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Monday, August 1, 2005

Stretching The Landscape

Where is landscape photography going today? How might we as photographers find new inspiration and approaches to this classic subject?

Sheppard: I think it's interesting to look at the history of photography and note that a lot of creative experimenting occurred early on simply because when photography was new, photographers had to be creative to overcome some of its limitations. Gustave Le Gray, for example, made a well-known photograph of a seascape with a ship leaving port in 1857 by making two exposures, one for the sea and one for the sky, and combined them in the darkroom—a very creative approach to the limitations of the medium at the time, which we take for granted today. Multiple exposures became common, and even William Henry Fox Talbot tried multi-shot panoramas as early as the mid-1840s.

Yet that also points to a very real limitation photographers had for a long time. Learning this craft used to be hard. Being a photographer 100 years ago took a lot of effort to master everything from exposure to printing, so only a few photographers could conquer that playing field at the highest levels. That's no longer true. Automatic focus, auto-exposure and so much more cut out that learning curve so anyone can get technically good photos.

Sheppard: In a way, that's a problem. Equipment today is so excellent that it's easy to get a good picture. Perhaps there's less incentive to take the extra step to get a better photo. It's easy to get a photo that looks a lot like something the traditional masters did.

It comes down to how can we see the world differently. This isn't simply an exercise in creativity, but really about changing the way we think about ourselves, in growing as a photographer and an individual. You might compare the automation in cameras today to cars and look at a stick shift versus automatic transmission. The automatic makes a lot of things easier about driving, but it can't find a destination for you. You have to decide what you want and where you want to go. The same, old boring destination is easy. You don't have to think about that. But to find a new place to go with your car has nothing to do with automatic or stick transmissions and everything to do with yourself.

Let's get a little more specific. You've been experimenting with a number of things, including coloring black-and-white infrared images, something not in the usual repertoire of a nature photographer. I have a feeling that if many photographers tried this, it would be being different for different's sake, which wouldn't have so much to do with the photographer's "self."

Jones: Absolutely true. But sometimes we don't have the answer as to what will break open our creativity. Sometimes we have to push it, including using new techniques you've never tried before just for their own sake. Sometimes when we do that, we start to see the landscape in a different way, even if at first it's just for oneself. When I first started my infrared work, my watercolor effects, it wasn't all good. Some of it was pretty bad. But it made me look at the world differently.

This is what has excited me about many of the new techniques I've experimented with, making me see nature and the landscape in a new way. You start with something that isn't necessarily what you even like, but the process can transform you and your experience.

I've found Photoshop to be like that as well. It can allow you to evolve what you see in a photograph. You don't have to stop the creative juices when you finish pushing the shutter button. Photoshop is more than a digital darkroom.


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