by Bob Simpson (One Stop Photo Workshops tutor for the Sunshine Coast)
Are you the kind of landscape photographer who finds a composition and then steadfastly sticks with your choice and waits for the light to do its stuff? Or do you continually move around looking for alternative perspectives on a scene? I’ve seen this issue discussed quite a bit lately on various photography blogs so I thought I’d add my own ten cents worth.
I think it’s fair to say that one of our primary goals as landscape photographers is to capture a view of a scene in a way that resonates with others and hopefully reveals something about the nature of the place we are photographing. Composition plays a key role in achieving this aim….or not! As Ansel Adams put it, “…a good photograph is knowing where to stand…”, and it’s hard to argue with that logic. But how do we decide where to stand and how do we know when we are in the ‘right’ spot?
There aren’t any simple answers to those questions, and for any given scene, there will be many possible answers. It’s a safe bet that if you were to take any two photographers to a new location and ask them to photograph it, they would come up with different results. We all see the world a little differently and that’s a good thing from an artistic perspective – it allows us to develop our own individual styles.
Over the years I’ve observed the different approaches of many photographers when they first front up to photograph a landscape scene. At one end of the spectrum are those who single-mindedly make a bee-line for a particular spot – maybe a flat rock ledge overlooking the ocean or a valley – set up their tripods at a comfortable eye-level and then stick to that spot as though it is the only option that will deliver a result. At the other extreme are those who frantically race around trying to capture the scene from every possible angle and height in the hope that their scatter-gun approach will produce something worthwhile. There is a happy medium lying somewhere between these two extremes and the challenge for the photographer is to decide on the best approach for any given set of circumstances.
Regardless of whether we are photographing a familiar location or a new one, I believe the most productive step we can take on arrival is to put our gear down and spend some time observing what is going on around us. That can mean wandering around the location to get a feel for the landscape elements we have at our disposal – trees, flowers, rocks, water, sky – or just sitting quietly and absorbing our surroundings. It’s about tuning in to nature and it’s something that gets easier with practise – in fact it becomes instinctive the more time we spend in the outdoors.
Chances are, after spending some time getting ‘in the zone’, a number of ideas will have come to mind as to how we could capture the nature of the location in images. There might be one obvious composition that shouts out for attention but there will always be alternatives that show a different side of the location or that will come into play as the light changes. I’ve yet to meet a landscape that could be appropriately or adequately portrayed by a single composition.
There are, however, occasions where there isn’t much choice about where to stand. Some iconic locations have restricted access and the only real option for a photographer is to stand on a viewing platform and capture much the same image as every other photographer that comes along. There’s nothing wrong with chasing these sorts of images but they can limit the capacity to be creative and capture a unique perspective on the scene.
It might be clear by now that I lean towards the ‘wander and create’ approach. Edward Weston summed it up nicely when he said, “…If I wait for something here, I may lose something better over there…”. Unless you are confident that you can walk up to a scene and immediately find the definitive composition (if such a thing exists), then it pays to think laterally and experiment with different options. At the same time, every image we choose to create is worthy of our full attention to detail, and it makes no sense to take shortcuts or rush things just so we can move on to the next image. It takes a little time to carefully consider and frame a composition and to choose appropriate camera and lens settings, but it is time well spent if it means we don’t make silly mistakes.
Perhaps the best bit of advice I’ve heard on how to approach a landscape shoot is to arrive with no preconceptions and let the landscape tell you how it wants to be photographed. It is still worthwhile doing some research on a location beforehand to get an overview of likely conditions and potential photographic options, but many of our best images come from a spontaneous reaction to the conditions at the time – the way the light is shining through the leaves of an overhanging tree, or the colours of sunrise reflecting off wet rocks on a beach. Approach each shoot with an open and eager mind and the world will reveal itself to you.