Can a realistic landscape photograph be creative? I think the answer is yes, but only if you have a clear understanding of what creativity really means. For a landscape photographer, creativity doesn’t emerge, fully formed, from the void. It emerges when the photographer makes a new, unexpected, but suddenly obvious connection between bits of seemingly unrelated knowledge already stored in that photographer’s head. Unlike painters and novelists, landscape photographers can’t sit in a darkened room, conjure an image or story out of nothing, then put their vision down on canvas or the printed page. Landscape photographs must be grounded in reality.
Creativity in landscape photography is founded on knowledge of the terrain where the photographer plans to shoot, coupled with an understanding of key concepts in atmospheric optics, geography, astronomy, botany, meteorology and psychology.
Knowledge of the terrain lets photographers focus their efforts on the land’s most dramatic and iconic features.
Understanding atmospheric optics, the science of light, allows photographers to predict the most vivid displays of alpenglow, where rainbows will appear and how polarizers will interact with reflections.
Understanding geography helps photographers observe how the angle of sunrise and sunset varies throughout the year.
A study of astronomy lets photographers predict where to go to shoot moonrise and moonset, the Milky Way, meteor showers, star trails and lunar eclipses.
A bit of botany assists in refining your search for wildflowers.
The basics of meteorology help you plan shoots and anticipate what may happen next.
Understanding how our visual system processes high-contrast scenes can help you create better photos of dramatically lit subjects.
Clearly, mastering the technical features of your camera is just the first step toward becoming a creative landscape photographer.
Full moon through Delicate Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.
We tend to think of creativity as some kind of magical talent that only a few gifted people possess. This mistaken understanding can easily lead photographers to believe that they can never be creative. But as Roger von Oech, author of A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative, has pointed out, creativity is usually founded, first and foremost, on a broad and deep knowledge of a subject. Even the landscape painters I know often use a photograph as a starting point, and the best novelists are usually acute observers of human nature and the society around them.
As von Oech puts it, “Knowledge is the stuff from which new ideas are made. Nonetheless, knowledge alone won’t make a person creative. I think that we’ve all known people who knew lots of facts and nothing creative happened. Their knowledge just sat in their crania because they didn’t think about what they knew in any new ways. Thus, the real key to being creative lies in what we do with our knowledge.”
It’s important to distinguish a creative image from one that’s merely different. Different is easy; creative is hard. An image that’s merely different leaves the viewer puzzled about why you made it. A creative image is one that feels fresh and new, yet oh-so-right.
Creativity In Action
Let’s look at an example of creativity in action. One day in July, my wife Cora and I were day-hiking in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. Around noon, we reached a stream. In the flat midday light, the stream seemed unremarkable. As I looked down the valley past Lake Isabelle, however, I noticed that I could see the plains 6,000 feet below, framed by the steep valley walls. I used a compass to measure a bearing to the plains: 80 degrees. I already knew that at the latitude of Colorado, the angle of sunrise varies from an azimuth of 58 degrees to 121 degrees—a difference of over 60 degrees. If I came back at the right time of year, the sun would rise into the V-shaped gap formed by the valley walls. That, in turn, meant that the ordinary-looking stream at my feet would be bathed in warm, moment-of-sunrise light. And not only that: I knew from my study of atmospheric optics that the color of that light could be even richer than the light of a sunrise out on the plains. Here’s why.
On a clear day, the light at sunrise and sunset is warm because it has followed a long path through the atmosphere. During its journey, blue light scatters out of the beam, while red light travels straight ahead. The longer the path, the greater the selective sorting of wavelengths. The path followed by light reaching my stream would be exceptionally long because the horizon was much lower than my subject. Sunrise light would enter the atmosphere, skim the earth’s surface somewhere out in eastern Colorado, then rise back up through the atmosphere and trace intricate gold patterns on the flowing water. That extra path length—from the point in eastern Colorado where the light skims the surface to my subject—would make the sunrise light even more vibrant than the same sunrise viewed from the plains. This principle of atmospheric optics explains why tall mountains that rise abruptly above nearby plains can get such amazing light, as shown in Fig. 1.
When I got home, I checked the Photographer’s Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com) and learned that the sun would rise at an azimuth of 80 degrees around September 1. I returned to the stream at sunrise three times before coming up with the image I call “Sunrise Above Lake Isabelle.”
Sunrise Above Lake Isabelle, Indian Peaks Wilderness, near Boulder, Colorado. When I discovered this location on a summer day in July, I knew that if I returned to photograph it at the right time of year, the sun would rise into the V-shaped gap formed by the valley walls and illuminate the stream with warm sunrise light.
In his book, von Oech discusses a number of mental locks on creativity. One of the most relevant for landscape photography is the notion that there’s only one right answer, a belief that was pounded into us by a dozen years of classroom test-taking. When composing landscape images, however, it’s often the second, third or tenth right answer that actually will be the most evocative.
Take a look at the series of images I made of a cornice on Black Face Mountain near Telluride. I discovered this corniced knoll in late afternoon, but the cornice face was already in shade, so the light didn’t reveal the cornice’s form effectively (Fig. 2). I tried again at sunset, but by then the entire knoll was in shade (Fig. 3). I returned in the morning, when the light did reveal every graceful curve of the sculpted snow, and shot an overall image of the knoll (Fig. 4), but the composition seemed unfocused, with too many elements that weren’t contributing to my main idea. I drilled down further and tried again (Fig. 5), but the boring region in the middle of the frame made me step about three feet left, which put the most interesting elements closer together and allowed me to produce my favorite image of this cornice (Fig. 6).
Another mental lock on creativity is the notion that play is frivolous. As von Oech points out, “Necessity may be the mother of invention, but play is certainly the father.” Play comes naturally to children, but it can be hard for adults to adopt a playful attitude. One stumbling block is the feeling, again reinforced by years of test-taking, that mistakes are always bad. A child at play isn’t thinking in terms of right and wrong answers; she’s simply engrossed in the game.
It often takes multiple attempts at photographing a place, experimenting with different angles and times of day, to capture an image that reveals the location in an evocative way. This series of images shows my attempts to photograph a cornice on Black Face Mountain near Telluride, finally arriving at my favorite image of the scene.
Think of mistakes as the way you learn what to try next, not as shameful failures. Even success, narrowly conceived, can have its downside. Not making many mistakes? It could mean you’re really good—or it could mean you’re missing opportunities by not being aggressive enough about trying new things.
Success can also lead eventually to failure if it causes you to repeat your successful ideas endlessly, using similar ideas and compositions every time you go out. As a Colorado photographer, I have many images of a clump of columbine or a grove of aspen with a mountain in the background. Do I really need anymore? Only if I can articulate a reason why the new shot is somehow different or better than what I already have.
For me, play often takes the form of asking “what if” questions. Here’s an example. I first became interested in photographing flowing water at sunrise when I saw Galen Rowell’s photograph of a stream flowing into California’s Lake Tahoe. I began studying topographic maps of Colorado’s Front Range, looking for streams and waterfalls that could get moment-of-sunrise light. Columbine Falls, on the eastern flank of Longs Peak, seemed promising. After shooting sunrise at the falls five times, positioning myself each time alongside or above the falls, I finally noticed that the lower step of the falls actually flowed over a large overhang. What if I could find a way to get behind the falls? What would that look like at sunrise?
When I returned to the falls, I used a large umbrella to protect my 4×5 field camera as I inched as close to the cascading water as possible. I called the resulting image “Roaring Fork Sunrise.”
Roaring Fork Sunrise, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Here’s another way to get the creative juices flowing. Instead of simply searching for beauty, look for the iconic image, the single frame that sums up a complex whole. For example, what would an iconic image of Rocky Mountain National Park look like? Maybe an image that includes Longs Peak, the highest and most dramatic peak in the park, a bull elk and the alpine tundra that covers dozens of square miles of the park’s highest elevations. After several days of scouting and shooting along the Ute Trail, I came up with “Bull Elk and Longs Peak.”
Or try this approach: Look for images that serve as metaphors. I’ve often thought of mountaineering as a metaphor for the human condition. It embodies in concrete form the way we reach for the sky, yet can only climb so high. In 2006, I began working on a series of images I hoped would capture the exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring experience of being a tiny speck on top of the world. Seven years later, I finished shooting sunrise from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. “Sunrise from Mt. Wilson” is one of my favorite images from the series.
Bull Elk and Longs Peak.
Four Stages Of Creativity
In A Whack on the Side of the Head, von Oech distinguishes four stages of creativity: explorer, artist, judge and warrior. In the explorer phase, you’re actively scouting an area, searching for great foregrounds, watching the way the light plays across the landscape at sunrise and sunset, and seeking out the area’s scenic climaxes. You’re also learning everything you can about the craft of photography and the many scientific disciplines that will help you understand the natural world and how we perceive it. In the artist phase, you’re trying to put together all those disparate bits of knowledge in a way that your viewer will find new, surprising and innovative, not just random and odd.
Wilson Peak and Gladstone Peak at sunrise from the summit of 14,246-foot Mount Wilson, San Miguel Mountains, Lizard Head Wilderness, Colorado. This image is among my favorites from a multiyear project photographing all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
Once you have a new idea, you need to don your judge’s robes. Is this idea really going to work? If the answer is yes, it’s time to steel yourself for battle because you may have to fight to create the image you see in your mind’s eye. You may need to fail over and over again before you succeed. Each try may require getting up hours before sunrise or staying up until the wee hours of the morning. Many great ideas are stillborn because the creator didn’t fight to bring them to life. Commit the time and energy required to bring your best ideas into the world, and the result will be truly creative landscape photographs.
Glenn Randall‘s most recent books are The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography (Rocky Nook) and Sunrise from the Summit: First Light on Colorado’s Fourteeners (Farcountry Press). See more of his work, sign up for his monthly newsletter, read his blog and learn about workshops at glennrandall.com.