Landscape Artistry: An Extremely Tough Road to Success

Let me start by saying that this article was written only to encourage you. Anyone, and i mean anyone can do it. We live in a digital age where photography gear is purchased very easily. Most people can afford the latest camera gear and start photographing the world. Millions of images are posted online weekly but how many of those stand out really? You can count the best photographers out there with your fingers. Let's be honest, images that have the required depth to be considered "true" landscape art pieces are very rarely produced, just like music and everything else... even today! So what makes a photograph stand out from the rest? I'm gonna be brutally honest with you here, but it all comes down to HARD WORK... extremely hard work that is. Just because you have the latest camera technology in your bag and you have some basic knowledge of Lightroom and Photoshop, it doesn't mean that you're gonna come out with good images. There are thousands of hours of tutorials and lessons available online yet nobody is talking about the reality of a landscape artist's life. This is what this article is all about. If you carefully read every paragraph, I guarantee you that you will be successful. That's if you are willing to put in the hard work. Each and every topic is important so pay close attention and remember that there are no shortcuts here. Nothing that's mentioned can be skipped. This is not high school.

PREPARE YOUR BODY AND YOUR SOUL

Well surely this is an obvious one but why? Firstly, let's talk about the spirituality of landcape photography. What's a landscape photograph? It's a representation of your own artistic vision and feelings. In order to complete a piece of art like that, you first need to connect with nature. One must love and connect with nature deeply or else it is not going to work. I know this for a fact, that best adventure landscape photographers out there love what they do which is not the camera, but being out there. If the landscape doesn't speak to you or touch your soul, you're simply not going to come out with anything good. Now, I don't necessarily believe in "talent". I mean sure, some people are born with "talent" with certain things but If you really want it bad enough, you'll learn it. I consider myself an adventure landscape photographer knowing that meaning of the word "adventure" has changed a lot to most people over time. When I looked at my images at the time I first started taking photos, I wanted to throw up! How in the world was I to stand a chance against my favorite and likes of Marc Adamus or Ted Gore? I'm still not there yet but well on my way and the answer was simple: consistency in HARD WORK... "MY IMAGES SUCK" repeat, "MY IMAGES SUCK"! That's what I told myself when I started and I still do... but guess what? there's nothing wrong with that! That's how I was able to get to where I am only within 3 years of shooting. If you don't get cocky and REALLY want it, you'll be successful. I'm not kidding folks, 2 years ago, my images were absolutely horrific compared to now. I didn't even know what a DSLR was 4 years ago! Don't get me wrong, I still have a long way to go but the key point is that I'm on the right track and it took me a few years to notice it. Just remember to recognize and be aware of your progress. Before you even think about buying a camera, you need to understand that landscape photography requires you to be fit both mentally and physically. There's gonna be countless hours of effort that will leave you with terrible results. You're going to think that it's a "fail" but every "fail" means more experience and more experience is a step closer to your goal. It's all part of the learning curve and believe me, you'll get there if you stay focused. You need to be prepared to face the elements of nature, to spend hours on location finding the right composition and light, to then spend more hours behind the computer to better your post processing skills. Literally, hundreds of hours are spent in order to get ONE photograph. That is the mindset that has got me to where I am and I found it the only way to go about. There's just no other way... freezing, sweating, sleepless nights, I've had it all. Why? Because I love it I enjoy being in the nature. I HATE WAKING UP EARLY... I really do, yet for some reason I find the courage to do it when I know I'm shooting a sunrise and I do it gladly. If you don't enjoy it, I'm gonna have to tell you right now to stop reading this article because you're not gonna make it. Pure and simple. If you don't enjoy being one with nature, it's going to show in your images. The only way you're gonna be successful is if you have the love and passion for it. Your landscape art is gonna be your story and your story will include every emotion and feeling that you have inside you while working on it. Alright, I think you get the point now :)

tombstone territorial park, yukon

tombstone territorial park, yukon


PLANNING

Let's talk about planning. Your biggest challenge in landscape photography is going to be finding the right location that speaks to you. Lots of photographers will look at an image and go "WOW, I WANNA SHOOT THAT"... so they'll buy a plane ticket to the location and somehow they'll get there and come back home with disappointing results. It happens every day. It happened to me. It's normal, but the reason for that is because we didn't plan! Planning is one of the most important fundamentals of landscape photography. What does it include? researching the hell out of a location, being there at the right time of year depending on what you're looking to get, finding out how to get there, looking for the right composition, the sun, the moon, tides, clouds, snow, wind, you name it! mother nature is after you! There will be days where everything falls into place but that's just luck. I just can't stress enough how important planning is to success. Sometimes you will spend thousands of dollars on a trip and you plan everything right but mother nature decides to give you the middle finger. It happens and it WILL happen, trust me! :))

Banff National Park, alberta (yes i was standing in the river for this shot)

Banff National Park, alberta (yes i was standing in the river for this shot)


COMPOSITION

Now we're starting to actually get into what separates a good image from the rest. Usually, a successful landscape scene will not be complete without foreground, mid-ground and background. All 3 are very important. Why? cause the 3 complete a story. I've touched on this subject in another article "Landscape Photography: Reality VS Photographs" but basically the key point to remember is that you're recording a 2 dimensional image onto a card. Your eyes look at the world differently as you're constantly moving and looking at the objects, therefore it's all 3 dimensional for you. Everything you see with your eyes is moving and you can see the relationship between the objects in real time. On a photograph, all that depth is gone and you must understand what creates the illusion of depth. Composition becomes about leading lines, diagonals, shapes, transitions and patterns rather than the subject itself. It's not literal! To better understand composition, a good practice would be to study the works of painters. They have usually a very good understanding of composition because that's what they create but they also have more freedom because they start from scratch when us landscape photographers have only what's in front of us to work with. A master of landscape painting that keeps popping up in my head is Albert Bierstadt. Once you look as his work, you'll simply be blown away. I always say that composition is everything because without a good composition, good lighting and post processing and all the hard work means nothing. There's nothing you can do with a bad comp., But if you have captured a good composition with decent lighting, you can always go back to it as you improve and work on it the way you like in post. It's easier for some of us to understand composition but some may need to pay more attention or even attend some classes and that's fine! Just don't give up on understanding it because I tell you, IT'S "EVERYTHING"... You probably have noticed that there won't be any information about camera settings because they don't matter!

To the Bone.jpg

I took this photo on a very frigid morning in the Canadian Rockies on my previous photo tour up there. Let's talk about the compositional elements that make it more interesting despite the flat lighting. We see the drifting snow that was captured by roughly 1/2 second exposure to create those lines. They're now being used as leading diagonal lines coming in from the bottom of the frame... there are also diagonals from the mountains. All these lines are leading the eyes to the brightest part of my image and my focal point which is the mountain in the distance... and it's is being lit by the sun. There are only two colors in the entire scene; blue and orange.... Those colors sit across from each other on the color wheel and they create a complimentary harmony. Most of my foreground is a cold blue which slowly transitions into the very subtle and bright orange of the sky. There are also shapes in the foreground. The methane bubbles create a pleasing pattern of circles. One more thing to notice is that the clouds are mimicking a reflection of the snow pile just below the main mountain in mid-ground. All these little details help to create a strong composition. There's absolutely nothing in this image that I did not intend to include in the comp. You're responsible for everything so keep it simple. Simple is always best. I find that most beginner photographers suffer with composition because they try to include way too much in the scene. There's no need for distracting elements. Everything in your photograph must be put there purposely. Reading the next section of this article will help you understand all of this better.

 

POST PROCESSING

Now let's say that you've done your homework, you've planned everything "right", you've gone out and captured some really nice shots from a beautiful location and now you're home and ready to start post processing. Guess what? this alone can take take thousands of hours to master. :)) You see, post processing is another fundamental job of a landscape photographer. No great photograph will ever be posted anywhere straight out the camera. Not when you have to compete with the best anyway. Back in the film days, it was done in the dark room and now it's "Lightroom". However, if you really wanna push your files and get the best out of them to tell your unique story and create real pieces of art, then your basic RAW developers are just not gonna cut it. You need to learn Photoshop. Why Photoshop? because there is simply nothing out there that's as powerful. The tools and possibilities which are available to you in Photoshop are endless. Cameras are not able to capture the full dynamic range of a scene. They're not great at capturing every element that's found in the atmosphere either. Some people are against it, but the fact of the matter is that editing your files IS part of landscape photography. Lenses distort reality & colors are not captured as seen and that lovely mist above the water during a sunrise is rarely captured properly in camera with enough contrast. It's our job as landscape photographers to understand this and bring the final photograph to life. Your goal is to create something that the viewer is gonna be able to "walk into". I'm gonna share my workflow here in simple terms and tell you what I usually do to my images to give you a better understanding of what goes on in my digital dark room. Now this is MY method and by no means it's the only method, but it should give you an idea of what it takes.

I first do my initial RAW adjustments in Lightroom which may include adjusting highlights and shadows and basic camera calibration and lens correction in order to make the colors pop and prepare the file for further editing. Then I take the files into Photoshop and do my exposure, focus and focal length blending, if any. Once that's done, I fix distortion. I may even leave or increase some distortion as wide angle lenses often create beautiful leading lines from the corners as they stretch them. I now have my first blended shot to work with. From now on, the sky is the limit. I do my dodging and burning which is super important on top of color adjustments. Color harmony is also very important and it can ruin a good composition but you have complete control over color in post. The subject of color harmony alone is a deep one and it's not for this article but basically, you must ensure that all the colors in your scene play well together. If not, shifting them may be necessary. Another thing that creates depth is transition... Transitions from light to dark, cool to warm, sharp to soft, big to small, high contrast to hazy/less contrast, you get the picture. For example, a cooler foreground transitioning into a warmer sky and mountains creates depth and gives you the illusion that the background is far away from your foreground... Remember, it's actually a 2D file and you're only creating the illusion of depth! Important fact! By making certain areas of the image darker, you're putting more emphasis on the lighter parts. Your background or your subject almost always has to be the brightest part of your image. The viewer's eyes are gonna go directly to the brightest section first and then it's up to the composition and the depth of your image to keep the eyes busy on it We naturally get bored of looking very quickly and the only reason you keep looking at Adamus' photos over and over without getting bored is because he has mastered his composition and post processing. His photographs draw you into the scene. PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND MORE PRACTICE. This is not something that you'll do in one sitting. It will take years! Look at your favorite artists' images and see what your images are missing. It's what I've done. That doesn't mean you're copying their style, you're just simply understanding the techniques and then you'll naturally develop your own style as you go. We're all different human beings with different visions and stories. There's no way you can copy someone's style when you truly try to create something. that's a promise! 

One very effective investment would be photo tours and workshops. As someone who leads tours on some of the world's most pristine wilderness areas and having worked with some of the world's best landscape photographers, I can assure you that spending money on one single trip with the right teacher can save you lots of agony and time. Just be careful to choose the right tour with the right photographer because not all tours come with great guides and post processing lessons. A good teacher will take you to the right location, show you how to prepare, how to compose and stay safe while out there and then finish up with a detailed post processing lesson. As a conclusion, this is the harsh reality of a landscape photographer's life. By no means it was written to discourage you. If you've come this far in the article, I'm pretty sure that you have the passion in you so don't give up! As hard as it might sound like, your passion will make it easy for you. You'll have ups and downs and learn along the way. It's a fantastic but long journey and I personally wouldn't wanna be doing anything else. Best of luck.

Juan De Fuca, british columbia

Juan De Fuca, british columbia