Landscape photography is more than just taking pictures of a beautiful natural scene. It involves expressing your own feelings about what you see before you by using your choices in both light and space as your medium of expression.
In landscape photography we are essentially interpreting the power and beauty and meaning of nature in order to evoke thought and emotion from those who will view the image.
I am not primarily a landscape photographer. My roots are journalistic. People, and the work of people, hold the most fascination for me as an expressive photographer. However as humans, we live in the natural world. And expressive landscape photographs can help us to better understand, appreciate, and preserve that world we all must share. So there is very much a human story rooted in landscape photography after all.
In 2002, I participated in a three-week nature photography workshop in the Bering Sea with Galen Rowell, who along with Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, is generally considered to be among the most significant landscape photographers of the 20th Century. Tragically, it would be Galen’s last workshop. He died in a plane crash on the way home.
Galen played a major role in opening my eyes to the expressive power of landscape photography. I will never forget him telling us that landscapes are not objects to be photographed. To photograph landscapes, he said, is to photograph light, and the effect of light, itself. Galen explained to us how twice each day, the cool, blue light of night interacts with the warm tones of day. What makes this so special, he told us, is that this mixing of tones is never the same. They mix in endless combinations, he said. I remember so vividly his wonderful metaphor. “It is as if someone in the sky was shaking a kaeleidoscope.” This effect, Galen told us, takes place not directly where the sun rises or sets, but where the sun’s rays beam warm direct light onto parts of land and sky that are also lit by the cool, reflected light of evening.
He also showed us how important the location of the landscape itself can be. Where the ocean meets the land, where the meadow meets the forest, where the timberline reaches for the heights. He always looked for what he called these “edges” – where such geographical edges as these combine with visual edges created by light itself.
Some may believe that landscapes are “easier” to photograph than people because they “don’t move.” How wrong they are. If, as Galen suggests, the subject of a landscape photograph is actually light itself, and if the features of land then become our context, our subject is always in motion – an ever-changing, elusive prey. Light changes from second to second, and minute to minute, as the sun and clouds and the earth itself move.
Adams and Weston were black and white landscape photographers. They interpreted the majesty and beauty of nature by weaving a range of tonalities into their prints that both abstracted and expressed meaning. Galen Rowell was a color landscape photographer. For him, and for myself as well, color adds a layer of meaning to the light itself, and must also be considered as a critical element of expression in landscape photography.
And finally there is composition – critical in drawing the eye through a landscape, providing scale, dimension, and the illusion of depth, as well as the other choices we must make in terms of space, including frame and vantage point.
As always, I invite your comments, questions and criticism, and will respond to all of them.
See Phil Douglis’ pBase Gallery 18: Light and Landscape – combining personal vision with nature’s gifts