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Compelling Landscape Photographs – Six Essential Ingredients

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There are basically two types of customers who visit my Durango gallery. The first are seeking artwork for their home or office. The second describe themselves as aspiring photographers seeking inspiration or advice. Whether they are interested in purchasing an image or creating their own, both types are interested in compelling landscape photographs.

Invariably, I find myself engaged in a conversation about what what goes into making compelling landscapes. Of course there is no definitive answer. However, there is a basic recipe successful photographers use, in addition to their creative vision and judgement, to make those attention grabbing images to which people are naturally drawn.

Compelling Landscape Photographs

First and foremost, great landscapes convey a strong feeling or mood. My overarching goal as a nature photographer is to capture a moment in time that, when viewed in years to come, recalls the excitement and emotion of that moment. I know I’ve made a relevant photograph when it elicits a positive and emotional reaction from others.

A “feeling” or a “mood” is an abstract concept that can be difficult to define. It can be even more difficult to capture in a two-dimensional medium such as a photograph. Ask ten photographers how it is done, and you’ll get at least ten different answers. However, there are a few basic ingredients, when combined with the photographer’s creative vision and technical skills, that are inherent in compelling landscape photographs.

Six Ingredients

compelling landscape photographsHere is my checklist for creating compelling landscape photographs. These are the six essential ingredients:

  1. Gear: Photography gear is where it all begins and is therefore important. However, the photographer behind the camera is much more important than the gear itself. Cameras and lenses are merely tools. As with any craftsman, the photographer must understand the potential and limitation of his tools.
  2. Technical execution: This is really the foundation upon which all great photographs are made. It starts in the field with a properly exposed and well focused image. It ends in the digital darkroom where we finish (I said finish, not fix) a well executed image. Just like the old masters of photography such as Ansel Adams and Edward Curtis who finished their images in the darkroom, today’s landscape photographers finish their images in the digital darkroom using computers and software.
  3. Image sharpness: Whether an image is sharp front to back or has a sharp foreground element with a creamy out-of-focus background, image sharpness is a prime consideration in landscape photography. It contributes greatly to the mood of a photograph. I love a tack-sharp image but there are times when the mood is best captured with a soft focus or shallow depth of field.
  4. Composition: Composition is critical to great landscape photography. When you boil it down, composition is nothing more than arranging objects in space. The photographer does this by moving the camera’s point of view. The arrangement of those objects, if done well by the photographer, is a big part of capturing the mood and feeling of the moment. I believe my previous career in architecture helps me find compelling compositions. Some feel you are either born with a good eye or you are not. I disagree. Some people have an innate ability to find great compositions but I firmly believe it is a skill that can be acquired through study and practice.
  5. Color: Color has the greatest emotional impact of any graphic element. Dark tones are somber. Light tones are happy. Red and black convey mystery. Blue and green are tranquil. Orange and yellow suggest warmth. As nature photographers, we are limited to the colors provided by mother nature. However, we should strive to understand the psychological implications of the colors we photograph and how they affect the feelings and moods conveyed by our images.
  6. Light: Without light there is literally no photography. The successful landscape photographer considers three variables of light; quantity, quality, and direction. In my humble opinion, light direction contributes the most to the mood or feeling conveyed by a photograph. Front light is peaceful and soft. Side Light accentuates textures and details. A backlit scene is dramatic and sometimes abstract.

So there you have it; six ingredients to compelling landscape photographs. I don’t mean to suggest the photographer’s artistic creation is made by merely following a simple formula. However, next time you see a compelling landscape photograph, ask yourself why is it that you like it. It can be hard to articulate. You probably like it because the photographer successfully utilized these basic ingredients to communicate a feeling or mood that resonates with you. If so, you have obviously connected with the photographer and likely, have shared the feelings he experienced.

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