“In order to obtain pictures by means of the camera it is well to choose your subject, and carefully study the lines and lighting. After having determined upon these, watch and await the moment in which everything is in balance; that is, satisfied your eye. This often means hours of patient waiting. Of course, the result contains an element of chance, as one might have stood there for hours without succeeding in getting the desired pictures.” Alfred Stieglitz – “The Hand Camera” (1897)
This is my most common approach to the art of landscape photography – the studying of subject. I find compositions that I am drawn to and that resonate with me, and then I return to them a number of times during the landscape photographer’s working hours.
- landscape photographer working hours:
•an hour before sunrise to an hour after
•an hour before sunset to an hour after
•during the night
•during banker hours (only while stormy and tempestuous)
With these above working hours, you really don’t have a lot of time to study the subject – in optimal light anyways. Therefore, you’re likely gonna have to return a bunch of times to get something special. Now, if you’re lazy, terribly busy, or otherwise lacking the passion involved to drive dynamic work, you might not like the sound of this. But, if you are driven to get dynamic images, then this is great news! Essentially, once you find a strong composition that resonates with you and you know works, then it’s just a matter of time before you get a successful image. Get your ass back there time after time – sunrise, sunset, full moon, new moon. Wake up early, miss dinner, stay out late. Work the subject. Study the subject. With this style of work, you begin to know the subject. You begin to see how the light falls on the subject at different times, you learn the tidal conditions in relation to the subject, when people frequent the location and how that may or may not affect you, and many other little nuances of the scene. Through learning these nuances of the subject, you form a relationship, and like any relationship, depth begins to form. It’s in this depth that you begin to breathe life into your work, and it is this life that makes the work more dynamic and resonate more strongly with viewers.
“The essential quality of a photograph is the emotional impact that it carries, which is a measure of the author’s success in translating into photographic terms his own emotional response to the subject.” Eliot Porter
This style of work may breathe new life into your photographs. It certainly did for me. While living in La Jolla, California for a several years, I started working this way and my work became much stronger. I wrote about it here, and again here.
While this style of work can obviously help tremendously while photographing at home, I often take the same approach while traveling. Take the images in this post from Bandon, Oregon as example. I was traveling for 23 days through parts of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. I had researched extensively before leaving home and had been very drawn to these sea stacks along the coast Oregon and Washington coasts. I explored online all the images I could find of these many rock formations stretching along the entire west coast, as well as studying these coastline details on Google Maps – an invaluable tool for photographers! The features and shape of this pointy rock in Bandon resonated with me so much and I knew I had to spend some time there exploring it in-person with my camera.
I decided on a place right on the beach, with some of the sea stacks directly out the back door! My stay was 2 nights and 3 days. My first afternoon, I walked the beach until I found the pointy rock that I was drawn to. Sure enough, it was my favorite rock along the beach. Not to say it wasn’t all impressive! Bandon is absolutely stunning and I could certainly stay there for longer than a few days, and I could certainly photograph much of the scenery. But, I wasn’t there for too long and time being limited, I decided to study the subject, and focus my efforts on this particular rock. This would better ensure that I’d get a keeper for my gallery collection of works. So, during the couple sunsets, sunrises, and the one clear night I had, I was out photographing this rock…getting to know her.
You’ll often find that when you approach the work this way, that you end up with a number of dynamic images that you like, making it more challenging to edit the work down to just one or two top images for a collection. This is a good problem! It is much better to have 6 strong images and have trouble narrowing it down to 1 or 2, than trying to pick an image to represent the place that falls short. Besides, you can still use the not-quite-collection-worthy images, I often call them “book shots”. They are good enough for showing in a book, but not quite strong enough to be a part of a limited edition collection. Your gallery collection should be your absolute strongest and tightly edited works.
If you haven’t approached your work this way yet, then I encourage you to do it. Find something near your home that you are drawn to visually, and dedicate a month to it. Go back often in the landscape photographer working hours. Go often! Immerse yourself in the scene. If you get some good shots, don’t stop. Keep going. Go during the different moon phases, sunrise, sunset. Go at least a dozen times in a month, and see what you end up with. Still not satisfied? Then keep going. It’s not meant to be easy! If it were, everybody would have great collections of photographs. It’s a lot of work! Enjoy it. It’s great being outside, in the elements, away from the TV! It’s healthy for the spirit. And, if you still don’t like it, then go do something else – this isn’t for you. This is for the passionate photographers and artists who want to create more dynamic work. This is for you. Embrace the place, form relationships of depth with your subject matter. Love the scene. When you love it, you want to visit it often, and you do so with an open heart. When you approach the work in this way, good things will happen, I promise. You may find that even the “mistakes” are pretty cool…
…and the successful ones – they are gems that stay with you forever.