Nature photography has been my longest running passion. Not my strongest passion. That claim belongs to my wife and family. But, I started photographing western lands and wildlife when I was thirteen, and 67 years later I still do that, though my approach is changing. This change is driven by both necessity and opportunity.
At 80, I can still handle an all-day hike. But, I no longer cover as much ground, stay in the field as long, or take as much risk to capture a rare scene from an unusual perspective. Physical necessity and common sense limit what I can produce. And with the natural world so well covered by thousands of skilled photographers, it is increasingly more difficult to capture a scene that isn’t already on the verge of becoming a cliché.
On the other hand, this may be a blessing in disguise, for it is forcing me to do more with what I can personally experience, and to stretch my mind to see things differently. Even if I weren’t feeling age-imposed limitations, the need to produce fresh images and concepts is moving my work in a different direction. And current technology makes it so much easier to implement alternative approaches. This is the opportunity part of the equation.
Nature doesn’t reveal all of its beauty and wonder to those with a single mind-set. Yet, as artists, we all tend to get into a narrow rut regardless if we’re thirty or eighty years old. Even if we are able to capture many dramatic scenes, if we always present them the same way, using classic landscape composition as an example, then we’re not growing as artists.
So, this article is not written only for senior citizen photographers like me, but for nature photographers of all ages who want their work to be artistically relevant. For the record, my reference to different approaches does not include “creative” editing. That’s an entirely different subject that can be rewarding and valid if presented as alternative reality. Instead, this article is confined to concepts and techniques for capturing elements of nature in more dramatic and non-conventional ways.
There are almost unlimited ways to accomplish this. Here are a few suggestions for creating fresh landscape compositions.
1. Compose with color, tones and masses:
Traditional landscape compositions break a scene into zones, basically foreground, mid-ground and background. In many images, these tend to be either equally weighted, or the foreground is merely used for accent, and the image emphasis is on the background. This is done to create a sense of depth to approximate how we usually see. Compositions based on colors, tones and masses tend to be flatter. But, they are often more intriguing and stimulating.
In 1999, when I first photographed Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona, I took a conventional approach and viewed the scenes straight on with a level tripod-mounted camera. This anchored the carved sandstone walls to a sandy floor. This was more journalistic than artistic. Twenty years ago almost any photograph of Antelope Canyon was exciting and different. Today this old image would receive little attention. (See below.)
Contrast this with the next three images that I took almost two decades later. Though my purpose was already locked in, it turned out that I had little alternative, as the slot canyon was filled with people milling about. Tripods were not allowed; and to avoid including people in the images it was necessary to aim above their heads. Fortunately, this is where the most interesting shapes and tones were. And most importantly, the 5-axis image stabilization and auto-ISO features of my Sony A7r iii enabled sharp perfectly exposed images without a tripod.
Another opportunity to base composition on color, tones and masses arose when I photographed Native American pictograms this year. (See below.) These pictograms are artistic and colorful by themselves. But, rather than just photographing them straight on, I decided to give the underlying fractured rock surfaces equal weight in the compositions. The rock invariably had its own shape, texture and colors which both supplemented and complemented the drawings.
2. Use water reflectivity and transparency to change depth perception:
Still clear water has the ability to confuse conventional perception of image depth and to invite curiosity. Shallow lakes and ponds offer many opportunities to produce intriguing images as the lake bottom will show up as clearly as reflections which will challenge the viewer’s orientation. Most often, photographers utilize reflections to produce a mirror image of the scene, as in the following two images.
Though there is a lot of beauty in these two perspectives, they don’t challenge the viewer’s senses and may not have lasting impact. Consider the momentary confusion upon first viewing the next image, followed by the pleasant sense of discovery after analyzing what’s going on in this scene.
The reflections of brilliant Aspen dominate the top 60% of the image, but are themselves hemmed in by the plant material floating on the surface of the lake at the top of the picture. The reflections of the trees project downward, but stop as the angle of viewing becomes less acute and transparency takes over revealing the plants and algae on the lake bottom. This image was taken at the short end of a Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM lens with a 1.4x Sony tele-extender, or at 140mm. This allowed me to reach out to the exact spot that yielded this perspective.
The fact that orange and green are somewhat complementary on the color wheel also helps to give this image impact. People that have viewed the photographs from this field trip have been more strongly drawn to this image than to any of the others.
The take-away from this is that photography fans get tired of classic beauty and seek fresh stimulation. In a world in which several trillion photographs are taken annually of everything under the sun, it is logical that a dynamic challenging composition will stimulate more interest than a static one.
3. Leave something to the imagination:
Most nature photographers pride themselves in capturing an abundance of sharp fine detail. But, similar to the above suggestions, photographs are often more effective if they can engage the viewer’s mind and stimulate him or her to use their intellect and imagination. If everything in the picture can be seen all at once, even a magnificent image can be boring. The next image requires a moment for the viewer to figure out what it represents. At first glance it looks like a street filled with potholes after a rain. There is just enough detail at the top to establish that this is a creek that overflowed onto the canyon floor. The sun had just risen to illuminate the tops of the canyon walls which are partially reflected in the puddles. Only the lower left corner shows enough detail to recognize a canyon wall.
In addition to the abstract nature of this image, the cool blue shade of the canyon in early morning contrasts with the warm reflections of the sun-lit canyon walls, which is an intriguing contradiction.
The following image has a similar contradiction between warm and cool tones which often accompanies the end of a rain when the sun breaks through. However, in this case the detail hidden by the low hanging cloud creates a sense of detachment where the light orange mass of rock appears to be floating above the dark red rock base. The image doesn’t provide any clues. But, logic dictates that the top mass is part of the same rock formation as the dark red base. The image captures an illusion, and offers little confirmation of the underlying reality. When an image does not provide enough detail to explain a seeming improbability, it is intriguing and causes the viewer to study it.
4. Make the foreground more dominant:
Landscape photographers have long been urged to include appealing foregrounds in their scenes to increase interest. But, in most cases the background is still the main show, particularly in mountain and canyon images. However, more visual impact can be achieved by seeking perspectives where foreground detail can command at least equal attention to background vistas.
I keenly remember the circumstances leading to the above image. Fifty yards away, a crowd waited patiently to capture their own images of Mesa Arch framing the eroded sandstone rock in the canyons below. Some even placed their tripods in the same spot that Tom Till did many years ago and caught the flare of the rising sun from behind the arch. Tom’s image is one of the great representations of the American Southwest and serves as an icon for Canyonlands.
But, there are many special features to be enjoyed in this large park, all of which could symbolize the drama of the high desert. Looking for something different, I spotted this centuries-old Juniper tree sprawling across the landscape and felt that it symbolized the harsh timeless terrain as well as anything else. My image will not be famous. But, it is my own vision, and the composition emphasizes both the tree’s weathered wood and the environment in which it still lives. The point here is that nowhere in Nature have all the artistic perspectives been exhausted. A photographer only needs to look deeper and wider to create impactful images. That’s what Tom did decades ago.
At the end of last September, I spent several days in the Eastern Sierras looking for Fall color. Compared with the Colorado Rockies and the Wasatch Range in Utah, the aspen groves in the area from Crowley Lake to Mono Lake are smaller and scattered. Getting large expanses of yellow and orange is difficult in early Autumn. So, I took a different approach. Looking for a stretch of lake along the Rock Creek course, I found several young aspen in full color. They were really more like bushes, but were in the right spot. I stood behind them with a 16-35mm zoom set at 16mm, and let the foreground foliage dominate the scene. The following image still shows mountains and lake along with two fishermen. The foreground color is echoed by spots of yellow on the mountain. The following image was made rather than found. But, I think that it says “Autumn” as well as any that I’ve taken.
The next image also utilizes a tree in the immediate foreground, but in a different way and for a different reason. This was taken from the edge of the Crystal Lake trail overlooking Lake George and Lake Mary near Mammoth Lakes, CA. (There are a lot of lakes in this area!) This was the only spot that gave a clear view of the lakes below, except there was a large dead tree in the way. I framed the scene with the tree, composing in a way that allowed the most important parts of the scene to show between the branches. The image may be a little busy. But, I think that it provides a more tactile representation of what the mountains are all about than would the more typical photograph of a distant broad view with no foreground.
All of the previous three images utilize trees as foregrounds to dominate the scenes. Flowers can serve the same purpose, particularly when they provide strong color. The following image was a natural because the only remaining spot illuminated by the setting sun was a patch of Penstemon flowers in the immediate foreground. Though these flowers occupy a moderate part of the image, their vibrant color and light tones still command immediate attention.
There are also situations where the foreground need not be different from the rest of the scene. It can be an extension of the main subject; but should receive greater emphasis by using an extreme wide angle focal length to expand that closer part of the scene to provide more drama. The following image is of Rock Creek looking from where the creek turns 90 degrees from its course down the small valley. The 16mm lens greatly widens the foreground giving it more emphasis. Importantly, the large rectangular rock several feet away provides a strong center of interest making the image much more dynamic.
Another example of the impact created by a wide angle lens used to emphasize the foreground and use the background as a reinforcing element is the following image of petrified tree trunk sections strewn over a high desert landscape.
In summary, there are numerous ways to create new perspectives for landscapes that can inject new life into a Nature photographer’s work. Most important is to taking the time to study each scene and ask yourself the following questions:
1. “What is the most important thing that this scene says to me?”
2. “Which is the best way that I can convey this message visually?”
3. “What are the key elements in the scene?”
4. “How can I give these elements the greatest emphasis?”
And perhaps most important of all is to take the time to play with different ideas, techniques, perspectives and compositions. There is little reason why any of us should ever let our work become stale and repetitive, even as we get older.