What are the essential ingredients for a great landscape photograph? While in the process of developing an online landscape course, I’ve been asking myself this question in order to help photographers improve their work. There’s an obvious list of elements that make up any strong photograph:
- A fine quality of light;
- Interesting and dynamic image design;
- Emotional content that engages the viewer.
All of these factors serve to illuminate the subject and clarify the photographer’s intentions.
Light is the defining ingredient in most great images. Dramatic lighting conditions, such as rainbows or sunbeams through clouds, add excitement to an image. The soft light on a rainy day can emphasize every detail and the saturated colors of the scene. I often see photographs from students, taken in beautiful places, which were made in ordinary light. Once a strong composition has been found, the light must make it sing. This is where waiting, returning, anticipating and planning become skills as important as making the exposure.
Composition is the foundation upon which the photographer defines what the viewer perceives. Image design can be strongly graphic, simple or complex, but ultimately it should lead the viewer toward an understanding or an inspiration, or even to ask a question. Good composition requires the photographer to consider the balance of lines, shapes and forms, the proportions and scales of objects, and most importantly, what is included within the frame and what is not. Including just enough information in the frame, without creating confusion or distraction, is a vital skill to develop.
Adding emotion and passion to our work is the final and essential ingredient for a strong photograph and the most difficult to achieve. Even given a convergence of great light and excellent composition, creating a photograph in which all the important factors come together is rare. Ansel Adams used to say that a photographer was very successful if he or she made about 10 excellent images in one year. Yet if we continue to cultivate the understanding of our favorite subjects, and immerse ourselves in the places that inspire us, our best work will follow.
While teaching an online portfolio course over the last few years, my central question for my students has been: What do you want to say with your photographs? No matter what the subject matter or the quality level of the work, many photographers neglect to think about the overriding themes that motivate them to photograph. Your ideas about your work are both important guides for monitoring your own development as an artist and for viewers of your work. A simple title for a slideshow or a gallery exhibit can clarify for others what you want to say. If you stop and think about photographers whose images you admire, you’ll probably find it easy to recall what message their images convey to you.
For example, I have an overriding theme I call Landscapes of the Spirit. I used this phrase as the title for a book of my favorite landscape images, and I continue to add work to the theme. The image here, taken in Hawaii, fits well into that theme. The light was remarkable and was the reddest sunrise I’ve ever seen. In fact, I dialed back the color saturation because it was so overwhelming. I feel that the composition is well-balanced and elegantly simple.
As for the emotional content, I can only speak for myself. The image reconnects me strongly with the experience of standing in the surf, watching the early-dawn light begin to glow and light up the clouds, and in turn see the clouds reflect their color on the water. The long exposure (several minutes in length if my memory serves me) blurred the surf’s motion and created a watercolor palette of red hues.
I hope this overview on the essential ingredients for landscape photography is helpful. And may you always walk in wonder!