Lessons for Life: The philosophy of landscape photography
The essence of landscape photography isn’t perfect sunrises. It isn’t advanced techniques or the latest gear. It’s not even grand locations.
Instead, landscape photography is a lens through which to view the world – both literally and figuratively.
As much as anything it is a mindset through which you can weather challenges, expand your creative vision, and appreciate moments other people may consider mundane or imperfect.
And, as you improve your landscape portfolio, you may just find you improve your approach to everyday life as well. Here’s how.
Navigating the ups and downs
Shit, as they say, happens. Thick clouds. Closed roads. Snoozed alarms. Rogue waves. Full SD cards. Depleted batteries.
In an ideal world, these wouldn't happen – certainly not to you or me. But in the seven years I’ve been refining my craft, the most important traits I’ve sought to develop aren’t technical or creative, but those of acceptance and perseverance.
2020 was particularly turbulent for many of us. While those I know were fortunate to keep their health, at times I found the Melbourne lockdown particularly challenging. As a landscape photographer, I’m used to chasing the weather and venturing out on a whim in pursuit of ‘getting the shot’. Yet through the lockdown I soon came to accept the limitations of the situation. The five-kilometre travel radius was far from ideal, but hey, it was what it was.
Instead of being consumed by frustration I, like many other photographers in similar situations, began to use the time to comb through my back catalogue and remaster older images. I took time to evaluate and refine my post-processing and researched new locations to explore when the time was right. These were the things I could have some influence over, so that’s where I invested my efforts and creativity.
How might you navigate similar challenges? Take time and pause to regather your thoughts – whether that be for a moment after your sunrise shoot is clouded-in, or for longer periods after larger setbacks. Then, after the acute disappointment has subsided, consider and explore what other creative avenues are still available.
Yes, particular misfortunes are disheartening, but they don’t need to be all-consuming. Pack the wrong lens on a trip? Take it as an opportunity see the sights from a perspective you hadn’t considered before.
The sheer volume of unknown and unpredictable elements in landscape photography makes resilience a particularly useful asset. If you can learn to focus on the things you can control, and accept the things you can’t, you will be a better landscape photographer.
I don’t think it’s drawing too long a bow to argue that if you can apply that skill more widely, it will make you a better person too.
Expectations create limitations
I used to fixate on burning sunrises and sunsets. Almost obsessively, I would track the clouds each day, searching for the signs of a promising explosion of colour.
While every month or two the heavens would align just right, more often the sky either fizzled out or failed to produce the colour I had hoped for.
Too often I would wait for the grand waterfall in full flow or the height of the tide to be just right. Often, I would (and still do) idealise the ‘perfect scene’ in my mind, only to be disappointed when reality didn’t quite meet that expectation. If only there was more cloud in the sky. If only the swell was larger to crash against the rocks.
Chasing idealised visions of a scene, I’d either a) go out anticipating perfect conditions, only to be disheartened when it didn’t materialise, or b) I wouldn’t go out at all if there weren’t signs of a banger on the way. I’m not sure which was worse. Both mindsets have been harmful to my development as a photographer, hampering my creativity and expression.
When we don’t go out, when we don’t share, when we don’t take the shot, we deprive ourselves of valuable learning experiences. How can we improve without feedback to inform whether our image was better or worse, or if a new technique or composition worked well? Side note, when seeking feedback, consider widening the scope of voices inputting on your work.
Social media followers, while encouraging, can become an echo-chamber of ‘banger shot’, or ‘epic light’ type feedback. While uncomfortable, it might be more productive to share your work with local photography groups or actively asking your peers how they might have captured or processed the scene differently.
The approach I’ve found to help escape being disheartened by imperfection is to stop viewing photography as a zero-sum game. Rather than view our images as either perfect or not good enough, embrace opportunities to create something simply for the fun of it. It might work, it might not. But give yourself the freedom to fail from time to time—not every scene will be a banger.
By limiting our time in the field to ‘great light’, you limit your opportunities. Opportunities to be more versatile. Opportunities to gain new experiences. Opportunities to expand, refine, and execute your photographic vision.
Early in my photography journey, I’d stumble on a glorious sunset or a sweeping lookout view. Look at the majesty of nature! The colours, the light, the formations. So, what did I do? I’d capture the entire scene.
Yet on reflection, these images often lacked a compelling foreground to help ground the scene. Or they might show so much that they failed to tell a single coherent story. When it comes to landscape photography, you can have too much of a good thing.
Arriving at a location with great light can be overwhelming. It’s fleeting, and so it’s easy to rush and settle for a wide, open composition. So, when there’s an epic sunset on the cards, capture it! Get the obvious shot, but only spend five minutes on that. But then explore the scene further. Perhaps there are striking reflections on the slick rocks, or the light’s isolating a particular tree within the grand forest. Might these details be strong enough to carry the image on their own?
Anyone can capture and appreciate a picture-perfect sunset. The light, the colour, the cloud formations. These are moments of pure awe for all who experience them. But as photographers, we can go further. We can, and ought to, look for the finer features.
As storytellers, it’s up to us to look for those compelling elements in an environment that hold up on their own, that support and enhance the broader landscape. If golden light reflecting in a river’s ripples catches your eye, photograph it. If a lone, gnarled tree branch captures the essence of the surrounding forest, bring out the telephoto lens and isolate it by itself.
Make time and train your eye to appreciate the details others would overlook.
Broaden your horizons
I grew up on the South Coast of NSW and honed my photography in early morning seascapes. I soon learned how to read the clouds and forecast the tide and swell to capture the coast at its most photogenic. It’s easy to fall into a groove of what we know—it’s comfortable.
This comfort zone will be unique for each of us, whether that be rainforests, long exposures, or astrophotography. But familiarity, while easy, can lead to complacency. If all you’ve shot is seascapes, then your first visit to the alpine peaks of New Zealand may be challenging.
To strengthen our compositions and prepare ourselves for new environments, I encourage you to embrace unfamiliar conditions as opportunities to grow and refine your approach.
Personally, I’ve challenged myself to explore more of the Australian Bush. I’d previously avoided photographing our forests as I thought they were too messy and chaotic. Yet our forests are unique in their wildness – and there’s value in that. I’ve found that branches and ferns can serve as windows of beauty and order in the harshness of the bush.
Consider challenging yourself to head out during less-than-ideal conditions. When time allows, explore landscapes in the middle of the day, after (or for those more adventurous, during) rain, or even under moonlight. Without a colourful sky acting as a crutch to make the scene interesting, how else might you compose it to make it compelling?
For seascapes, try shooting handheld and getting closer to the action. For forest scenes, consider shooting with a telephoto lens to focus in on the subject and exclude secondary distractions. When all else fails, shoot abstract – capture intimate details in the water, stone and bark that home in on key elements of the landscape.
Time to develop
Like learning astrophotography or reading the clouds, there isn’t one secret trick (contrary to the clickbait articles) that will help you take amazing photos. It can be a struggle some days and often there are setbacks. I know I’m still refining my approach to photography (and life) each day. But photography does offer us the perspective to traverse the ups and downs while appreciating the smaller moments of beauty along the way.
This article shouldn’t be taken as a prescriptive guide. Each of us has to find our own unique way of experiencing and capturing the world. That’s one of the reasons so many landscape photographers are passionate about their craft. It’s a medium for personal expression.
When I started writing this, I didn’t plan to be so introspective. I’m not an overtly philosophical person. But, if I think about my development as a landscape photographer I can’t help but reflect on my personal development as well. The two have grown in parallel and I’m sure I’m not the only photographer to have experienced a similar progression. ❂