Subtle Drama

Scott Mansfield’s black-and-white landscape photography shows how soft tonality and a quiet approach can be every bit as strong as big, high-contrast imagery

Scott Mansfield’s photography has a quiet elegance. The more you look at his images, the more nuance becomes visible. Mansfield takes an artistic approach: “I’m less interested in what the scene is and more interested in the motifs that exist between the scene and myself as the artist. And oftentimes that’s very quiet. I often find myself just sitting and watching for long stretches of time, not necessarily waiting for any particular photographic moment, but just being out in nature. That was one of the big draws for me for being a nature artist.” Being on a Mansfield photo excursion isn’t a relaxing time, though. He describes a recent expedition: “I’m only in Yosemite for a week, and I’m working 24/7, always looking. Maybe it’s being away from home that offers this spontaneity. As soon as I’m on the clock, as it were, it’s a nonstop real photo trip. Most people don’t like coming with me because it’s just nonstop. I don’t eat; pretty much, I’m just going constantly—looking, seeing, shooting, sleeping, getting up early, slamming some food, going back at it. And I love it. That’s my bread and butter.”


Olympic National Park, Wash.

Scott Mansfield is a rule breaker. Check his work against any list of tips for better landscape photographs and note how Mansfield’s approach differs. He works primarily in black-and-white, he doesn’t shoot at the magic hour, he won’t wait around for the perfect moment, and he only uses a few prime lenses. Yet somehow his photographs are spectacular.

Unlike many contemporary landscape photographers, Mansfield’s work is a study in subtlety. The more time a viewer spends with an image, the more each image reveals. Rather than gripping the viewer with grand drama, Mansfield’s photographs invite viewers to spend time exploring inside their borders. And that’s just how the photographer likes it.

“I’m less interested in getting a pretty postcard scenic,” he says, “and more interested in letting you know how I was feeling. I’m interested in putting as much of myself into the work as possible. My wife recently summed it up: There’s a similar theme that runs through all of my work that speaks to who I am; it doesn’t necessarily speak to what the place is.

“You often hear,” Mansfield says, “especially from color landscape photographers, ‘This is exactly what I saw, I didn’t manipulate it, and that’s what you’re seeing on the print.’ And I’ve always felt, I don’t care what you saw! I want to know what you felt—manipulate the hell out of it! For me, it’s the end product; your piece of art should show what it was that you were feeling, what you were seeing in your own mind’s eye, not necessarily what was there in reality. Sometimes they match, but oftentimes they don’t have to. This need in photography to defend that you didn’t manipulate it—you hear that so much it’s just like nails on a chalkboard. I think they’re missing the point. That’s not what I think art is.”

Vernal Fall, Yosemite National Park, Calif.

Mansfield points out that the unquestioned master of landscape photography, Ansel Adams, was deliberately manipulative with his prints, going so far as to render skies pure black or tree leaves bright white. Like Mansfield, it was done in an effort to create a motif that appealed to the artist—that delivers the message the artist wishes to send. And it’s easier done in black-and-white.

“It’s artistic manipulation,” says Mansfield, “and I think black-and-white is a little more accepting of manipulation than color. You get rid of all that color information and you get it down to just the basic two tones with the gray tonal scale, and it’s visually okay to make a sky go black. But if you do it in a color landscape and make the sky go purple or red…eww.”

Mansfield may embrace creative manipulation, but that’s not to say his photographs are unreal. After all, the very act of framing a composition is an abstraction of reality. The artist simply imbues images with added meaning. Mansfield does this through reduction.

Near Bellingham, North Cascades, Wash.

“I don’t feel manipulative,” he says. “I feel that I’m a minimalist, in my artwork and in life. And I like to take away as much information as possible, and I start that when I look through the viewfinder and I look around a scene. It may be that I have to change different focal lengths, or it may be that I’ll develop this negative in a different way. But I’m always trying to take away information to get at the heart of the thing that it is that I’m photographing.

“In a practical sense,” Mansfield continues, “we could place a tree in the foreground. Do I want the bark to be just a little bit darker and, therefore, I’m going to make the background a little bit brighter? The manipulation often happens by subtraction, just getting rid of as much information as possible—manipulation not so much to trick you into thinking this is something that it’s not, but manipulation to get at the very basic structure of the scene.”

In Mansfield’s case, the core meaning he’s striving to convey through his minimalist landscapes stems from his transcendent experiences in nature.

“It goes to the very simple heart of it,” he says. “I love being in nature. I could just sit on a cliffside and listen to the wind. Just sit there. There’s no past, there’s no future, you’re just here. There’s no thought, no stress. And then I’ll take out my camera and look at the scene, and I may or may not shoot. Just showing up at a scene, seeing what you see, feeling how you feel and working that moment—that’s mostly how I work.”

Spontaneity isn’t often a word one hears in association with serious landscape photography, but for Mansfield it’s integral. Part of his creative process hinges upon arriving at a location, at almost any time of day, in almost any kind of weather, and making photographs. It allows for a purer experience of nature, and it provides him the opportunity to photograph a very special moment in time. Every moment, he says, is unique.

Death Valley National Park, Calif.

“I’m more interested in going out and just seeing what I see,” Mansfield explains. “The spontaneity of that is always good for my work. I rarely sit and wait for a particular atmospheric event or some thing—the light changing and so forth. I find that waiting for something to happen kind of dulls the whole moment, and the spontaneity.

“I think there are always good photographs to be had,” he continues, “no matter where you are, no matter what time of day, no matter what the weather is doing. It’s up to me as a photographer and a nature artist to pull out of that scene whatever it is I’m seeing and feeling at that moment. I’ve always felt that.”

Mansfield’s approach frees him from many of the conventional “must-haves” of landscape photography. He’s free to avoid the magic hour, free to avoid waiting around for perfect light or perfect weather, and free to explore unique compositions in often overlooked circumstances. He approaches photography this way because this is what he wants to see, and he sees the world this way because this is how he approaches it.

“I don’t believe that there’s a perfect storm of events to make the perfect photograph for any one scene,” he says. “I think a lot of nature photographers feel that way. ‘The best light is from this direction, at this time of day, on this cliffside, looking west,’ and so forth. I think that’s kind of silly. You’re selling yourself short and you’re not really trying to find what’s there. Because two days later is going to be a far different event than two days before. I like just going out and seeing what I see and getting based on what’s there at that moment. And I guarantee it’s going to be different than that perfect storm.

Mono Lake, Calif.

“There’s a place in northern Arizona called The Wave,” Mansfield continues. “It’s magnificent. It’s just epic. One time I started hiking around 4 a.m., was on the hike during the sunrise, and then got out to The Wave and was just sitting there watching when this guy hikes up, a photographer. He gets to The Wave, looks around, and he says, ‘Ah, the light’s crap,’ and he turns around and walks back. I kind of chuckled. He would have gotten stuff that was unique to that day that he would never have gotten before; he had no idea what was down there, what was going to happen. Constantly waiting for something seems so silly to me.”

Mansfield actually made some color images at sunrise on that hike to The Wave, though color only makes up about a quarter of his work. Color can bookend the day; he doesn’t approach it the same way as black-and-white, which he can shoot any time of day.

“I don’t think most of my stuff would work that well in color because I saw it in black-and-white,” Mansfield says. “Color really does change with the light, I think even more than tonality does. The drabness of the color would take away from the beautiful tonality of black-and-white. It would just be boring. It would just be a light blue sky and dirty water, whereas in black-and-white it becomes a beautiful white sky with very subtle gray water. Color does look better during the magic hour, which is when I don’t shoot that much. It’s just not my thing. It’s sometimes just too over the top. There’s gorgeous color imagery out there, but it’s a pretty postcard scenic done well whereas I think a good black-and-white becomes a little more timeless than timely.

“I bring both systems with me,” he adds, “but I don’t think I’ve ever had a case where I shot a black-and-white frame and then turned around and also shot a color frame. I just see so much differently in black-and-white, and I consider myself a black-and-white photographer. It’s very hard to get rid of visual information in a color photograph, and that’s something that I’m always trying to get to, trying to be as minimalist as possible. With black-and-white, you automatically get rid of the color information, so that’s one great distraction you’ve taken away, and you’re left with beautiful lines and tonality and contrast and so forth. I shoot color and black-and-white very differently.

“I think sunsets are beautiful to the naked eye,” Mansfield continues, “but not necessarily for my own tastes. I find them a little bit gaudy and overdone in photographs. It doesn’t really translate. I’ve never seen a sunset image that matched an actual sunset in real life. And I don’t think that’s a mistake on my part or other photographers’ parts; I think it’s just the nature of looking at a sunset. It’s almost too pornographic in color, if that makes sense. I really, really like subtlety. For me, it’s about tones and shape and composition, and less about ‘this is a gorgeous time of day and therefore I should be out shooting.’ I’m often looking for subtlety, a certain mystery in a scene.”

Though well versed in finding beautiful black-and-white imagery in almost any circumstance, Mansfield prefers working around iconic locations, and he doesn’t integrate photography into his daily routine. He couldn’t; his focused approach is too intense.

“I rarely shoot around my house,” says Mansfield. “I rarely go out on a Saturday and say, okay, I’m going to go photograph Marin Headlands, which is just 10 minutes away. Say on Monday I’m going out to Yosemite for a week, the moment I leave home I’m looking—I’m looking at everything through a photographer’s eye. I think it has to do with this same idea of not waiting, this spontaneity. I’m here, it’s in the moment, this is why I’m here at this place, to photograph, therefore I’m going to photograph.”

To see more of Scott Mansfield‘s photography, visit