Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: the usefulness of taking, and reviewing, ‘not-so-good’ images

The point of this item is to argue that all the relatively poor photographs I’ve taken since I took up photography have been very useful in helping me to make what I think are improved images, some of them at the same locations and of the very same scenes, that feature in the earlier, less successful ones.

I’ve recognised the above for a while now, but I was struck today, whilst browsing through some photos I took when I first started using a ‘proper’ camera, and also considering the thoughts I’ve had in writing the first few ‘making of’ posts here, by how useful to my development the many less-than-good images I’ve made have been. Thinking further, that’s still true: I (of course!) still make images that don’t work – though the ‘keeper’ ratio is improving slowly – and I still find reviewing what went wrong very useful. Pleasingly, however, the nature of the problems with them is changing over time.

Early on, I almost exclusively concentrated on drama of some kind: with very few exceptions, every image I still have from the first six months is either taken at a very wide angle or is of some extreme set of colours, whether naturally so or as a result of pumping up the saturation in post-processing. The typical wide-angle shot – something small in the foreground taking up a large part of the frame, combined with some inevitably distant scenery – is an easy way to exploit the equipment and produce an eye-catching image. It’s a perspective that most people not perpetually scanning through photo sites don’t generally see, so showing such images to friends and family is an easy win; they’re impressed with the extreme visual impact and oddness of the result. Somewhat similarly, pushing the sliders in post-processing to make a colourful scene even more so through saturation and contrast works in the same way. Early on, engendering exclamations from people you know is great, and such methods certainly achieve that.

Thirdly, and to some degree similarly to the previous two methods of producing drama, I found that I’d taken lots of shots using all sorts of things – mostly, but not exclusively, trees – to frame photographs. Some of these images even include bright sunsets and a wide-angle lens to produce the trinity of ‘easy win’ images. Maybe it’s just me, but, after a while, having something to produce a frame as part of the image becomes a little predictable.

Not that any of these techniques or subjects are, per se, bad, but they can be over-used; and I most certainly was over-using them! These are not necessarily bad photos then – many of mine may well have been, but the general styles aren’t intrinsically wrong. What they are is very repetitive. ‘Formulaic‘ is very possibly the most apposite word here; and the problem with a successful, visual formula is that, once it’s been seen numerous times, the differences start to be insignificant; one image blends into another. If you add to that the fact that I’d been taken in by the myth of the ‘rule of thirds’, which I seem to have followed rather rigorously early on, and my early collection of images is very much a series of minor variations around two or three themes. Not overly exciting, as a body of work, even if each one, taken by itself, may seem dramatic to anyone not conversant with this type of image.

To return to the theme of this musing: I can see now that taking numerous versions of what were, if I’m honest, very much the same handful of compositions, albeit in different locations, was extremely useful to my development into what I feel is more interesting photographic territory. I became aware, with each new set of images, that they were all becoming rather similar, in terms of both lighting and composition.

The real turning point came when I was in the Atacama desert and the southern Bolivian altiplano a year ago; not on a photography tour or workshop, but on a general holiday, just travelling about. More precisely, it came when I returned and started processing the images. The nature of the type of semi-organised trip I was on is that landscapes are mostly seen around midday, not at the ends of the day. At the time I had a vague idea that there was something better about dawn and dusk, but no real understanding of just how much difference there could be in the potential of the captured image. Years spent high on snow-covered mountains mean that I know very well how delicate colours can be in the pre-dawn light, but not how much better they can be photographically. The bright colours I captured on the South America trip were pleasing – they still are! – but the few images I took late in the day, mostly simply snapshots as memories, revealed notably more interesting light, albeit light ‘wasted’ on mediocre compositions of camp-sites and desert towns. I saw that I could capture more subtle and interesting colours using the lower light levels to be found at the ends of the day, and that this didn’t invariably mean bright images of sunrises and sunsets.

Another significant step forward, after months of trying to achieve subtle, or muted, colours without doing the whole get-up-very-early thing (I’m not exactly a ‘morning person’) was when I attended one of Bruce Percy’s excellent workshops in Scotland. I did this in large part so that I’d be ‘morally compelled’ to wake before dawn; so much easier to do when you know that prevaricating over the whole, arduous getting up process will result in several people waiting around for you, having themselves got up very early… The images I managed to capture on that trip were a large part of the answer to what I’d been trying to do for some time: many gently-varied colours and lots of detail in the RAW captures which can then be used to produce much stronger compositions and more interesting finished images than contrasty daylight can ever produce.

I don’t think that I could have come to the recognition of what I want to do with photography – which is currently very much tending towards the subtle and away from the shouting, bright colour, high contrast type of picture – had I not spent quite some time recognising the limitations of highly saturated, dramatic shots by making images of exactly that type. And now, my Flickr ‘stream is showing good signs of not containing solely ultra-wide angle shots. There certainly are some, and there will continue to be, along with the sun rising and setting, but I hope I’m now only using those devices when it helps the image in some way, rather than because the kit will do it, or because I know my friends will be impressed.

I should add that, whilst I’d been thinking along these lines and reassuring myself that taking ‘bad’ pictures was useful as part of my learning curve, I was provoked into thinking about it once more by an article on a similar subject in issue 9 of the on-line magazine Great British Landscapes, a great source for all sorts of thoughts on landscape photography.

I’d be interested to hear your comments on whether this is a completely normal progression, or whether I’m just being reactionary, the latter being entirely possible!

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