Landscape Photography Tips: The quiet landscape

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For many of us, the key to successful landscape photography is to distil a scene into a successful image. We all know that by visiting stu...

For many of us, the key to successful landscape photography is to distil a scene into a successful image. We all know that by visiting stunningly beautiful locations we are not guaranteed great photographs. Indeed, we also know it’s very easy to make a mundane photograph of a stunningly beautiful place and, further, that it is possible to make a great photograph of what might appear to be a rather mundane location.

Part of the problem as I see it, is that we spend a lot of our early years in photography thinking about scenery. We think about photographing mountains, of shooting icebergs and of photographing clouds. Yet, to improve our photography we have to break away from this and learn to abstract what is out there into its fundamental components of form and tone.

Instead of seeing mountains, we need to begin to see triangle shapes. Instead of seeing icebergs, we must learn to see abstract shapes and subtle tonal shifts. Instead of seeing clouds, we should learn to see textural patterns of white against blue. In essence, we have to begin to try to abstract our visual world into what a photograph ultimately is: a collection of shapes and tones. I firmly believe that once we reach this realisation, our photography takes on a whole new direction.

Shapes and Tones

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In the image of mount Þórist índur in the central highlands of Iceland (right) I chose a landscape that is made up of a collection of simple shapes and a few discreet tones. In my mind, the horizon is not a horizon, but is instead a sweeping curve. The boulder patch in the foreground is no longer a boulder patch, but is instead an inverse curve that inversely mirrors the shape of the horizon. The sky and the black desert are no longer sky and desert but instead have become negative spaces that balance each other out and act as a frame within a frame. Even the mountain is no longer a mountain, but a dramatic cone. This is not a photo of scenery; instead it is an abstraction of forms and tonal responses.

Certainly for me, when I have looked back at my earlier images I can see that most of them lacked coherence; they are often overly complex and messy images with little thought given to tone and form.

I think the biggest breakthrough in helping me abst ract scenery down into its tonal and form constituents happened when I first visited the Bolivian Altiplano in 2009. At first glance the landscape here is nothing more than a vast expanse of nothingness. Working with very little, I was forced to see that changes in tone and reductions in texture can often be more than enough in a photograph.

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My image of flamingos in Laguna Colorada (left ) isn’t really a pict ure of fl amingos at all; it’s really a study on gradual shift ing tones and the use of negative space.

Indeed, if you are having difficulty simplifying your imagery I would suggest that you fi nd a landscape that is devoid of subjects. I would encourage you to go and work with a beach that has nothing on it, no rocks, no background mountains, nothing on the horizon. If you have to work with the remaining elements of sand, sea and sky you will be forced to notice that each of these exhibits tonal and form att ributes that are powerful in their own way. It won’t be long before you realise that with just sand and sea alone, things can already get quite involved. Show someone nothing, and they are forced to look for something. Show them a few subject s and they begin to focus more on their att ributes: the sand has soft tonal properties and the sea is texturally rich. Where we once thought of the sky as being blue, we now see gradual tonal changes from the horizon upwards.

Visiting empty places is great training for helping us learn to see gradual shifts in tone and to understand that we don’t really need a lot of material in the picture to make a good photograph. Indeed, the more you work with empty places, the more you will become aware of just how overly complex the average landscape is.

I’m a firm believer that if we meet the right landscape in our own photographic development at the right time, it can help us learn to abst ract what is there and translate it into an effective photograph. That’s certainly what the Bolivian Altiplano taught me. It is a st udy in abst ract form and gradual tonal shifts.

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Building Up and Filtering Down

I have a question for you. Do you filter down (reduce) or build up (introduce) subjects into your compositions? Because I think this is another aspect of working towards quiet scenes in our photography. My suggestion on the previous page was to work with an empty place as a st arting point, because I find that many photographers on my workshops usually start with far too many things going on in landscape. When I’ve asked participants about how they compose their photographs, it’s not unusual to hear that they ‘see everything and have to fi lter down to one or two object s’. For me it is the opposite. I like to go and find a quiet place with few objects in it and introduce subject s as I build up the composition. But where do you st art? Which part of the landscape do you begin with? For me, there has to be a st rong st arting point.

I’m often drawn to one subject because it has elegance to it. So much so that everything else around it disappears. In my photograph of the lone tree in Hokkaido (above), this is exact ly how the image came about.

It would be easy to think that there was nothing else in this landscape except for the tree and the sun. But if we now look at an image of the surrounding scene (right), kindly taken by my guide, you can see that there was a lot of clutter and distraction around my subject.

Can you spot the tree I photographed? If you can, then aren’t you filtering everything else out?

I like to think that if something is worth photographing and is st rong enough as a compositional subject , everything else will disappear. I think this is a combination of visual awareness (to spot something) and the visualisation (to imagine how the final photograph may turn out once other items have been removed or reduced in the composition).

Despite all the clutter and confusion of other trees at the roadside, I could ‘see’ the lone tree sitt ing on its own and I knew there was potential. I also understood that I would have very little else in the frame to draw attention away from it once I got closer. I saw all this from the passenger seat of my guide’s car.

It was only once I was closer to the tree that I began the process of building up the scene, of slowly introducing other elements into the frame. In my final photograph I introduced the sun into the frame as this was more a fortuitous event rather than something I’d noticed in advance.

While I’m on location I like to make several shots of different combinations of subjects. In this instance I made some images with and without the sun. I can never tell at the time of capture whether I may be overcomplicating a scene, so I prefer to choose once I’m home and reviewing the shoot.

So, which way do you tend to visualise your compositions? Do you start with everything and filter it down to a few objects? If you do, then I would suggest going back to that empty place I recommended at the start of this article, and think about working with one isolated rock on the beach; you can try to build from one object upwards, rather then filtering down. Work with one rock before you begin to work with more.

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Negative Tones

A lot of quiet images can be attributable to using a lot of negative space in them, but for the negative space to work we are required to notice that they contain either gradual shifting tones or are related to other negative spaces. For instance, in my photograph of Þórist índur in the central highlands of Iceland I noticed that the negative space in the sky and the negative space of the black desert had a similar tonal resp onse. They were highly related to each other.

Negative space can be used to introduce pleasing tonal changes. Our eye loves to wander over spaces that go from bright to dark, or vice versa. In my second image of Laguna Colorada I think the image works because there is a lot of space in the image for the eye to wander over gradual tonal shifts.

Spot metering to reveal tonal shifts For most of us, we do not see these subtle tonal changes in the landscape at the time of capture. I think this is because we are caught up in thinking about ‘sky’ or ‘ground’ rather than thinking about the tonal attributes they possess. The sky may be a vast palette of soft tonalities and, indeed, the ground may contain subtle shifting tones within it.

This, it turns out, is a limitation of our vision. We make innate decisions about what we are seeing in an inst ant. To truly see what is in front of us requires some effort and I would suggest that the best way to notice and detect if your scene has any gradual tones within it, is to use a spot meter. I’ve found that when I’m at the edge of a lake, although my mind interprets the water as one single tone, when I sp ot meter, it shows me that the water is made up of a constantly shift ing array of tones from dark to bright. Once we become aware there are tonal shift s where we at first did not see them, we begin to notice them from then on.

When I made my photograph of the blue pond at Shirogane in Hokkaido I could see that there were essentially three tones in the image: the frozen blue lake, the dark trees and the grey sky. But I also detected tonal shifts in the trees. Rather than thinking ‘trees’, I saw gradual shifts in tone as the fog made the background trees more diff used (and lighter) than the darker foreground ones.

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When we get down to the core of quiet photographs, they are really lessons in tonal relationships and form. We have to move past thinking of our world as scenery but instead as a collection of tones and shapes. After a while, a mountain is no longer a mountain, but instead it is a graphical form consisting of varying degrees of tonality. Similarly, we begin to see that areas of emptiness actually contain more textural or tonal information than we at first thought.

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I hope that in this article I have given you some food for thought as to what is really at the heart of quiet photographs. I often feel that photography is the process of enquiry to see below the surface of our visual assumptions to what is truly there.

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Photography Workshop: Landscape Photography Tips: The quiet landscape
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