A version of this article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Australian Photography Magazine
In this age of digital photography and social media, we’re flooded with stunning imagery of not only far away lands, but also images more close to home which show our local area in a whole new light. When we’re surrounded by postcard-perfect photos, it’s alluring to think there might be a secret to capturing these breathtaking scenes ourselves. Good news, there is.
What’s the secret to taking better landscape photos? It's quite simple, really. All that’s needed is perseverance and grit. While that may seem oversimplified, in essence, it's not.
We don't expect poets to write timeless verses on a whim. Nor do painters produce a masterpiece in a single sitting. Why then should we expect any different for striking landscape images?
From Snapshots to Photographs
Like a lot of people (i.e. non-photographers), my early experiences with photography occurred largely by chance. By fortunately being down by the beach during a colourful sunset. Or seeing a wild kangaroo out on a family hike and quickly taking a shot before it fled off into the bushes.
I'd happen to find myself in a nice location at the right time and capture the scene as best I could.
For many, photography emerges as a secondary activity. One which hitchhikes a ride off other primary activities, such as taking snapshots while on holiday, bringing the camera along on a Sunday drive, or capturing loved ones at a family event.
Self-evidently, for professionals, the opposite is true. Photography itself is the primary activity. While we can’t plan every family holiday around the most photogenic locations, we can block out time each week dedicated to the pursuit of photography itself.
To capture memorable images, we must respect the process and invest the time and effort required to create them.
Making Art Good Art Takes Time
Anyone can make ‘art’. But to produce art with the power to capture our emotions - to truly resonate with the viewer - well, that takes time. It takes a healthy amount of perseverance and grit on behalf of the creator.
As enthusiasts looking to the masters for advice - searching for hidden tricks they know and we don’t - it’s tempting to think the secret to a beautiful landscape photo lies in knowing what gear was used. Or what viewpoint it was taken from. Or what time of day it was shot at.
The truth is, it’s all of these, and yet so much more. It’s years (decades even) of technical expertise. It’s refined intuition to know how to align for the scene’s most appealing composition. It’s returning season after season for the optimal conditions. It’s withstanding howling winds and torrential rain. It’s sacrificing hours of sleep each morning in the hunt for the perfect light.
It's a convenient illusion (and one I myself am not fully immune to) sold to us by modern consumer culture that the better the equipment, the better the work we can create. But it's one easily dispelled. Take any experienced drummer, for example. Hand them an upside down bucket and a pair of chopsticks and I assure you the quality of their music will be magnitudes higher than a first year amateur playing on a top of the line professional drum kit. The same holds true for seasoned photographers.
Yes, the tools of the trade are important to professional landscape photographers. Of course they are, I hear you saying. But they only add a fraction to the quality of the final product. The vast majority comes down to the photographer’s consideration of composition, their technical skills, environmental lighting and the photographic potential of the scene they put themselves in.
The Influence of Social Media
For amateur photographers just starting out (and for those still refining their skill sets, like myself), it's easy to get disheartened when social media bombards us with breathtaking imagery each and every day.
On the positive side, exposure to the seemingly infinite number of perfect photos can inspire us to capture just as beautiful images ourselves. It’s what sends me halfway across the world to explore and photograph new lands so different from my own. It’s what opens my eyes to entire new fields of photography (such as astrophotography and underwater photography), encouraging me to try my hand at them myself.
However, it’s worth noting that photography on social media is heavily influenced by what is known as Survivor Bias. Which is essentially a filter that only allows the best images through, i.e. the survivors. What we don’t see are the thousands of images that didn’t make it. The poorly composed, the blown-out highlights or even the previous outings where the photographer didn’t take a single image. This isn’t inherently bad or manipulative - everyone wants to show their best work - but it does distort our view of the work pros can produce.
While browsing through all the impressive imagery, you can't help but compare your own images to those from the professionals. You can't help but suspect there might be one hack they know and you don't. One secret that lets them capture awe-inspiring landscapes each and every day.
Want to know the secret?
It's dusting yourself off after you fail - and you will - again and again.
Rather than being disheartened from seemingly unsuccessful photo adventures, instead try to relish the pursuit of creation itself. Get out and practice as much as you can. Consider the surrounding scene, consider the various compositions, and build your own skill set. Piece by piece, day by day.
Did a certain photo fail to grab your attention? Did it lack that ‘wow’ factor? Then stop, and take the time to critique your work. What can be learnt from it, and what can you do differently on the next outing? What new techniques and considerations can you apply moving forward?
Was a particular waterfall scene not as picturesque as you anticipated? Perhaps it might be better photographed on a cloudy day with even lighting. Or try returning after heavy rains in the area for stronger water flows. Or view the impact of a polarising filter to reduce glare off wet foliage and rocks.
Experiment to include interest in the foreground, such getting up close to moving water, or framing the scene with an overhanging tree. Or consider revisiting the scene on sunrise, under different lighting conditions.
It's through this process of trial and error you will come to develop your own personal style too - be it dreamy long exposures or vivid sunsets with striking foreground interest. Perseverance through continual refinement of your craft allows you establish a unique look and feel among your images.
Anyone can take a photo of a pretty sunset. But great landscape photography - the kind you'd be proud to hang on your wall - takes time.
Perseverance, First Hand
This photo of the Opera House was years in the making. I knew I wanted to capture the structure side-on, which meant waiting until the sun rose almost due east over the sails. In the winter months, the morning sun was too far north, and too far south in summer.
Also key to this photo - which I pre-visualised in my mind - was a vibrant sky behind, to contrast against the plain white sails.
Daily, over the past three years, I’ve paid close attention to the variations in cloud cover. From dark imposing thunderstorms to wispy dreamlike sunrises, this has allowed me to better (note, not perfectly) predict the type of sunrise each formation produces. I established what was needed for this particular photo - a band of medium/high clouds passing overhead on sunrise out to the east, with no low-lying cloud. These conditions would leave a small gap on the horizon for the rising sun to shine through, illuminating the clouds from below.
And with cloud cover forecasts looking promising the night before, I ventured out to location on four occasions previous to this, hoping for the perfect light. But, it didn’t arrive. In fact on two of those mornings I didn't take a single photo. But I knew what I was after, and examined why the light wasn't right. Either low clouds had rolled in to block the morning light, or the higher clouds had been swept away too quickly overnight.
But then on the fifth occasion, the stars - or rather, the clouds - aligned. I could see the ideal cloud cover on my way out to location, and knew this was the morning I had been waiting for. Behind the striking outline of the sails, the clouds were illuminated in shades of vibrant pink. I was ecstatic with the result.
But it wasn't by luck I captured the image. Nor was it a 7 Landscape Photography Hacks type article that did the trick.
It was years observing and understanding the effect of different cloud conditions. It was countless hours of trial and error in post-processing, discovering how to get the most out of an image. It was getting out of bed in the wee hours of the morning on four previous outings with nothing to show for it.
It was perseverance and grit.
If there’s one message I want to share for aspiring landscape photographers, this is it. Landscape photography takes time. It takes practice and it takes continual refinement. It takes self-critique and it takes grit when things don’t quite go as planned. It takes away sleep, and - at times - it takes away any semblance of a social life.
But it gives us art. It gives us breathtaking art that captures our emotions. Art that encourages us to get outside and experience firsthand the natural beauty and wonder of this world. Art that inspires and art that awes.
And for me, that makes persevering with landscape photography entirely worth it.