Photography, practised as a form of visual art, is different from photography as a representational medium, i.e., literally re-presenting a scene as a random observer may see it. Simply to reproduce a subject as seen is also to forego the very essence of art: the creation of new experiences or interpretations of the artist’s own making.
In fact, the photographic artist’s ability to create, as in to bring something new into existence, may be hindered further by any form of preconception that might override their own judgment. These may range from unintended oversights resulting from instinct or from not spending sufficient time to craft a composition, and all the way to intentional substitution of the photographer’s own sensibilities with those of others as a result of peer pressure, the desire to conform, or the temptation to plagiarise outright the work of others.
In many cases, the way forward often is not in new ideas, tools, or techniques, but rather in letting go of old ones.
Letting Go of Normal Vision
Photography differs from other visual arts such as painting or printmaking in that it is subtractive in nature. Where painters start with a blank canvas and progressively add visual elements, photographers begin with an abundant, and sometimes chaotic, array of elements, and need carefully to distill and arrange the few that will result in an effective composition. This is an important distinction often missed by inexperienced photographers who tend to forget that their viewers generally have no context of the greater experience of being at the scene.
Conversely, beginners often fail to venture beyond what may seem a “normal” way of seeing a scene, a foreground, some interesting elements, and a sky. An important rule of thumb in visual composition is: anything that does not directly contribute generally distracts. If the foreground is dull, do not include it. If there is nothing interesting in the sky, leave it out. If your main subject is eclipsed by other elements that are larger, more complex, or more colourful, change your perspective to exclude them. Let go of the way you see normally, and begin to visualise in terms of what is most effective at conveying your message.
Let Go of Unoriginal Images
Let’s face it, many nature photographers, whether they admit it or not, pursue their work with the mentality of collectors. If one person has a successful original image in their portfolio, they need to have it, too, originality be damned.
As in music, there are times when “cover versions” may surpass the original work in some aspects. Still, these for the most part represent the sensibilities of the original creator and not the repeat performer. The genius of a unique and personal work not only is more deserving of praise, but also far more satisfying to the person who creates it. Do not deny yourself this profound sense of achievement by chasing after iconic compositions already photographed by others. Let go of the instinct to be a follower and chart your own creative path.
Let Go of Photography for the Sake of Photography
We all love our cameras and lenses and the magic of capturing light, and we all love to boast of our latest creations when returning from a visit to a beautiful place. Still, it is easy to allow such considerations to distract from the very reason we chose to work in the landscape: our love for the landscape.
I am often puzzled when reading accounts of “bad light” or a “terrible sunrise” spoiling a photo shoot. Certainly, if you treat your time in the field as merely a photo shoot, such complaints may seem reasonable. But if all you are after is a photo shoot, you may be better off working in a studio where conditions are much more controlled.
The beauty of working outdoors is that fortuitous conditions may happen at random and, whether you come home with a good image or not, the very experience of being there is rewarding in itself. So rather than going out with the aim of making particular photographs, go instead in search of inspiration and be ready to photograph those things that inspire you. Do not just photograph the landscape; photograph what the landscape means to you. Let go of the incessant need to fill your memory cards and instead look for things that are memorable.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 23 of Landscape Photography Magazine.