Connecting with Landscapes

Abstinence makes the heart…

Over-dramatising landscapes has become a way of life for many photographers, but it can leave us with little connection with the subject. Here Amateur Photographer gives you five ways to help get reality back...

It doesn't matter who, or what, you believe created the Earth and its features, I think we’d all agree that it’s pretty spectacular to look at. If the whole of humanity had created it over the course of an entire lifetime it wouldn't look one tenth as good, nor have nearly so much variation in physical characteristics, weather and climatic conditions. I can improve some areas on a minor scale - such as my garden - but I'd be hard pushed to improve on the shapes of hills, mountains and valleys, the way the sea moves, or the way colours shift across the seasons, the months and the hours of the day. It's all pretty complex, and astonishingly well thought out.

It is easy to enjoy a good view - you just have to sit there and take it in. Enjoying a view doesn't require much active thought, because these things happen naturally, but photographing one with the aim of capturing the source of your enjoyment is extremely difficult. Successfully conveying the sense and atmosphere of a place in a photograph at any single moment, so that someone else in a different place and at a different time can appreciate it, should be the Holy Grail of our art.

The prevailing fashion of our time is for dramatic landscapes - no matter what the subject - and low angles, wide lenses, high colour, pumped contrast and warm tones, all combining to create textbook impact. In the main, though, images with such impact become fictional representations of reality. Working in this way throws an unconscious insult at nature, by suggesting it needs enhancing to be interesting. What bothers me most, though, is not the fictionalisation of the Earth's features, but the dominance of this photographic style at the expense of realism.

Through this article I will try to redress the balance between realism and impact, and remind us all that there is 'another' way. Capturing a realistic representation of a landscape is no easy business and requires a good deal of technical skill and understanding. The techniques that follow will, I hope, help remind us that the world was not designed by Disney - and that it is OK to show our environment as it is, rather than as an idealised fabrication.

Realism and running water

There is, obviously, only one way of reacting when we come across a river, a wave or a waterfall. Apertures are minimised, ISO ratings dropped and neutral density light-blocking filters are fitted to ensure enough has been done to provide a nice long shutter-duration. Moving water must be turned into a milky haze, or better still, dry ice, to create a perfect landscape image. I exaggerate, perhaps, but I think you know what I mean.

When we look at a body of moving water we can see that it is in motion without seeing that milky effect. We have clues, though, such as objects floating downstream or the sound of the water as it flows over stones. It is right we should show that the water is moving in our pictures, and through careful shutter speed selection we can do it without going over the top.

For the three pictures shown above, I sat and looked at the river for quite a while to study what it was that showed that the water was moving. I then guessed the shutter speed I would need to demonstrate that some parts of the stream were moving faster than others. It was a dark and flat day, and there was a certain amount of blur in the water, but only a little. With the camera mounted on a tripod, I framed the shot and bracketed around a shutter speed of 1/8sec. To show what I had resisted, I also shot the same scene with a shutter speed of 30 seconds. To do this I had to fit a neutral density filter and switch from ISO 400 to ISO 100 – shooting without a filter was much quicker and easier.

The danger with these blurry, smoky water features is that, cuckoo-like, they force the other features from the nest

The 30-second exposure has perfectly fulfilled the ‘moving water in a landscape’ expectation and it looks just like streams we have all seen so many times before. The blur has created a standout feature in the picture, but at the same time it completely takes away from the reason I wanted to take a picture in the first place. I stopped at that spot because I liked the shape of the stream and the steep banks. The tree-cover arches to make a tunnel and the trees on the right bend inwards, pushing their bellies out like fat men in a bar.

The danger of these blurry, smoky water features is that, cuckoo-like, they force the other features from the nest and take all the attention themselves. The 1/15sec exposure I settled on may not have produced such a spectacular image, but it is closer to the reality I enjoyed on the day. Not all landscape is spectacular – some is just relaxing.

Colour and global warming

I suppose we all see colour differently – some don’t even see it at all – and what’s more, we all like different shades. Why anyone paints their house mint-green I don’t know, but it makes some people happy. In photography we often talk about colour accuracy as though it is something we commonly strive for, but in practice warmth and added saturation win the day. Agfa produced outstanding neutrality in its early RSX films – which probably goes some way to explaining the company’s downfall.

Our eyes adjust to the colour temperature of light, so even neutral films such as Provia can produce colours that seem strong

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In landscape photography it has become common practice to use filters – warm-up yellow, coral, tobacco and neutral density graduates. Neutral density filters, in theory, have no effect on colour other than to make it darker, and allow the picture viewer to appreciate in a single glance the details of earth and sky, which, because of their brightness differences, we could only see in two. Coloured filters have a more profound effect in that they alter reality in a way that changes the temperature of the day. If you are a professional and shooting, to a deadline, pictures that intend to entice visitors to an area, it makes sense to enhance the climate to make it look more friendly. The amateur is lucky to avoid such commercial pressures, and should then be free to tell the truth. Amateurs are also free to avoid what is nearly always the obvious evidence of unnatural filtration.

I find colours are altered, both hue and saturation, in many landscapes submitted to AP. Saturation is often boosted and hue adjusted towards red.

We find landscape images are often made too warm through post-capture manipulation. Pink skies and brown land just don’t look real

 

If you want to record life as it is, it’s important to analyse what you are seeing. In the olden days we shot on daylight-balanced film, so cool days looked cool. With white balance controls anything can happen. Auto mode will not necessarily produce an accurate result, as it will naturally attempt to neutralise prevailing colours. A custom white balance from a grey card will do the same – wiping out the atmosphere entirely to show greys as greys. I find the balance that serves me best most often is the Daylight setting. This records colour in a way that’s closest to what we see, and it at least provides an excellent starting place from which to adjust by the amount my eyes had become used to the colours of the light.

In the shots here you can see the difference adjusting white balance makes. After looking at the scene I settled on a daylight balance, shot in raw, as I knew I would later de-saturate it just a touch. This was to make sure the colour of the light in the finished image matched that to which my eyes had adjusted at the time of shooting.

To replicate what you see, shooting with Daylight white balance gives the best start. Adjust saturation afterwards to match what you saw

 

Focal length

We know that the standard lens provides a poor replication of the angle of view our eyes enjoy. A 50mm lens on 35mm film allows us to see what we might be able to concentrate on, but slightly wider focal lengths, 35mm perhaps, capture what we see as a whole. Extreme wideangles show far more than we see and, when used from a low viewpoint, they exaggerate perspective, enlarging closer objects and minimising distant ones. Once again, these tricks are played for effect, but the result will not resemble what you might experience were you to visit the scene yourself. A low angle is fine in itself, as a point of interest, but when combined with very wideangle lenses the view will be distorted beyond recognition.

One of the ideas of landscape photography is to present a view in a new way, so low angles are popular. Just be careful not to create an image that is sensational because of the angle of view rather than for the subject matter.

Contrast – light and dark

We have trouble enough fitting nature’s tonal range into the dynamic range of our chosen medium without then boosting contrast to block up shadows and bleach highlights. This is, however, what happens. Those wise to the dangers of deepening blacks and whiting out clouds have learned to use the Curves tool rather than Levels, and to pay attention to the midtones instead. This can have the unfortunate effect, though, of polarising tones to light and dark, with little left between.

Contrast control is important in landscape work, just as it is in any other type of photography, but it is essential to retain detail and smooth tonal transitions at all levels. I have found it is best to shoot for a flatter image than will be needed, with the intention of adjusting contrast later. To do this successfully it is essential to have a good memory for what the scene looked like at the time you shot it. This is easy, of course, as we will have spent plenty of time taking the view in and analysing the elements that create it. When we get home we can reproduce those characteristics from the raw ingredients of our low-contrast file.

Use film

The simplest way to ensure that temptation does not get the better of you is to place control in someone else’s hands. Using film has just this effect. It is no coincidence that the prevalence of over-worked images has occurred mainly since photographers were able to take more control of their images through the convenience of imaging software. Film users pick their material carefully for the characteristics it produces, which can involve high colour saturation and high contrast, but those elements will be well controlled by the film manufacturer to prevent characteristics getting out of hand.

Even contrasty films can outperform digital images for dynamic range. Here I have produced an HDR image from three ±1EV exposures, but it is no match for the same scene shot on Fujifilm Velvia. Fuji’s Provia and Astia provide greater tonal range still. Contrast rarely has to be altered when shooting film.

I took three different film emulsions to show how each of them interprets the same scene in a different way. Fujifilm’s Velvia 50 is a firm favourite with landscapers for its high colour and higher contrast. The company’s Astia 100F produces the opposite effect – muted colours and low contrast – while Provia 100F falls in between with its characteristics aimed at faithful reproduction. I was most interested in using Provia 100F to demonstrate my point here, as according to its specifications it should reproduce your view most accurately, but I shot with all three films to show how they vary.

If you are aiming for a completely neutral result, Provia 100F is the better of the three, while Velvia 50 shows that pinkness so loved by landscapists. Astia hasn’t been popular as it does exactly the opposite of what is popularly required – it produces understated contrast with mild and relaxing colours.

Inevitable rejection

I don’t expect the views expressed here to catch on. Low saturation, low contrast and low impact have never featured highly on the landscaper’s checklist, but I do want practitioners to take at least some note of what has been said. There is more than one way to take a landscape photograph, and more than one way to process the results. I have written this piece not so much to force a realism movement, but to highlight that so many landscape pictures look the same. In an exhibition I visited recently, the walls were dotted with pink and yellow prints, depicting vaporised streams running through lands of gigantic glistening stones. Scanning from one wall to the next, the homogenous pattern was so clear I could hardly see beyond it. The Isle of Skye looked like Yorkshire, which looked just like Cornwall and Wales – and, in turn, nothing looked like the Earth upon which I have lived all these years.

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