Improvisational landscape photography

This image wasn't planned. I saw the light in the trees, set up my 5x4 camera, and realised the potential for a composition.

Some landscape photographers like to arrive at a location with a very firm idea of the image they want to make. They will have checked the weather forecast, the sun position and will have previously reconnoitred to find a precise viewpoint. If their calculations work out, they will probably go home with an amazing shot – or, at the very least, the one they set out to take.

This can work really well – for some photographers – but whenever I’ve tried this approach, more often than not, a particularly recalcitrant cloudbank has conspired against me by obscuring the sun at the crucial moment. Or it’s raining. Or a farmer is busily muck-spreading somewhere in my field of vision. Or worse. I get to my chosen viewpoint well before dawn and it’s already overrun by a gaggle of photographers with precisely the same idea as me. Perhaps it’s because I’m fundamentally antisocial, but I feel it’s important that it’s just me and the landscape having a one-to-one dialogue. It’s better, I find, than having an angry argument with essentially inanimate landscape features then storming off in frustration whilst uttering choice profanities. That just looks silly. So, rather than come away without an image, these days I improvise.

A fleeting and ephemeral subject - a bit like improvisation itself.

Now, in some circles, improvisation has got itself a bit of a bad name – think self-indulgent guitar solos or ‘free’ jazz – so let’s talk about improvised comedy, not music. I’ve always admired comedians who can instantaneously produce arcs of sheer comedic genius based on the simplest of audience suggestions. What is their secret? Practice and preparation, of course. And rehearsal. If you want to appear spontaneous, you really have to work at it. The point is, in order to be confident at working ‘off the cuff’, you need to have a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of what you do. So musicians endlessly practise scales and chord progressions and comedians build up a repertoire of humorous ‘riffs’ on a variety of topics, honing their delivery and timing. Essentially, you have to learn the building blocks and how they fit together so completely that in performance you can take those blocks and combine them in surprising ways to build absolutely anything you want. But what, exactly, does all this have to do with landscape photography? Well, quite a lot as it happens…

‘Performance’ in this context, with due deference to Ansel Adams’ oft-quoted maxim that the print is the performance, is when you are out in the field utilising your skills. Practice is taken up with acquiring compositional solutions to a variety of conditions and understanding what types of subject respond well to which types of illumination. Armed with this knowledge, you can then go to a location and…. relax. There’s no need to stress about getting to a precise viewpoint by a predetermined time. No need to swear at the weather gods for not responding to the goat you so generously sacrificed the night before. No need to worry that the 42mm thingummy so essential to this one image currently lies, inexplicably, at the bottom of your sock-drawer and not in its accustomed place in your camera bag. No. Just relax and take in your surroundings. Walk a little. Observe the weather and cloud-patterns. Think about the multitude of possible subjects surrounding you. What’s looking particularly tempting today? Are the conditions right for a vista or perhaps intimate compositions might work better? That’s a beautifully-shaped tree over there! Oh, and look at that rock! Such amazing patterns. And that little stream. I wonder if there’s anything interesting there? One discovery leads to another. Not all result in worthwhile photographs, of course, but quite a few will.

Look for forms and connections...

I’ve heard some photographers refer to this as ‘working’ an area. I dislike this term. It makes something that is so absorbing and fun sound laborious. It’s not work! It’s about getting ‘tuned in’ to your environment so that you not only start seeing shape, form and texture instead of trees and rocks and rivers but also the relationships and connections between things. Once you start to think in terms of the abstractions of form and connections it becomes easier to build compelling and surprising compositions. First, though, you need that spark of curiosity that an improvisational approach promotes. You need that feeling of not knowing what you might find because, let’s face it, if you’re surprised by something unexpected then your audience probably will be, too.

Next time: a couple of practical examples.

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2 Responses to Improvisational landscape photography

  1. Mike Green says:

    Hi Julian,

    Nice piece. I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of ‘learning the building blocks’ and being ready for unexpected and unplanned finds. Whilst I’ve written a couple of blog posts recently talking about planning – and I certainly do think it’s very helpful – it’s definitely the case that, in the field, relaxing and getting to know the place is an essential part of the skill and will produce these unexpected compositions. Curiosity is very much the key; it’s too easy to fixate on the obvious and miss the exciting and new!


    • Thanks, Mike.

      A certain amount of planning is always necessary – you have to know where to go in the first place, obviously – but fixating on a single idea will lead to disappointment in the majority of cases. At least in my experience!


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