Inspiration & Self-Awareness // [Part 1] Creative COMPOSITION in Landscape Photography
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.” — Don McCullin
How do we compose landscape photographs that are aesthetically interesting and also truly expressive?
Over the next several posts, we'll take a deep dive into the art of composition with the goal of creating more impactful, meaningful and expressive images. I’ll be giving you my best tips for unleashing your creative potential. This topic is close to my heart, because despite several years at this, I routinely struggle with finding a composition that is truly creatively satisfying. I’ve researched, experimented and practiced, and I’ve learned some things that I want to share in hopes that it helps you along your own journey.
Composition, in my opinion, is the most important skill to develop in photography. And unlike weather and natural light, which is ever changing, composition is for the most part under our control. Being deliberate in our compositional choices enables us to not only make visually appealing photos, but also creates the opportunity for us to weave our personalities into our art.
Technique is the how, not the who, what or the why. If you’re here, you love photography, and you probably have spent a lot of your time learning things like leading lines, the "rule" of thirds, etc. We practice and get good at incorporating these into our work. These things are pivotal, and mastering them is one of the joys of many photographers. This series is not a technical how-to guide, as there are many other great resources for that. Too often though, that’s where the conversation starts and stops. What is the point of knowing how to do something if you don't even know what it is that you want to do?
But composition is so much more. I mean, I don’t do this to simply capture beautiful things, I do this as a creative outlet, to seek peace in nature, to lose myself in the moment, and to share a part of my experience through my imagery. And if I can make people feel something in the process then all the better.
When technique alone is driving your choices, it's a good time to stop and reflect. Sometimes when we’re in the field, it can feel like we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, focused all on technique, but with no guiding artistic vision. And despite being surrounded by beautiful or inspiring landscapes, we sometimes come home feeling like we weren't able to capture our impression of the scene. And so in frustration, we may go back and digest more and more technical information; or worse yet, we start comparing our work to others in an unhealthy way.
Tapping Into Your Inner Wisdom
It can be said that there are two primary reasons to make art:
to please ourselves, and
to influence others.
Unfortunately, in our attention economy, it's all too common for photography to become a contest about how many views and likes our images get, and sometimes we can lose touch with our own intuition. And if we only look outside for wisdom and inspiration, we will continue to repeat this pattern; perhaps getting more technically proficient, but never feeling as if we fully expressed ourselves. And that's really the crux of it - technique is reproducible, whereas personal creativity is unique to each one of us. When we listen to our intuition, a whole new world opens up where our creative potential can flourish.
A recent study published in Nature: Human Behaviour, found that viewers are more likely to look first at areas of “meaning,” despite the presence of distracting bright spots and other more prominent parts of a scene. What is an area of meaning, you ask? See more here. I think it is safe to say that it is more than just good technique. The world's most technically correct and sharp image isn't guaranteed to speak to you as the artist or to your viewers.
Examining Our Inspiration
Let's examine a series of questions that will help strengthen our connection to our inner artist. So get out a pen and paper or open your note taking app on your phone or computer and answer the following questions:
- What life experiences and unique point of view do you wish to weave into your art?
- What paintings, movies, styles speak to you the most?
- Fantasy? Sci-fi? Documentary?
- What are your favorite types of landscape images?
- Seascapes, grand vistas, lush forests, arid deserts?
- Small intimate scenes that evoke a sense of grace, calmness, and tenderness?
- Abstract scenes emphasizing texture and imagination?
For me, there is nothing better than wild, remote, dark, atmospheric, mountain scenes.
- Once you have a couple that really stand out, ask yourself, "why?"
Whether I’m hiking, photographing, or just looking on 500px, dramatic, moody mountains make me feel more inspired than anything else.
Ever since I was little, I have loved thunderstorms and situations that involved a sense of danger, because they make me feel alive. I love being “out” in it.
- Now try to narrow down what makes the scenes that speak to you work? What type of mood is present? What type of color or contrast is present? Is there a sense of action and movement?
In analyzing my idols' images, a few themes emerged:
- The style blurs the line between traditional landscape photography and digital art.
- Cloudy, dreamy, dark, moody atmospheric conditions have a visceral quality that creates in me a sense of awe and fear and excitement all at once.
- Many are shot with a telephoto lens.
- The dramatic weather plays a key role in adding depth and interest. It imbues the place with a sense of drama, a feeling of action, the idea that nature itself is making something happen in the place you’re shooting. Take the weather away and the image isn’t as powerful...
- The spectrum of colors are generally limited and the secondary colors are desaturated and subdued.
- Many tend to be very simplified, using atmosphere as a natural frame and vignette in post processing to exaggerate.
Write it out. Do the same with the images that speak to you. Write out the adjectives or themes that repeat throughout. You may see my images and descriptions above and feel completely unmoved, or you may feel a similar affinity to them; and either way that’s okay. By doing this exercise, you will embed in your subconscious a database of what makes you happy so that you can more consciously incorporate those things into your work. You will have a better idea of where to go, and when.
As you work your way through these questions, you'll gain a conscious understanding of your personal preferences toward art, and a greater understanding of how to use the visual format to influence emotional reactivity.
So, to bring my actions more in line with what I’m drawn to most, I know that I need try to get out in bad weather, to seek out cloudy skies, brave the wind, cold and rain, and shoot on the days when I’d normally stay in.
"The term visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such it is one of the most important concepts in photography." — Ansel Adams
Now, of course, this is nature photography we are talking about, which is in part exciting because of the inherent unpredictability, but a little pre-visualizing goes a long way in helping us move towards our creative intentions.
Especially as we are shaping the image in post processing, having a vision in mind gives us a reference for what we felt and what we wish for our viewers to feel, and can help us stay true to ourselves and avoid getting lost in processing for processing's sake.
Simple questions like those above can help us in choosing not only the locations we might go shoot, but also what gear to bring, as well as consideration for what type of light might work best.
Action gets the creative juices flowing. Practice, practice, practice! Sometimes, inspiration and passion come from doing, so get out and shoot whenever you can. Just like any sport, you get better the more you play. Even if you don't have your DSLR or mirrorless camera on you, if you see a scene that speaks to you, pull out your phone and take the time to compose the image more carefully than your normal iPhone snapshot. The more you photograph, the more you realize what you like to photograph and the best ways to go about doing so. And with a little direction and vision in mind, you're practice will go even further.
So that’s it for today. Getting in tune with what we really love is the first step towards unlocking our creative potential. In the next post, we’ll look at some of the compositional challenges to communicating our message and learn to understand and overcome these limitations.
If you like what you’ve heard so far, please subscribe and share this with your friends. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again soon.