During the global lockdown, many landscape photographers who would normally be traveling the world and leading workshops have found themselves cooped up at home. Away from their element on location and with an abundance of free time, they’ve joined the online circuit of photography webinars, panels and interviews.
For people still refining their own approach to photography, it’s been great to hear their stories. To learn how masters of the craft created their best work. How they returned time and time again for the perfect light. How they framed the scene just so. To step inside their head and better appreciate how the image was composed or why they applied certain post-processing techniques.
Then after they’re done presenting, the questions begin. Some of them are great, delving even deeper into the creation of certain images. But then it happens: What aperture did you shoot this image with? Why do you still use brand X, when brand Y has all these great features?
Sometimes I can even see the photographer’s eyes roll before the question is delivered.
Beyond Settings and Gear
Knowing the correct shade of blue won’t help us paint like Picasso. Nor will knowing Brian May’s make of guitar enable us to create epic solos. So why then in photography do we focus so much on the fine details behind great work?
It’s natural to want to improve our technique to create stronger, more impactful work. But rarely would seeking the optimal settings or owning the most advanced gear actually make our images ‘better’. Yes the settings are important—blown out highlights and blurred subjects are objectively undesirable. But learning those fundamental elements can be researched online and (relatively) quickly applied and refined.
If budding landscape photographers hear that a stunning image was shot at 14mm, ISO 100, ½ sec, f/8 on a $2000+ f/2.8 lens, then the worst thing they can do is seek to apply those same settings on the same gear next time they go out to shoot. There’s value in knowing that f/8 is sharper than f/16. But what if you’re trying to shoot a sunstar, or there’s a close foreground that isn’t conducive to focus stacking? What if the great light is fleeting, so you opt for high ISO to capture the scene handheld rather than waste time with a tripod? It’s nuances like these that are often overlooked when prioritising optimal sharpness, but deliver stronger results than technically perfect images.
When we focus on the sharpest lens, the most sturdy tripod, or calculating the hyperfocal distance, we pay less attention to the landscape itself. Our attention is a limited resource. Save it for the landscape. For the light. For strong compositional elements.
Invest in Your Learning and Development
And it’s not just attention you’ll get back too. When we stop upgrading our camera every two years, when we stop salivating over that new f/1.4 prime lens, we can invest (both our finances and our time) in our own development.
Consider paying for a video tutorial from a photographer you look up to and admire—learning about years of processing skills distilled down into 90 minutes. Or go on that dedicated photography adventure you’ve been dreaming of (even splurging on a chartered sunset flight to see views and light unlike anything you’ve experienced). See these purchases as investments in your learning that you’ll benefit from for years to come.
Instead of spending hours pixel peeping or sifting through pages of gear reviews, use that time to broaden your own vision as an artist. Borrow a non-photography book on how your favourite musician created their iconic album. Or watch landscape painting tutorials to see how painters control light and composition (classic Bob Ross videos on YouTube are great for this).
Creativity is often sparked when we form new connections between disparate concepts—when we broaden our knowledge base, we expand our creative horizons. Next time you’re shooting a busy forest scene you might opt to include blurred leaves to act as a soft frame around the subject (rather than stressing to get every element tack sharp). Or consider heading out to shoot at midday (and not just at sunrise/sunset because someone told you there was only good light at golden hour) to experience how the light filters down through the canopy above.
While there’s often overlap between technical proficiency and stunning images, ensuring the former doesn’t guarantee the latter. Gear and tech specs are important (of course they are), but that’s not the point. The point is to stop viewing these tools and settings as the keys to great work.
It’s the location, the framing, the light, the season, the angle, the 50 frames we don’t see, the deft processing—these are the elements of great landscape photography. Instead of asking a photographer for the exact location of an image, ask why were they drawn to that location, did they return under different light or changing seasons? Instead of asking what aperture they used to make the entire image so sharp, ask why they included those foreground elements in the first place, did they exclude other features that distracted from the scene?
When we ask questions beyond the gear and settings, not only do we learn more about how the image was created, but we find that the answers are infinitely more interesting too.