Intimate Landscapes

When we arrive at National or State Park in the United States or Canada, we are struck by and often overwhelmed by the shear majesty of the vistas.  Our desire to capture this majesty is our first thought.  How should we compose a photograph that will help bring our followers to this wonderful location and help them have a connection to the landscape?

However, after watching a couple of YouTube videos from Ben Horne and Thomas Heaton, I was reminded that these same locations provide an opportunity bring the viewer into a smaller, more intimate relationship with the environment.

Switching from a big vista mentality to small intimate landscapes takes some work.  More importantly, it requires looking at the environment in a new way.  The subject becomes a much more significant part of the image.  We often talk about the subject as if we were referring to a model.  The subject is the glue that holds the image together.

Selecting a subject that works is often more tricky than it appears.  It has to have enough interest to attract the eye of the viewer.  In order to create the visual interest we strive to accomplish several goals.  First and most important, the subject has to be interesting.  It really doesn’t matter if it is a bush, a tree, or a rock.  It has to be unique enough to anchor the photograph.

Next you have to create a composition that distinguishes the subject from its environment.  This can be done many ways, but the goal is to give voice to the subject – “Here I am”!  We end up discarding many really interesting subjects because we can’t create the separation giving voice to the subject.

Getting the subject to stand out from its environment requires using various techniques or camera angles.  A green tree on a green background may not give you enough contrast to allow the subject to sing.  Perhaps capturing the photograph with a beam of sunlight on the subject may be enough to separate the subject from the background.  However, light alone may not be enough.

Many of us who shoot vistas try to get as much sharpness in the photograph from the front to the back.  However, when shooting intimate landscapes, we can use depth of field to create separation between the subject and the background.  Portrait photographers who work outdoors frequently use this technique.  A background that is out of focus can help your viewer’s eye zero in on the primary subject of the photograph.

Simplicity is your friend.  Look hard at your composition for distractions.  A dead branch lying on the ground can draw the eye away from your subject and kill an otherwise strong composition.  I am often guilty of missing really bright rock that my eye “edits” from the composition but the camera captures.  This is one of the few times, where I may potentially “edit” the composition in real time to remove distractions from the image, by moving a dead branch just outside the frame of my composition.

The light is always important for landscapes.  It is no different for shooting intimate landscapes.  However, in these situations we are often looking for reflected light or diffuse light.  Zion National Park is a wonderful example of a place where you can work with reflected light from the steep canyon walls.  The diffuse light on an overcast day can also work well.   It is still possible to create interesting intimate landscapes in more intense light, but then the light may become more of a subject matter in the way it is seen as light-beams or based on the play of light areas and deep shadows.  In high contrast situations with more intense light, consider trying some black and white images.

Using your camera’s “Live View” mode or working with a loupe on your image playback screen can be very helpful.  This can really help with looking critically at the image   while you are set up and then making adjustments if necessary.  In some cases, by stepping away from the image for a few minutes and then taking a fresh look, you will find you can look more critically at the whole image.  We are lucky because we often have each other to look at our photographs critically in the field.  While reviewing your image, ask yourself “Is the subject separated from the background; is it singing out its presence?”  Are there distractions competing with your subject?  Has the camera captured your vision?  Be critical while you still have the chance to make changes.

Practice your skills with intimate landscapes.  Like so many things in photography, this a technique that may take some time to perfect.  Because these images are not reliant on big beautiful vista, interesting intimate landscapes can be found almost anywhere.  Practice anywhere close to home and use this skill when you get out to a favorite National or State park.

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Avid hikers, boaters, and photographers

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