One of the biggest mistakes we make as photographers is focusing our energy on learning new photographic techniques, processing skills, or obsessing over equipment. We should be focusing on the land itself.
Where We Go Wrong
Most photographers who I’ve taught and guided for are making the same mistake. They are far too concerned with learning technical photography skills, and not enough about learning to read the landscape.
Here’s an analogy. Landscape photography is a lot like riding a bike. Get the basics sorted, and that skill will carry you a long way. But if you spend more time tinkering with the bike than you do riding it, then you’ll miss most of the journey.
My golden rule for landscape photography is that 99% of effort should go toward deepening my knowledge about the places I photograph. Spending time in the landscape. Exploring, finding new places and new ways to reach them. Watching the light from minute to minute and season to season. Learning about the things that live there. Investing myself in the place. Developing an intuitive grasp of where to go on any given day, and where not to go at all.
What Drives Your Passion?
One of the most important things to understand about your own photography is what drives it. What are you searching for? What do you value in an image? What’s involved in creating it?
Personally, I’m absolutely driven by the prospect of encounter with the natural world. Emotional entanglement with it. Enjoying time in remarkable places. Finding moments of natural beauty that go beyond the ordinary. Rare and dramatic collisions of weather, light and land. It fills me with joy. Photography is a means to that end, as well as an end in itself.
Trial and error isn’t sufficient to find those moments on a regular basis. Sure, anyone can luck into a special moment and capture a great image. And often that’s how we begin. But to regularly, deliberately go out to meet the world’s natural beauty at its finest – that takes a deeper understanding.
As landscape photographers we have to know our subject intimately. We need to work on our relationship with the land – one that is every bit as involved and complex as a relationship with another person. Like reading an expression, a tone of voice or a particular stance, we need to be able to look at the landscape and read what it is doing, and what it is likely to do next.
Find Your Place
On my workshops I often encourage students who want to improve to find a place that resonates with them, and to make that place the centre of their photographic world. Don’t make the mistake of spreading yourself too thin, trying to capture a huge portfolio of different places. Find that one place, and go there all the time. See how it looks at every time of day, in every weather, in every season. In the world of creative skill it is depth that counts, not breadth.
We need to learn as much as we can about our chosen place. Where does the light come from at dawn and sunset? What about at different times of year? How does it look in each season? What kind of weather is normal? Where is the prevailing wind? When you learn these things you will begin to be able to recognise the rare moments and, given time, even to predict them.
The value of doing this is that you learn to tell the difference between an ordinary moment and an extraordinary one. You’ll learn what to look for, and as you find more of these moments you’ll also begin to develop your own style of image. The place itself will show you how it wants to be photographed.
On a practical note, you also save a huge amount of time in composing shots, because you already know which ones are going to work and can concentrate your efforts there. Don’t worry about repeating yourself – that’s not a problem. This is practice, and practice makes perfect.
I’m very lucky. My special place is one of the wildest and most beautiful areas anywhere in the Scottish Highlands – Rothiemurchus Forest. I’m blessed to have such spectacular scenery right on my doorstep. But then, that’s a choice I made in life a long time ago – to prioritise access to nature.
All the images in this post come from the same area. I’ve spent so many days there that I can practically see it in my minds eye as soon as I look out the window each morning and see what the weather is doing. I’ve created hundreds of thousands of images in this location, with dozens of different versions of my favourite compositions (as you can see).
If you’d like to join me in this paradise of landscape photography then why not check out my photography workshops and guided adventures: