Opinion: why landscape photography should be more than the photo
In the pursuit of timeless landscape photography, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. That is, to miss the moment for the photo.
Too often, photographers—myself included at times—focus on tiny imperfections in their images, yet miss the grandeur of the scene before their eyes. We can scrutinise over every pixel, while neglecting the people who are there with us sharing in nature’s spectacle. We search and yearn for perfect sunsets, only to set ourselves up to feel dejected when our idealised expectations fail to meet ‘mediocre’ realities.
Yet, over time, we begin to discover that the endearing value of landscape photography lays not in the final image itself, but in everything behind it and beyond it. In the effort—the literal blood, sweat and tears—we exert to capture the image. In the memories forged along the way; memories preserved decades later through the photo. The lasting value lies in the process itself.
In landscape photography, the means do not merely justify the end. The means are a worthwhile end in and of themselves.
Natural beauty, appreciated
The pursuit of capturing stunning landscapes exposes photographers to moments of wonder the majority of the population will never have the privilege of experiencing. It grants us opportunities to witness scenes ignorant observers may dismiss as being ‘photoshopped’. Little do they know, these views do exist beyond the wallpapers of their desktop computers—should they have the curiosity and desire to look for them.
Once bitten by the landscape bug—and for those who have, you know what I mean—the unscratchable itch encourages us to get out there as often as possible. To see the sun rising over Sydney Harbour while the city sleeps. To brave freezing winter nights and gaze up at the tapestry of stars in the Milky Way. To hike through forests—in the rain—to experience the torrential fury of waterfalls at full flow.
It encourages us to see the artistic potential in scenes taken for granted by untrained eyes. To look for alluring elements in seemingly mundane scenes—a fallen tree trunk acting as a leading line or a coastal rock channel aligned to catch the rising sun for a few fleeting weeks each year. To truly appreciate when the sky explodes in colour on sunset, knowing all too well the countless times it doesn’t.
It’s these moments which open our eyes to the wealth of beauty that our natural world has to offer. Moments that leave those who witness them all the richer for it.
Explore with wonder
Not only does the pursuit grant us picturesque scenes to reflect fondly upon, but it also exposes us to an emotion not often felt since childhood: a daring sense of wonder.
When viewing the work of my peers, I’m regularly exposed to fantastical scenes so diffnt from what I know. It leaves me inspired to wander through these foreign lands and see how I might put my own unique spin on capturing them. From the scarred canyons of Iceland to the sandstone monuments carved into the American West—once seen only in Looney Tunes cartoons.
Yet this act of discovery needn’t—and shouldn’t—only apply to grand overseas adventures. It can be found just as easily closer to home too.
There’s a sense of wonder in humbly exploring your local countryside in search for the perfect skeleton of a tree. In researching familiar locations on Google Earth and then driving down ungraded side-roads not knowing what the next bend holds. Or in hiking out under the light of the crescent moon on way to an astrophotography shoot.
Life is full of customs to limit how you behave, to restrict what you can and can’t do. And for good reason. There’d be utter chaos should we wake up wanting to drive on the right-hand side of the road…
But in our approach to photography, and the work we create, we can be our true selves. We can pursue the facets we like best while leaving behind those we don’t.
Two photographers can look at the exact same scene, yet walk away with starkly different images. One may focus on the weathered bark of an old tree and produce an elegant black and white. While another may capture the entire grand scene, opting for an an ethereal Orton Effect in post-processing. Neither method is wrong. Nor is either more correct. Both are merely personal interpretations by the artist.
Dedication to the ongoing pursuit—the capturing, processing and sharing of work—allows us to experiment with new approaches, gear and techniques. It's a humble process of trial and error to see what works for us and what doesn’t. Ultimately, through this continual refinement of our craft we establish a look and feel to our images that becomes uniquely our own.
Succeeding in landscape photography requires a healthy amount of discipline. Discipline to wake at 4am. To drive for an hour out to location. To battle the elements as we set up our gear. To wait and watch the sunrise fizzle out. And to then return home without taking a single decent image.
All to do it again next week, and the week after.
It takes grit to push through the disappointment in failing to capture the ideal image you had envisioned. Grit to push on through the lows, so that when you reach the highs of a great image—and you will—you have the perspective to truly appreciate what you have created.
As landscape photographers, we must push ourselves. To reach beyond the known, safe certainties of our comfort zones. Be it leaving the warmth of our bed on a dark winter’s morning or embarking on an overnight hike through the bush. The pursuit allows us to challenge and exceed what we think we can achieve. We persevere with our craft and come through the other side the better for it.
Not just a solo pursuit
Who said landscape photography was a lonely pursuit?
Social media has changed the game for photographers. Instagram in particular has become the default portfolio of work for many. The platform allows us to not only draw inspiration from the works of others, but to directly engage and communicate with them. To discover new locations and new ways of viewing tried and true ones.
This works both ways, too. When you share your unique take on a location, no doubt it encourages like-minded photographers to get out and discover those locations for themselves. While it’s tempting to view their work as piggybacking off your hard work, it needn’t be a zero sum game. Through open sharing, we can teach and inspire one another to work harder, to create more. And as a profession, we are the better for it.
If you’ve ever struggled with the discipline aspect to landscape photography—I know I have—try to arrange meet-ups on location with like-minded peers in the field. Not only will their attendance commit you to venturing out, but it then becomes a shared learning opportunity for you both. Local Instameets and Facebook groups are great opportunities to better know the photographic community in your area.
But the social component isn’t limited to just other photographers. Consider inviting those closest to you on the next location scout. Or offer to act as tour guide for a friend, introducing them to new locations they never knew existed.
Case in point
Consider this photo above. On a recent trip across The Ditch, we were staying on New Zealand’s east coast. I knew I wanted to capture the Wanaka Tree under the light of dawn, but we were at the end of our travels and the tree was far away on the other side of the island. So, like all mad photographers, I decided to drive four hours through the night to get there in time.
Beside me on the road trip, was my 75 y.o. grandma, a former Kiwi-turned Aussie. The drive through the night proved to be a great opportunity to bond with her—a rarer opportunity with each passing year. As we drove through the towns of her childhood, she told stories of her past growing up in NZ. And likewise, I had time to share with her my current creative pursuits.
However, once we arrived in Wanaka, the clouds had rolled in to block out the rising sun. And so too our chance of capturing the image we had sought.
And in the car we waited, laughing to each other after coming all this way to be met by less than ideal conditions. Yet, after some time, a fleeting gap in the clouds lit up the fresh new growth on the foreshore and on the tree itself. Together, we hurried down to the lake and both snapped a handful of shots before the clouds returned again.
We couldn’t stop pinching ourselves on the drive back for having been so fortunate to have those brief few moments to take the shot. But upon reflection, it wasn’t getting the shot that made it worth it. But rather, the time spent bonding, and the moment shared. While it turned out to be a pretty picture, for me it was an even more memorable moment.
Take a moment for the moment
The classic adage states that it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s of greater importance. And that’s an apt mantra to keep in mind when we go about our landscape photography—both literally and figuratively.
Landscape photography demands much from the photographers who pursue it. It demands we invest our time and our effort into the craft. That we invest without guarantee we’ll walk away with the stunning award-winning image we so dreamed of.
With that in mind, the next time you find yourself on a beach on sunrise or on a hike through the bush, stop. Stop to appreciate the effort you’ve put into preparing for the photo. Stop to take solace in knowing that you’re in the thick of life, immortalising the scene in front of you through your art. Stop, to take a moment to appreciate the moment.
And then take the shot.