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Capturing Intimate Landscapes

Capturing Intimate Landscapes seems to be overlooked in landscape photography. Julian Barkway explains the reasons and offers advice

Capturing Intimate Landscapes. Occupying an awkward position between the straight detail shot and the wider view, intimate landscapes seem to be unjustly overlooked in landscape photography. Perhaps this is because the vista is seen as the traditional approach, going back even beyond Ansel Adams and being rooted in the grand tradition of Renaissance painting (where the landscape was often the allegorical backdrop for a religious scene) whereas the small-scale, or 'intimate' landscape, is a much more recent invention (with antecedents in the work of Eliot Porter, Minor White and Harry Callahan).

So much for history but what is an 'intimate landscape', exactly? Well, if a detail isolates one tiny element of a scene and a vista tries to encompass the widest area possible then the intimate landscape covers, more or less, the middle-ground. Which is to say an area stretching from the photographer's feet right out to the horizon - and no further. Typically, the sky is excluded and the emphasis is on bringing different elements together in an interesting and engaging composition.

River Breggia, Ticino, SwitzerlandAt this point you might be thinking, "that's all very well but how can I not include the sky? It's an integral part of the scene, isn't it?" Integral? Who says? Convention, of course. There's no actual rule which states that every landscape photograph must include the sky. When you think about it, the sky not only limits your compositional options but also ties the image to a certain time of day and immediately places it in the familiar and accessible experience of everyone. That's fine if you want your images to be easily digested and possibly just as easily forgotten but it's my guess that most serious photographers aspire to making unforgettable images.

To this end, letting the viewer's imagination do some work, is a pretty good way to go (either that or pray to the weather gods for exceptional skies and unforgettable light!). So, rather than serving up a pretty view on a plate, a good intimate landscape works in an altogether more subtle way. It suggests rather than shows-off; it discreetly taps your arm and directs your attention rather than physically grabbing you and shouting 'look at me!!' but mostly it invites the viewer to think. Why would you want to do this in your photography? Surely an image must have impact? Well, yes, there must be an element within any image which diverts the viewer's attention first and foremost but there is something about working on a smaller scale which retains the viewer's attention over a longer period of time in a way that only the most carefully-crafted vistas seem to manage. You see, once you remove the horizon, with its rigid partitioning of a scene into 'sky' and 'land', the viewer is forced to spend more time with the image. Reference points need to be discovered, a sense of scale needs to be guessed at and...well, just what is this picture about? If the photographer has done a good job, the viewer will be drawn in and will, ultimately, be more appreciative. A message or idea in which the receiver has a real stake is much more likely to be remembered than one which is spoon-fed. That's one of the principles behind so-called 'viral marketing' and it works.

Schwarzwassergraben, Bern, SwitzerlandSince you don't need a spectacular sky, or any other kind for that matter, shooting the smaller view frees you from the need to work at dawn or dusk. You can shoot in dull weather, rain, fog or even direct sunlight (if you're careful). Dawn and dusk too, if you like, since intimate scenes photographed just before the sun rises or soon after it sets can sometimes reflect the colours of the sky in a very effective way. The important thing is that you are careful to avoid harsh shadows, hence the benefit of overcast weather or working in the shade. The high levels of contrast seen in strong sunlight can cause dark shadows which mask the fine detail that is vital to creating compelling work. Worse, this type of light can lead to areas of unrecoverable solid black in your final image while directly lit parts run the risk of turning an ugly and featureless white. Subtlety of lighting to reveal detail and form is what we're aiming for here.

So, if light-quality takes a back seat, what provides all the interest? The answer is simple: composition! As you have no horizon you aren't going to be worried that it isn't on a third, a fifth or any other proportion that people like. You're free to structure an image how you want to. You can look for shape and texture - an elegant curve of seaweed enclosing a smooth rock, for example, or you could contrast soft and rounded textures against rougher, spikier shapes. A good starting point is to think about slightly abstract concepts such as 'flow', 'balance' and 'compositional narrative' (how the objects you choose work together to tell a sort of story). How easily does your eye move around the scene? Does the image feel foreground-heavy? Is the background too dominant? Why not try a 'portrait' orientation to give a strong narrative which runs from the foreground through to the top of the frame? With no horizon, you don't even need to keep the camera level if it helps the image.

Borrowdale Quarry, EnglandOnce you've mastered a different approach to composition, you can start getting fancy. One thing an intimate landscape often lacks is an obvious sense of scale. Contrary to what some people say, this is a good thing since a lack of scale is one way of bringing intrigue into your photography: the viewer has to work a bit in order to make sense of what he's looking at. Or you can use juxtaposition to make a point about the principal subject. A rock could be mirrored by a similarly-shaped bush, for example. One of my personal favourites is to use reflection in water in order to provide a slightly distorted view of a subject which might only be partially visible in the frame or perhaps to combine the reflected sky with some other detail in an interesting way.

Capturing Intimate Landscapes • Finding the picture

Admittedly, shooting on a smaller scale can be a little tricky at first - at least until you 'get your eye in'. When I'm out hiking in a beautiful location, I'm always on the look-out for unusual patterns and textures or interesting things that I can bring together in a satisfying way. Perhaps there are shapes which echo one another? Or there's something that's a bit different from its surroundings, like a rock with unusual markings? Some intense colours which work well together, maybe? Or a chance arrangement of objects which reveals beauty?

River Orbe, Gorge de l'Orbe, SwitzerlandIntimate compositions don't generally leap out at you and suggest themselves in the way that vistas do, so you have to look around and be observant. The upside is that when you do find a subject you can really make it your own. Chances are that nobody else will have seen that particular arrangement of nature so what you choose to include and how objects are arranged in your frame becomes a very personal statement. Think how many landscape photographers go to the same few locations and come back with more-or-less the same picture. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but by working on a smaller scale, you could bring home an image that nobody has seen before. So don't just settle for shooting 'the view'. Look up, look down, look behind you.

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This is what I did when I went to Kimmeridge a while back - one of the South Coast's most photographed shorelines. I turned my back on the scene that people usually shoot and found a little stream which everyone who goes onto the beach passes right by - mostly without a moment's thought. I immediately saw patterns in the rock and considered how the flow of water might be used to add interest. Finally, some pebbles in the foreground just seemed to balance the composition nicely. That was my own personal view of this place. You, however, might go to this exact same spot, look at the exact same elements and come up with a quite different picture. That's the beauty of thinking on a smaller scale. So, what are you waiting for? Get creative!

Capturing Intimate Landscapes • Technical Considerations

Kimmeridge Bay Stream, Dorset, EnglandThere used to be a very good reason why this sort of work has, up until now, largely been the preserve of large-format photographers and that is: depth of field. Obviously, shooting on a smaller scale, often focussing at less than infinity, brings issues of sharpness from front to back. Large format view cameras provide a means of aligning the focussing plane (where the film or sensor sits) more closely with the subject plane (the notional plane connecting all your various subject-elements) and so ensuring that everything is nice and sharp. Some also allow the lens and film-plane to be moved independently, allowing the foreground to appear larger or smaller in relation to the background than it does in reality. Which is all great but hang on a moment. View cameras are a right pain to use, aren't they? And don't they need that weird old-school stuff... film, I think it's called? So, what if I want to use my DSLR? Well, don't panic! If you can't get the required depth-of-field by stopping your chosen lens right down and/or by making use of the 'hyperfocal distance' (basically focussing on a point roughly a third of the way up the frame), there are two solutions, one expensive and one relatively cheap.The expensive option is to get a Perspective Control (PC) lens (sometimes referred to as a 'tilt/shift lens'). If your camera also supports live-view then you effectively have the equivalent of a view-camera and the means to focus it accurately. The downsides are that these lenses are only available in a small number of fixed focal lengths (typically 17, 24 or 45mm for Canon; 24, 45 or 85mm for Nikon), they are expensive and you can forget about autofocus.

The cheaper option is to use a technique called 'focus-stacking'. Here you take multiple shots of your subject, each focussed at a different distance (either use manual focus or select autofocus points progressively from the lowest to the highest in the frame, whilst ensuring that your exposure doesn't change throughout the process), and then combine them using a software tool such as Helicon Focus (commercial, Mac/PC) or the shareware CombineZM package (PC only). You might have already heard about this technique in connection with macro or still-life work but there's no reason why it can't be used for intimate landscapes, too. And the big advantage is, it works with any focal length! So you don't need the forced perspective of a super-wide just to get adequate depth of field. With focus-stacking you can use any lens you want - whichever focal length works best for the composition you have in mind.

Porth Nanven, Cornwall, EnglandOK. I admit it. I work mainly with a large-format view camera where I tend to use lenses from moderate wide angle (equivalent to 28mm) up to short teles (about 100mm equivalent) but I have started to experiment with focus-stacking for some of my digitally-captured images. The downsides? Well, there aren't many but the big problem with any technique which involves blending multiple images is subject movement - so it's not such a good idea trying it on a windy day.

Finally, use a tripod! Making a successful intimate landscape is an exercise in paring things down; removing the extraneous until only the essential remains. To do this effectively, you need to set up your camera and then spend some time thinking through the compositional possibilities. That means placing your camera on a support so that you can fine-tune your composition in a considered way. Take your time. There's usually no rush to catch the 'right' light. No maniacal hopping from spot to spot in a desperate attempt to find a composition before the sun goes down. This is an unhurried way of working which emphasises and rewards keen observation.

These days, nearly all my image-making is on an intimate scale. I find it liberating and a creative way of working. I can carefully choose a scene and then decide for myself what features I feel are important to emphasise and which to exclude. Unlike a vista, where the individual elements often have pre-determined locations within a composition, I can exercise maximum creativity with my images. I can simplify a scene right down to its essence or I can intentionally show nature in all its complexity. The choice is mine. And I don't really need to get up at stupid o'clock, either! (Although I often do.) Creative landscape photography and a lie-in. What could be better than that?

Read this and many more superb articles in High Definition, inside issue 6 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

Julian Barkway

I am a passionate believer in 'slow photography' where time is taken to 'make', rather than merely snap, an image. To this end I find myself drawn to the simplest technology possible to create my photographs.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent intro to intimate landscapes. I love the look and can’t wait to try my own. Thanks for an informative article. BTW, it’s the first one I read as a new member.

    • Thank you for the kind comment. If you enjoyed this article, you will love the magazine content.

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