Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: the best circumstances for taking photographs

This musing has come out of a whole series of ideas which have been bouncing around in my head for a while now. Things such as:

  • What is the point of taking photographs?
  • What are they for?
  • What are the best times for photography?
  • With whom, in general, do I like to make images?
  • For whom do I make them?
  • And various interrelated themes.

I started off writing this as ‘Musings on: why I make photographs’, but once I’d written about a thousand words it was apparent that I’d not even begun to touch on the ‘why?’ aspect and had produced a couple of pages of ‘with whom’. This latter required some expansion and was becoming more immediately interesting than the wider question, largely in the context of its effect on the resultant images, but also in terms of the overall enjoyment of the process. Hence, this post contains my thoughts on ‘the best circumstances’.

Firstly, I’m not talking about weather here, or at least only in an incidental sense. Whether it’s cold, warm, raining, snowing, or whatever, is clearly significant to the results, but it’s not within the parameters of this post – and yes, they’re arbitrary parameters to some degree!

I’m also not talking about location, or time of day, or type of subject. I’m solely looking at the circumstances in terms of the people I’m with, or their absence, and the time constraints I may be under. And a last caveat: this is about going out and attempting to make ‘art’ (for want of a better term) from landscapes, not pictures of people, holiday snaps, or anything I’ve been asked to create.

Unfortunately, all of this is interrelated in a rather complex manner. The ‘why?’ of taking photographs, in itself, modifies the definition of the best circumstances. Is the motivation that of making the best image, of enjoying the process, or of something in-between those two? I can certainly say that I want to make the best images I’m capable of, as a general principle, but I want to enjoy doing it too, and that’s where the ‘with whom’ aspect comes in. This seems to reduce to three circumstances:

  1. Alone.
  2. With other photographers.
  3. With non-photographers.

Of course, this can be further complicated by just how many other people there are around, and perhaps whether it’s a photography workshop or just a group of photographer friends. The ‘sheer number’ question is a step too far in complexity though, and the workshop point is one I plan to address in a later post, so here I’m sticking with the simple list above!

Right that’s a few parameters set, and already over four hundred words; I knew this was going to be tricky to describe …

Photographing alone

Sometimes I think this is optimal; often, I don’t. Mostly, when I’ve been out taking photographs with other photographers, I constantly recognise that we are gaining inspiration from each other, or that it’s simply good fun to be able to chat about what each of us is trying to do during the process of looking for and making a composition. All very positive.

The benefits of being alone are undeniable though: for a start, no-one is going to complain about how long I’m taking setting-up a shot. More precisely, I’m not going to be worried that anyone might be growing impatient. I think my worry is more the issue here, at least with fellow photographers, than the reality of how anyone else is feeling. I’ve never found myself impatient with someone’s setting-up and, in all likelihood, the reverse is also true – so, I’m needlessly pressuring myself to hurry. Nonetheless, whether real or imagined, the concern is there, and being alone at a location removes that.

Beyond this freedom argument, perhaps an extension of it, is that I can choose to go where I want to. If I want to head off up some hill in twilight, on the basis that I’m comfortable and competent to do so, I can (let’s assume that this competence statement is true and ignore the possibility that I’m delusional on this point!). I don’t have to worry about my companion(s) being less comfortable than me in those circumstances. Obviously, if at some point I fall off a cliff, or – considerably more likely in the Yorkshire Dales – down some large, limestone hole, I shall have demonstrated the lack of good sense inherent in this particular advantage.

Photographing with non-photographers

I’ve done this; it’s tricky. It’s tricky for me anyway; maybe less so for some people. The trouble I have here is that I’m unwilling to force my companion(s) to stand around variously freezing, becoming bored senseless, or getting wetter than they already are whilst I spend time poking about for compositions, setting up the camera, and then waiting indefinitely for ‘the right light’. I have friends who are remarkably willing to suffer this sort of tedium and discomfort – or at least who claim to be – but that doesn’t mean I have to let them.

This touches on the aspect of circumstances I mentioned earlier, and to which I’ll return shortly: the presence of time constraints. When I first mentioned this, I was thinking of ‘I must be back by specified time X‘; in this case it’s the more immediate issue of having someone physically present; a someone who almost certainly wants the whole ‘make a photo’ process to finish sooner rather than later. From what I’ve found since I’ve been making landscapes, my image results when people are waiting to leave – people who don’t generally value photography anywhere close to as highly as I do – have been pretty poor. I’ve just had a look through my portfolio of best images and not one was taken with a non-photographer present. Obviously, this is all down to me not concentrating properly, so it’s my ‘fault’, not theirs, but the evidence from the results is pretty conclusive I feel.

Photographing with other photographers

The big plus of this is that it’s more fun than the solo option, in lots of ways. I enjoy taking people to places they’ve not been before and finding out how they see a scene differently from the way I do, or notice details I’ve missed. I also enjoy the banter which generally surrounds joint trips out. Further, there’s the benefit of having more than one pair of hands available when a bit of gardening of the ‘move a dead tree’ variety is required. Oh, no, come to think of it, that’s only happened once, and the photographer in question (you know who you are, Rob) chose to watch, camera ready, in the hope that I might do something memorable and photographically entertaining, such as fall into the muddy stream from which I was dragging the aforementioned tree. Still, the possibility of assistance exists, if only in theory. In that particular case, in fact, had I been alone, I might not have bothered. It was the shared amusement value in ‘doing the gardening’ which drove me to make the image.

It’s also great to be on the receiving end of being shown new locations which I’d otherwise not have discovered; and shared memories of making a particular image are not to be undervalued either. There are lots of arguments in favour of this ‘with other photographers’ circumstance then, though with the possible drawbacks from the previous sections to counter them.

Time constraints

I am, quite profoundly, not a fan of time constraints; not in most things, but particularly not when it comes to making images. That pretty much sums it up but, to elaborate slightly: being aware of a limit to the available time in which to make a shot – a limit not imposed by the subject that is – very much spoils the experience for me. I’m not talking here of “I must photograph this tree within the next few days”, I’m thinking of “I must leave this place and be somewhere else by a particular time of day“. Such haste-inducing, fixed ends to a photography session generally mean that I’m not concentrating fully on what I’m doing, which is simultaneously a distraction and somewhat mars the experience.

Inevitably, time constraints happen every so often, but I’ve taken recently to an approach where I usually don’t go out in the first place if I can’t stay until the light is gone, or the sun is fully above the horizon after dawn, or whatever it is that the subject, rather than an external factor, demands. Doing that, I can relax completely and not feel any sense of rush other than that produced by the changing nature of the subject as the light fades or clouds move across the sky.

And overall?

To complete the picture, so to speak, I had a quick look through my portfolio again – I wrote ‘analysed’ originally, but that seems a bit grandiose for the minute or so it took – and something in the region of seventy percent were taken in the ‘alone’ mode. I don’t see that as any conclusive proof that this produces the best results, however; many of those images are of inaccessible places where I was never going to find someone either willing or wishing to be there at the time I made the capture.

More importantly, a similar percentage – and they are not the same subset – were taken when there was not a hint of a time-constraint.

So, for me at least, there are very much arguments both for going out with other photographers and for hunting down captures on my own, but I don’t seriously expect to ever make more than the occasional good image if I’m out with non-photographers. No matter; I shall still do all three, so long as it all comes under the main heading of ‘fun’, or at the very least ‘enjoyable’ – I’ll simply set my expectations accordingly for the non-photographers condition. What I shall most certainly continue to do, though, is try to ensure that I don’t have any hard-stop finish times when I go out.

I’d be interested to hear whether your experience is similar to mine.

4 Responses to “Musings on: the best circumstances for taking photographs”

  1. David

    This article made me laugh… I have got to say!!
    Alone…. always produces the best images, simply because I have found that the best times of day, the best locations and the time needed for waiting are beyond non photographic friends comprehension, and most ‘fair weather’ photographers patience…
    Never do family… as they always feel the need to let you know that they are bored and make no bones about it…
    I have never done a group but cannot see it producing good images as I would spend most time discussing the composition and miss the light…
    Anyway, because of the first part of your article, I take my shots for me and i feel that, having worked hard all week, and being happy to get up at the crack of sparrows, i have earned some me (alone) time… selfish, i know, but i can share the moment in the images and say, “you should have been there”, with a wry smile!!

    • Mike Green ( http://www.mikegreenimages.co.uk )

      Glad it amused, that was part of the intention! Pleased you broadly concur too. Perhaps those conclusions are fairly obvious, but I find it useful to sit down and think about things, and to write out the thought process.

      As to groups: I’ve only done it once, on one of Bruce Percy’s workshops, and it was surprisingly conducive to image-making as there was time to be on my own, if that was what I wanted.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment.



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