Landscape Master Class Series – Part Three

3 Elements For Mastering Landscape Photography

“There’s no worse thing than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept”. ― Ansel Adams

Once again, Adams’ observation is spot on and when students arrive at Capitol Reef or at any NPPE Landscape Master Classes, they learn how to clarify concepts by using these 3 simple, but disciplined elements.

  1. Compose – Organize the image to achieve an arrangement of visual elements consistent with the photographer’s vision and in support of the subject. Landscapes are often confusing, messy, and chaotic. It is the work of the landscape photographer to eliminate the chaos through skillful and creative compositions; it’s entirely about learning to see.
  2. Expose – Choose a tonal range that gives the composition voice.
  3. Prose – Create the story in your head so that you can previsualize post-production workflow needed to tell the story you feel.

That’s it; three simple elements, but composition, or seeing creatively, is critical. Fail at this and the other two elements are moot, so allow me to spend a few words on why photographers do fail in this area.

Sensory Overload

A stack of rocks at Capitol Reef National Park
“Cairns on Panorama Point” by Bob Killen, Capitol Reef National Park, Adobe Certified Instructor

The first is that when coming upon a stunning landscape environment, such as Capitol Reef, the scenic architecture initially presents as sensory overload. It is easy to assume that it is impossible to create a poor image given the stunning scenes in front of the lens. You may well make a nice picture no matter where you point your lens, but nice pictures are pointless. The reason you are here is to make a point, a creative one at that.

Landscapes are expansive and often we focus on the mountains, sky, lake and other ‘big picture’ elements. When we do, we come away with a vague, fuzzy concept as Adams points out in his quote. The elements sprawl across the scene in a chaotic mix of light, terrain, flora, and fauna. It might be pretty, but it can be pretty pointless too. The subject needs definition and discretion. Generally, a small portion of the landscape scene can leverage a very large landscape story with an extended emotional range.

Landscape Scale

The second reason is that photographers fail to understand that the scale of the scene determines the end-point of visual resonance. We can classify scene scales as follows:

  • Majestic Scene – This is the grand canyon of landscape photography— wide, high, and tall with multiple elements. Majestic scenes make nice pictures, but it takes time and thought to compose and create majestic images that yield a creative point of view.
  • The Structured Scene – Generally the Majestic Scene identifies a landmark such as the Tetons, but a structured scene isolates elements within a Majestic Scene so that your audience has a sense of being there but there is not an address; it is emotional connection. These compositions allow your viewers to achieve an intimate and meaningful relationship with the image.
  • Details – It may be a single pebble or an interesting shadow that provides mystery or clarity, a small facet that will leverage enormous clarity because the viewer would otherwise overlook this element.
  • Chimney Rock at Capitol Reef National Park in the spring
    Photograph by Bob Killen, Capitol Reef National Park, Adobe Certified Instructor

    Components – Scalable components often appear as one studies a landscape prior to capture. These components often do not make an image in and of themselves. They are scene elements for composites or major post modifications, usually previsualized by the photographer at the time of capture.

When you examine a landscape with scale as a central consideration, you will find yourself examining and interpreting a scene in a number of ways, and yes, you might even be talking aloud to yourself. In most cases, a given scene may yield a substantial number of image possibilities at all these scales and subsets of scales. To master landscape photography, you must consider and pursue all possibilities and not allow your vision to lock into one scale.

Composition is but one of the three elements necessary to master landscape photography and ultimately the most important. Scale is only one compositional element and in future blogs we will address light, form, texture, and image structure. Composition success is a matter of working the scene, working the camera, and with practice, landscape mastery will come.

I’ll leave you with this thought from Minor White: “We are photographing things (landscapes) for what they are and for what else they are.” Only you, the photographer can find and determine the ‘what else’!

Original Post:

You may also like...

(1) Comment

  1. Intimate Landscape | National Park Photography Expeditions

    […] a previous blog, I noted four major types of landscape photographs. Let’s […]

Comments are closed.

scales of justice
  1. Due to limited class size, we request that you cancel at least 30 days before a scheduled class. This gives us the opportunity to fill the class. You may cancel by phone or by email. If you have to cancel your class, we offer you a credit to your account. You may use these credits towards any future class. However, if you do not cancel prior to 72 hours prior to the class, you will be subject to a loss of deposited payment for the class. NPPE has the only right to be flexible with this policy and will make determinations on a case by case basis.
  2. Cancellations made 30 days or more in advance of the class date, will receive a 100% credit. Cancellations made within the 30 day period will incur a 20% fee with the balance applied as a credit to the account. Cancellations made within 72 hours to the class will be subject to a 100% loss of registration fees paid.