Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Archive for ‘September, 2011’

Musings on: the problem with multi-tasking

When I first started making photographs in what some people would call a ‘serious’ manner – going out with intent to photograph, rather than merely having a camera with me to capture memories – I took my camera and all my photographic kit with me every time I went out walking. I’ve stopped doing that, and this article is about why, and in what way that’s a good idea from the perspective of my future photography.

This post was inspired directly by a very good article from Richard Childs on his WordPress site; well worth a read. Richard’s post led me to recognise that I’ve been modifying my behaviour in capturing photographs over the last few months. It’s about – I’m paraphrasing wildly here – the disadvantages of combining two things:

  • the enjoyment of being out in the countryside;
  • and the enjoyment of making images.

As with so many combined activities, each can reduce enjoyment of the other. In particular, for me, going out to make photographs can definitely detract from certain aspects of the experience of being up a hill or mountain, or wandering in an area of woodland. Richard offers a solution to this problem and I have a slightly different one. That is, I do at the moment. Over time, everything changes and no doubt my current approach may evolve further.

Why doesn’t combining the above work well for me?

A considerable part of my enjoyment in the outdoors is being very aware of everything going on around me: the sounds; the change in wind direction and speed; signs of weather systems moving in or clearing; and the landscape being revealed as I move through it, whether due to change in position or change in the weather. I could list more, but I’m sure you get the idea: I have found that I like to feel involved and part of the landscape, and to do that well I need to be aware of everything that’s happening.

This sounds great for photography! After all, if I’m so aware of my surroundings, then I am presumably more likely to notice potential compositions. That’s true, it is good …. for photography, but not for walking and the whole outdoors experience; and hence, perhaps, in the longer term, not for photography either if it puts me off going out walking as much.

The problem – well, my problem – is that I do notice things, and then I stop, for a long time, work out a composition, then wait for the light to do whatever I think it might be going to do… All perfectly fine, except that if I have any kind of objective other than capturing images – getting to the top of a series of hills on a circular route perhaps – I either don’t have time to stop for long enough to make a good job of the composition, or I choose to do so and then don’t have time to finish the walk….

The image below, for example: I remember the immediate area around this small water flow in great detail, but I have near-zero recollection of approaching it, what the weather was doing, or how the surroundings looked. Given that this is in the valley between Buachaille Etive Mor and Buachaille Etive Beag, at the top of Glencoe, a spectacular setting, that seems a bit of a waste in some respects, though I was pleased with the image.

Now that’s not necessarily a problem on the odd occasion, but when it’s repeated on every walk – and that is what was happening to me earlier this year – it starts to mean that I’m not really doing ‘decent’ walks any more, I’m doing truncated versions of them. Great for photography, somewhat less so for the whole ‘going for a planned walk’ thing. Not only that, but in order to cater for unplanned images, I feel that I need to take all my photographic equipment with me. That adds weight and means that I plan shorter walks, another detriment to the walking part of the day.

And then there’s the disconnection from the landscape which I suffer when setting up a shot and concentrating on the photographic part of the combined activity: I lose the all-important awareness of what’s happening around me; my experience reduces to the image I’m making at the expense of everything else. After such a combined walking and photography trip, what I recall tends to be the composition and capturing of images, not the walking. Over time I’ve found that every trip has that photograph-biased character and that I’m not appreciating being out in the countryside quite as much as I used to.

So, I’m clearly not great at multi-tasking; fair enough! That said, I have a strong suspicion that many people aren’t, that it’s not just me. Yes, I can do multiple things at once, but I’m pretty sure they all suffer in comparison to giving each my full attention, and, by observation, I think this is true of the majority of people. Take the example of watching television or listening to a radio programme whilst reading or writing an email, if you’ve done that: did you miss bits of the programme, or write less coherently than usual in the email? If not, congratulations. If you did have that problem, think what it means for creative activities such as photography, or meditative ones such as walking. To me it implies that something will inevitably be lost from either or both experiences.

My take on this is that over time, were I to carry on like this, my ‘being outdoors for the sake of it’ activity would be diminished by the urge to take photographs, I’d start to resent the intrusion of photography into walking, and then not only would the walking suffer, but the photography would too, in that I’d do less, or hurry things. Since I want to do both, I had to come up with some kind of plan to avoid that happening.

A simple solution?

To address the issue, I’ve adopted the approach of not taking the camera equipment on things which I deem as walks. Conversely, I’m actively thinking of the walking part of photographic outings as merely the means of getting there, so my trips either have the objective of taking photographs, or of doing a good walk, but not both – it avoids later disappointment!

Of course, that’s a little absolutist and what I’m really doing when on ‘proper walks’ is making mental notes of places which I think are worth re-visiting with a camera on a dedicated, photographic outing; but I don’t spend any time working out the composition – I just note it as having image potential and move on, or return to watching the landscape and weather unfold for its own sake, rather than with the objective of capturing it in a photograph. I’m not about to completely divorce ‘going for a walk’ from taking photographs, but I am going to make sure that I make at least some outings purely for the sake of being out there, and don’t allow the photography to take over completely.

Do read Richard’s article for a subtly different take on this. I’m not convinced that what he proposes would work for me, but, fortunately, everyone’s different. The main point here is to ask yourself whether more specialisation (‘go for a walk’ versus ‘go out to make photographs’) is a good idea or not; whether the net effect, to you, of combining two activities is to enhance them both, or whether one adversely affects the other (and it can be either way around!).

It’s something that I’m sure is worth thinking about. The more things I do in all sorts of areas – not just photography and walking – the more I feel that I achieve more rewarding results when I concentrate on doing one thing at a time and doing it well. Incidentally, this series of thought ties in directly with my earlier musing on who to go out making photographs with, in which I reached similar conclusions on a different aspect of combining activities.

In summary: it would seem that I’m doing the same with my approach to all aspects of making landscape photographs as I endeavour to do in my actual images: simplifying.


Julian Barkway has near-simultaneously published a blog article on a related theme which is also well worth reading. It brings out another facet of this area but is also, essentially, about not letting the making of photographs spoil your enjoyment of being out in the countryside. Clearly, this is a popular theme and one which it really is worth having a think about from your own perspective!

Musings on: an absence of sky

For several months now, I’ve made practically no images with sky in them. Only today, whilst flicking through my Flickr stream, have I noticed that. Interesting. At least, it’s interesting to me; in part due to the whole ‘failure to notice the trend’ aspect.

More significantly, I think it demonstrates that sky is far from essential in landscape photographs. Yes, many people, when they hear the term ‘landscape photography’, imagine a large vista: something prominent in the foreground; something pretty in the middle distance; and perhaps some hills or mountains against a dramatic sky to make up the top of the frame. Nothing wrong with that: I like, and make, photographs of that sort too, but for the moment I seem to be drawn to make what are often, it seems, called ‘intimate landscape photographs’. More precisely, or perhaps less precisely, I’m making images which, whether of a detail or of a large part of a scene, are abstracted from reality to some degree by the omission of sky, and by composing and processing for patterns, rather than for representation of the scene.


I’ll sidestep the exact definition of ‘intimate landscape’, which tends to mean relatively small things, from what I’ve seen and read: I’m talking here simply about excluding the sky. The image above certainly qualifies as an ‘intimate landscape’, and I couldn’t have included sky even if I’d wanted to – the camera was pointing down to make the composition, quite apart from there being a wall of rock behind it. The shot below, however, could easily have included sky as a portrait format composition, but it added nothing and spoiled what I hoped would be a slightly claustrophobic and ‘dark’ feel to the tree, the fence, and the converging lines centred on the trunk.

Glen Etive woodland

So why is excluding the sky often good?

I’ve been in Scotland, the Glencoe area, for the last couple of weeks. Without doubt it’s a fabulous place, one of my favourites (though I think the open spaces of the far north-west of Scotland are better still). Everywhere you look there are dramatic mountains and wonderful, panoramic views; yet I didn’t include sky in a single frame! I’ve been trying to work out why this was, and the following are my ideas to date.

  1. I was there on a walking trip, not a photographic one, so I didn’t have the time to wait for light, nor to get to places suited to the ‘big vista’ style of shot whilst by myself.
  2. The ‘big’ landscapes, the ones with dramatic sky, tend to rely on just that: lots happening in the sky. It was grey and overcast on most days. Lovely, even light, but no drama.
  3. Without late or early light on the hills to emphasise the colour and contours, photographs tend to rely on pattern, and if that’s the case, what’s the point of including a grey sky, or of including a sky at all? (I was not alone, and photographing at dusk and dawn tends to be a wee bit intrusive in those circumstances!)
  4. Summer: now that’s a big issue. There was a hint of autumn about, but essentially the landscape was green and grey, vegetation or rock – not too thrilling really. Once autumn gets going, multi-coloured landscapes can draw out shapes and patterns on hillsides – the colours can be patterns in their own right. At the moment, there’s simply too much green around for my liking.
  5. As soon as sky is included, there’s a constraint. The inclusion of sky imparts an unavoidable feeling of ‘representation’, to me; it removes the idea of abstraction and imposes a “this is a picture of a landscape” feeling on the viewer; certainly, it does to this viewer.

That final point is the major item to me: sky can be useful, even essential, but it shrieks ‘picture!’. That’s not to say that absence of sky avoids the idea of ‘picture’, but it certainly can do so. I’m more interested in creating images which convey how I feel about the landscape, or how I see it, rather than in representing how it truly looks (something of a challenge in any case, in a two-dimensional image). I think I’ve written, in a previous article, that I like abstract art, and I feel that my attraction to form and pattern, whether created by water flowing in a stream or by clefts in hillsides (or even by clouds, potentially…..), makes including sky with land, in the conventional manner, decreasingly appealing to me.

Considering the other points, excluding sky is a rather good technique to avoid the issues associated with many of them. In particular, on a dull day, or at least one with a grey, evenly luminous cloud cover, the fact that everything is uniformly lit is a distinct benefit in this type of ‘no sky’ image-making. The colours can be successfully drawn out or muted, as required, in post-processing, as can the tonality, via dodging and burning, to emphasise existing shapes and patterns. When using this approach to post-processing, it’s far better to start with a neutral, evenly lit capture than one which is strongly influenced by the light and constrained by the need to produce a ‘natural-looking’ sky. Dull days are great for this: they provide an even, low contrast illumination which allows the camera to capture lots of detail and gives huge flexibility, during post-processing, in deciding how that detail is best used.

Necessarily greater creativity, and more likelihood of unique images

Another very strong argument in favour of the ‘zero sky’ approach is that it’s more likely to produce unique images. Everyone sees the details in a landscape differently, whether those details are the juxtaposition of a couple of rocks and a piece of heather, or whether it’s a pattern on a hillside. Seeing things differently leads to capturing different compositions and making more varied images from them – this can only be good! The image below, repeated from an earlier post, is a good example I think. The skyline is just above the top of the frame, but the sky added nothing to the shot. In fact, I’d argue strongly that the sky would have ruined this, taking away from the graphic, pattern-centric effect of the sweep of the waterfall and the multi-coloured, right hand slope.


Of course, I’m not remotely advocating that sky should not be included as a principle. All I’m really saying is that it should only be included where it adds something to the final image, or where the goal of the image is to be representational. For the moment, I foresee the majority of my images only including solid or liquid subject matter; equally, I foresee that current preference changing over time and according to circumstances….

For more, arguably better, examples of excluding sky – which are certainly not ‘intimate’ in any way – see my previous post, a couple of the images in which are on a very large scale but feature solely ground and water.

As always, I’d be very interested to hear your views on this, whether supportive or contradictory.