing well with larger format film cameras . The way I build up to a picture is also changing. In the past I might go through a number of sheets of film and Polaroids as I worked round the subject to find the best image. Now I can do that on the camera’s LCD screen. It saves me working a situation without real potential.”
Charlie Waite: Discomfort in the comfort zone
Though much emulated, Charlie Waite’s style remains one of the most enduring and recognisable amongst British landscape photographers. His passion for image making is matched by his eagerness to share his experience and vision with others. He does this through countless articles, a shelf-full of books and his company, Light and Land, the UK market leaders in the provision of quality photographic holidays. “I’ve been a photographer for a long time now but have never felt I can sit back and relax; creativity doesn’t thrive in the comfort zone.” While Charlie feels most at home with film cameras his prints, which are widely collected, are made digitally.
1. Keep challenging yourself. “Above all else, try to remain fresh; avoid the ruts. It’s very easy, once you’ve found something that works to repeat it to death but you’ll never access the real depth of your creativity working this way. This is one of the driving forces in my own work – I don’t want to become formulaic. You don’t necessarily need the stimulus of a new place to access these reserves just a willingness every time you go out to try something you’ve not done before. Digital capture makes this a more economic possibility.”
2. Think in three dimensions. “ For me, the creation of depth in my photographs is essential – I want to help the viewer forget that he or she is looking at a two dimensional object. One of the most effective ways to do this is by using the play of light and shadow as clouds move across a sunlit landscape. And few of us can resist those glorious dark skies where the foreground subject is lit. This is most dramatic when the sun appears in the gap between the horizon and cloud base at dawn or dusk.”
3. Get out when the seasons are changing. “ The end of summer, when leaves are dark, the roads are dusty and there is not yet a hint of autumn colour is my least favourite time of year. I do love the sense of renewal that spring brings – the transitions between the seasons are perhaps the most interesting times of year .”
4. Consider working with other photographers. “I’m not territorial and I enjoy the camaraderie that’s engendered by sharing experiences. Having another photographer along can also help to keep you going when it’s tempting to turn for home. On the downside, the creation of new work is often a bit of private battle with the light and the elements so in new places it is sometime better to have no distractions.”
5. Pack as light as you can for air travel. “Airlines are getting more awkward about carryon luggage and sometimes some mild subterfuge is called for. I often wear an empty photographer’s waistcoat which I can pack most of my equipment (except the tripod) into should the check-in staff get sticky about my backpack being overweight. If I can, I avoid check-in desks with trainees on them as their supervisors tend to feel obliged to set a good example and not show any discretion when it comes to photographers’ bags. I know one photographer who dresses all in black and uses the LowePro Street and Field system to carry most of his gear, except long lenses, on to the aircraft. These go in a compact-looking rucksack. Dressing in black helps to disguise the belt and its weighty contents. A carbon fibre tripod cuts down on weight a little but isn’t cheap.”
6. Spread those tripod legs wide.” Several times in my career I’ve witnessed the distressing sight of tripods being blown over, with a camera (usually a Leica…) on top. This can be avoided simply by splaying them wider. I try never to extend the central column – the tripod becomes a monopod with legs if you do. If it’s a little blowy, I’ll hang a weight (a camera bag on a bungee cord works well) from the hook on the bottom of the central column.
7. Enjoy your successes, today. “If I have one regret in my career, it is that I lacked the experience when I started that I have now. That’s inevitable, of course, but sometimes we don’t get a chance to revisit a place and the work we did there years ago with the knowledge, materials and equipment we had then, stands as our statement about that place ever after. To put it another way, if we don’t enjoy the best work we do today, we may never do so.”
8. Choose your printing paper according to your subject. “ All my prints are made with the Epson 7600 inkjet printer and I use a textured art paper. A glossy finish may give slightly more depth of colour, but I feel that this surface is better suited to the sedate landscape I tend to photograph. I don’t try to make the prints – up to a metre square – look like paintings but that is sometimes the result I get with this material.”
9. Don’t try to anticipate the popular image: please yourself. “Of course, everyone wants all their prints in an exhibition to be sold but often the ones that the photographer is most attached to are the ones that don’t sell as they are too personal. It’s very hard to second guess the buying public but in the US, at least, bigger is better and I’ve exhibited in spaces where my one metre square prints are amongst the smallest on display. I have a feeling too that even quite a poor photograph is taken more seriously when it is printed large enough. I have actually had one of my photographs illegally copied by a painter and sold as an original work in a Lake District gallery. I’m not sure if that makes my photography ‘art’…”
10. Join a photo workshop or tour. “And as it happens… But really, I think there is a lot to be said for the concept of a holiday based round photography, especially if you don’t have time to do the spadework yourself in respect of finding locations and organising logistics. Believe me, there are no anoraks come on these tours and the whole experience of sharing photographic moments with like-minded strangers is very enjoyable. Given a leader who is generous in sharing his or her knowledge with guests and guests who understand that the leader can’t really control the weather, it’s a formula (something I usually try to avoid) for a super holiday.’
Michael Frye. The art of darkness
Michael began his career as a wildlife photographer but after a spell working in the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite began to gravitate towards landscape. Not satisfied to photograph the icons of the American west in the same way as everyone else, he began to experiment by lighting them at dusk or after dark with mixed lighting sources. Learning as he went along, he gradually refined his technique to produce a body of work which shows familiar locations and subjects as they have never been seen before. “I’m persistent rather than patient, “ he comments, “ but if I’ve seen the potential for a great image, I’ll stick with it until I’m done.”
1. Think outside the box. “I believe that, with the right creative mindset, great photos can be found anywhere. Trouble is, it’s easier to take the five mile hike to photograph a sandstone arch at dawn than to think of new ways to photograph things in your own back yard. Make that a leap of imagination first, figure out, technically, how to do it, then persist until you are satisfied. This way, your pictures will stand out from the majority. Working in the landscape at night is a little challenging in respect of finding your way around – it is a different sort of extreme condition – but if you’ve checked out the route in daylight and have a powerful torch, it’s probably a lot less risky than being in a big city after dark.”
2.  Identify the best sites in your areas. “I’ve never been one for waiting days in one place for the light to come good. It’s generally more productive for me to have some good locations near home that I can get to quickly when the weather looks promising. It’s also much easier to keep returning to them until I have the shot I want. Learn about local weather patterns – just like wildlife photography, there is no substitute for knowing the subject thoroughly.
3.  Set yourself a project. ”On a day to day basis, I feel much more motivated when I have a focus to my work, be it an assignment or a personal project. What is more interesting, I think, is the process of remaining creatively stimulated over time. All of us hit a dry patch now and again and I think the best way to deal with it is simply to go and shoot something you’ve not done before or to use a completely different technique. Digital capture makes this economical and speeds the learning process.”
4.  Beware of the limitations of digital cameras. “When the Canon EOS 1Ds MKII was released I felt that finally, I was able to make prints that were at least as sharp and smooth as those from my medium format film cameras. But night photography makes special demands and in any exposures longer than a minute, noise is going to be an issue. Nevertheless, you can still do a lot of worthwhile work at dusk, mixing twilight with flash, where exposures are less than a minute. Beware too that while digital cameras can be fantastic at resolving edge detail, they are not quite so good at handling textured areas with subtle tonal gradations.”
5.  If you want to shoot a person in the landscape, makes sure they “fit” the scene. ”One of the reasons I rarely include a figure in the composition is that is is hard to get them to “fit” – to look as if they belong. Too often the person can look superimposed on the landscape. I’ve never tried putting a person into one of my nocturnal scenes, because that might destroy the otherworldly feeling I’m trying to create.”
6.  Trying shooting after sunset. “This is an area of landscape photography that is still largely unexplored, not least because its technically difficult. You can make nighttime images with just moonlight or starlight, but I think it’s more interesting to balance that ambient light with flash or torchlight. I prefer flash because it gives me more control: the brief pulse of the flash combined with a short shutter speed can render the background completely black, or I can leave the shutter open longer to record more ambient light. I often place one flash in several different spots, with different coloured gels, to create a multicolored scene. Rather than leave the shutter open the whole time, I’ll lock the camera on a tripod and make a series of exposures. I used to do this all on one piece of film, but with digital capture I just layer each exposure together in Photoshop. With star trails, I’ll make an exposure, or series of exposures, to illuminate the foreground, then open the shutter one more time for the stars. F5.6 with ISO 100 works well on a moonless night; the shutter needs to stay open for at least an hour to get long enough streaks, or ‘trails.’ While digital capture allows instant review, that doesn’t really work with star trails – an hour isn’t exactly instant!”
7. Get yourself a powerful flash. “For this type of work, I favour an old Norman 400 B flash. This is comprised of a powerful battery pack with a separate flash head that can be used as a barebulb or with a reflector. Although it is entirely manual, a flash meter or histogram review will let you figure out a correct exposure quite easily. I’d also recommend a good head torch for finding your way around.”
8.  Use your digital camera to see what you can’t. “I think that the ability to review images on the spot is invaluable, especially when it comes to things, such as motion blurs, that are difficult to visualise. A friend and I approached the same scene along the Merced River near Yosemite, where I live. My friend passed up one composition because he thought an essential element – a shrub – would blend into the background water. With digital capture I was able to see that water would blur enough to allow the shrub to stand out clearly.”
9.  Use the review screen as compositional aid. “If a picture doesn’t look good on that small screen, it’s not going to work big either. Getting that instant feedback allows me to change the composition on the spot – while I can still do something about it.”
* [inserted by Niall to fill up section] 10. Learn to look for designs in a landscape. “Every photograph is a collection of lines, shapes, and colours. I care less about the subject than about finding abstract designs and interesting colours. I often look for a colourful subject and then try to build a composition around it.”
Joe Cornish. Method and magic
Looking at his output of books and prints, it is easy to assume that Joe Cornish is one of those lucky people for whom great lighting and compelling compositions just seem to appear. The reality is more prosaic – and reassuring; his pictures are the result of a consistent vision, highly refined technique and a determination to make the very best out of any photographic situation that presents itself. Alongside the many photographers who bemoan the number of files they have to edit and process, Joe’s more restrained approach contrasts sharply, “If I can make a dozen – in my opinion – outstanding pictures a year, I think I’m doing very well, “ he reflects.
1. Find a location that inspires you to do your best work. “If forced to choose a favourite place, it would probably be Zion National Park in Utah. There the Virgin River carves the Colorado Plateau’s most colourful sandstone into extraordinary forms. Places like this really drive you to produce your best work in order to do them justice – I’ve been six or seven times now and still I don’t feel that I’ve got to the heart of it yet.”
2. Be prepared to hike to find the best images. “While there are many fine pictures to be taken from the roadside, the chances are that many other people have been there before you. In the mountains you may have to camp overnight to catch the dawn light and that’s quite hard work if you’ve got 20 kg of camera gear, and heavy tripod and camping equipment. It’s not so much how far you have to walk – the march to the Subway in Zion is about 5 miles each way – but how high you have to climb; the walk up to the Glydderau ridge in Snowdonia is actually much harder, with a lot of technical scrambling and about 750 metres of ascent. I love the physical aspect of my work – it all contributes to making the moment memorable.”
3. Set your alarm clock for an early start. “In the Shetlands I have risen at 2.30 or 3 am to get to a location for dawn. If you work from a camper van, you may already be on site, which makes things simpler. I don’t find the getting up so hard, just so long as I know I can get a sleep later in the day.
4.  Learn a little environmental science. “With a basic knowledge of how weather works and lunar cycles affect tidal ranges, it is possible to anticipate unusual conditions. If, for example spring tides (when there is the greatest difference in height between high and low tide) coincide with a high pressure system, the sea retreats even further, revealing a landscape that is normally underwater. Similarly, understanding the conditions that bring about fog or cause temperature inversions can help you to be at the right place when these conditions arise.”
5.  Be true to your own style. “ Many photographers have inspired me, including Ansel Adams, Michael Fatali, Jack Dykinga and Peter Dombrovskis but the one thing I have learned from each of them is that trying to copy someone else is disastrous. Style is something that is within us all and just needs time (and some self-confidence) to emerge. Photographs should be as individual as the people who create them. It is a good exercise regularly to examine your own work, to look for what you like in it and what particularly works for you. This is a vital part of bringing out your own style.”
6.  Study the work of landscape painters. “Once again, it is a mistake simply to copy someone else’s way of seeing the world. But there is a lot to be learned from different schools of landscape painting- my ideas about composition, light, atmosphere and colour have been informed by artists such as Constable, Turner, Cuyp and van Ruisdale.”
7.  Experiment with long shutter speeds. “While digital capture may introduce noise at long exposures, it doesn’t suffer the colour shifts and reciprocity failure which has always hounded film photographers. You may want to use a long shutter speed to give a sense of movement in flowing water. There is no hard and fast rule here but ideally, I like to retain some shape while conveying some movement. Often though , the need for a small aperture for best depth of field overrides my choice of ideal shutter speed.”
8.  Save time by using a graduated ND filter. “I use a complete set of Lee graduated ND filters which allow me to even out the contrast between foreground and sky. Many photographers, of course, achieve a similar effect afterwards in Photoshop, but I prefer to perfect the image in-camera as much as possible before exposure. If you shoot digitally, there is no longer a need to use colour balancing filters; this can all be achieved in the RAW converter.”
9. Stay comfortable so that you can stay out for longer. “Wearing the right kind of technical clothing is really important if you want to work in extreme conditions. Don’t wear cotton next to your skin in cold weather; it holds moisture and can lead to chilling – I caught pneumonia once this way. Polypropylene is much better; wicks perspiration away to the outer layers and helps to avoid chilling. I never wear denim jeans at any time of year – they are a disaster when they get wet. Although it might not seem wildly technical, I am a big fan of proper rubber or neoprene wellies (e.g., Le Chameau and Hunter) since I spend a lot of time hanging around on beaches and lake edges. Dry, warm feet make the wait more pleasant.”
10. Stop down the lens to see how a scene will be recorded. “The range of contrast our eyes can perceive is far wider than any capture medium so far invented. If you squint or look through the camera with the aperture stopped down, you’ll get a better idea of what will be recorded and what will disappear into shadow areas. “
About 12 years ago, Norwegian photographer Pål Hermansen decided he’d had enough of the classic wildlife and landscape photography on which he’d built his reputation and began to explore alternative photographic approaches to familiar subjects. Since then, and now with a fine art training broadening his source of visual references, he has evolved into one of the most avant-garde outdoor photographers in Europe, inspiring, infuriating and amusing the viewers of his pictures in equal measure. By setting the new bench mark so far out from “normal” nature and landscape photography, he has made it easier for others who want to move away from prescribed modes of expression, to do so. Pål’s intention, above all, is to inject emotion into his pictures, “If the image has a good form – it can be in total balance or totally out of balance – it will speak its own language, have more personality.”
1. Know your intention before setting off on a trip. “If the object is to photograph well known locations or landmarks or a particular species, such as a stock photographer might, then detailed planning is essential. If, on the other hand, your approach is more that of the fine art photographer and the images are about your response to that place – as much of my Arctic work is – then getting in the right creative mindset is more important than a list of priority subjects.”
2. Think about the concept of form when approaching your subject. “The British art critic, Clive Bell, wrote in 1914 that ‘Art is significant form’. This is defined as a combination of lines, shapes and colours which have certain relationships to each other and in these particular combinations, have the power to stimulate an ‘aesthetic emotion in sensitive viewers’. In other words, rather than thinking what is the right way to photograph a subject, think instead about how you can photograph it to trigger this spark of emotion in the viewer.”
3. Don’t slavishly follow the rule of thirds. “The concept of form is actually much more useful. The rule of thirds is safe but if you apply it to all your images, their emotional content is the same, regardless of the subject matter, mood or symbolism contained in them. If you can free yourself of rules, you will be able to build up the images in different ways, depending on the message you want to express.”
4. Think about where you place the horizon. “A centrally placed horizon conveys quietness and balance. When it is near the top or the bottom of the frame, more drama is conveyed. The sky, to some extent, sets the emotional tone of the landscape beneath it so let that determine where the horizon is best placed. One third up or one third down is perhaps the most boring, emotionally uncommitted, horizon placement.”
5. Relax: digital isn’t film. “While it is always best to get the exposure right in-camera, if you shoot RAW files, there is a lot more latitude than there was when we used slide film. On one occasion I wasted many sheets of large format film when my hand-held light meter went wrong – this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. The only reason, I think, to use film today is if you want to capture the real black and white infrared feeling. Most digital cameras have built in filters that prevent infrared rays from exposing the chip. But if you have a spare camera, you can remove this filter and experiment with digital infrared photography.”
6. Convert colour images to black and white. “It’s better to take a colour image then convert it in Photoshop rather than making a grey scale image in camera; you have much more data to work with. When is black and white better than colour ? If there are colour elements that disturb the image’s form or when the shapes in the image are more interesting than the colours, then black and white can be preferable. But I don’t like rules so much ! “
7. Learn to meter accurately. “While underexposed RAW files can be salvaged, it’s better to be as close as possible to a correct exposure to minimise the need to correct shadows and create noise. There are various ways to create black and white versions of colour images but the sliders in Photoshop’s Channel Mixer allow you to copy the effect of the yellow, orange and red filters traditionally used in black and white work.”
8. Invest in a good camera pack. “I use a waterproof LowePro rucksack – carrying heavy equipment over one shoulder is really not an option. Since I work with a lot of different formats and in different media at the same time, I just pack what I’m likely to use on a walk out from base; I can’t take everything.”
9. Never underestimate how many cards and batteries you may need in remote places. “I have 6 or 7 rechargeable batteries for my cameras and take up to 10 4 GB cards out with me. I do take a lot of pictures though ! Fortunately, newer digital cameras use much less power than earlier models (but also suffer a shorter battery life when it’s very cold). The weak link in the chain is storage – I use a laptop and portable drives – and unless these can be recharged every few days the only alternative is to bring a lot of extra computer batteries. If I were to go to a remote place for a long period I think I would have to resort to a film camera…”
10. Choose a lesser-known location and make that your own. “I have done a lot of work in the Arctic – not just in the better known parts such as Canada and Svalbard but also in the the Russian High Arctic – including Franz Josef Land. These places are difficult – and expensive – to get to but worth the effort especially since there is the chance to make some really new photography. As global warming advances, places in the Arctic will feature more regularly in the news. You don’t have to go so far though; there are still interesting places areas in eastern and Baltic Europe that haven’t been well photographed.”