Your goal should always be to impart a sense of place within your photographs. In doing so, you can transport your viewers into distant worlds, and forge a connection between them and the places you explore.
Part of this process is learning to tell a story with your photographs, but this is only the beginning of the journey, not the end. A compelling story about your subject always should be a significant component, but photography is so much more than simple story-telling. To transform your subject and to bring it to life for viewers, you need to capture mood and moment and, using composition, propel the eye into the scene. The goal of all of this is to give viewers the feeling of being there, as if they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you when you made the image.
For this photograph of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s famous Patagonia region, conditions were less than ideal. A storm raged over the mountains, and wind-driven rain pelted me as I waited for dawn’s first light. I scouted the location the day before and it seemed promising as a sunrise location, so there I stood, huddled against the cold and wet. I began to doubt if the clouds ever would part, and feared instead that they would cloak the peaks in darkness. In other words, it was a fairly typical Patagonia morning, ripe with potential, if only the weather would break.
And then, suddenly and without warning, the clouds began to thin, lifting the veil blocking the light of the rising sun. The view of the mountains cleared, and a stunning sunrise began to unfold. It was one of those moments that even full-time professionals like me, used to long periods in the field, rarely see. Everything came together: light, composition, mood, and moment, a rare perfect symphony of otherwise disparate and random elements.
Every component of the image was carefully chosen to help tell the story. The jagged peaks, the famous “Horns of Paine”, are the centerpiece of the image, of course, but I included surrounding elements to complete the story, and to provide visual context for this stunning, almost otherworldly landscape. The glacier-fed waters, tumbling over a series of rapids in the foreground, act as a leading element, drawing the eye into the scene. The curving shape they create is repeated and reinforced by the shapes of the glowing clouds above. All of these elements help focus attention on the sunlit peaks, but also provide additional visual interest, encouraging the eye to explore within the picture frame. My goal with every composition is to engage the viewer’s eye and hold it over time. When viewers cannot tear their eyes away from a photograph, then the artist has established a connection successfully that likely will stand the test of time.
Creating a sense of place in your photographs does more than forge a connection between your viewers and the places you photograph; it also forges a connection between your viewers and your personal artistic vision. As such, it is vitally important that you find the right balance between honoring the landscape and the story it tells, and imposing your vision upon the scene. The best photographers do so in a way that seems both elegant and effortless. To accomplish this successfully takes practice and experience; it starts with learning to see the landscape abstractly, not as mountains and trees and rapids but rather as a jumbled collection of form, shape, color, and tone. Your job is to put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to the viewer, and helps them understand the land as you see it.
In the end, it takes more than just pretty scenery and light to make a compelling nature photograph. You must find a way to create an emotional tether between your viewers and the scene. Inviting the viewer to become a part of the photograph’s story is an effective way of accomplishing this goal. By providing context, by using visual cues, mood, and moment, you give the viewer enough information to make them feel a part of the scene, and you allow them to see the world through your eyes. If you can do this successfully, you will be well on your way to creating photographs that are both compelling and meaningful.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 18 of Landscape Photography Magazine.