mikegreenimages

Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

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.

Midge-fest

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.

Curve

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.

19 Responses to “Musings on: an absence of sky”

  1. Stephen Trainor

    Mike – great post. It strikes me that the reasons for excluding the sky break down into three primary groups: a) quality of light (flat, even), b) tone and texture (autumn colours drawing out shapes), and c) compositional (sky as constraint – or is it the horizon that’s the constraint?).

    Of those, light seems to be primarily a negative motivator (as in, “leave it out, as it’s not that interesting”), and also the most common. The others seem to be positive reasons, as in a more interesting and unique shot will result.

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Thanks for the comments Stephen.

      That’s a good summary I think, and a good point about it really being the horizon which is the constraint quite often, rather than the sky itself. Really, my point in the above is that the default approach is usually to include sky, whereas simply considering whether it ‘adds value’ to the image is a useful step to take during composition (and one which it has taken me a while to recognise consciously!)

      Mike

      Reply
  2. Julian Barkway

    Hi Mike,

    Good to see someone else saying what I’ve been banging on about for ages (I even wrote an article for Landscape Photography Monthly on this very topic (August issue)). I’ve been excluding the sky ever since reading David Ward’s excellent book, ‘Landscape Within’, where he does a brilliant job of advocating intimate landscapes – and, let’s face it, he is a master of the genre. That was a few years ago now and, looking through my PF, images with skies are very much in the minority.

    You’ve obviously found your own way to this revelation but there are quite a few of us ‘Wardites’, or should I say, ‘followers of the Ward’ :) So welcome to the club! :D

    Best,
    Julian.

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi Julian,

      I didn’t imagine I was being entirely original ;-) The more people who talk about it the better though, I’m sure!

      I’ll try and get to read your article (that’s a physical magazine I take it?). I’ll possibly have a look / buy ‘Landscape Within’ too – it’s certainly about time I bought some photography books I think.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Mike

      Reply
      • Julian Barkway

        LPM is one of the competitors to Tim’s enterprise. You can find it here. You’ll have to dig a little for my article, I’m afraid. It’s in the August edition.

        ‘Landscape Within’ and the follow-up, ‘Landscape Beyond’ are both worth getting, imo. DW’s photography is amazing.

        J.

        Reply
        • Mike Green

          Aha! I’d not come across it before. Good article. I’m obviously on a similar path in how I’m thinking about these things. Notably, I’ve found that I’m doing more of this type of work since buying a PC-E lens, in that it makes it possible, as you say!

          Thanks for the pointers.

          Mike

          Reply
  3. Dreamie

    Hi Stephen and Mike,

    Learn a new stuff today here as what mentioned by Mike and summarized by Stephen:

    the reasons for excluding the sky break down into three primary groups:
    a) quality of light (flat, even),
    b) tone and texture (autumn colours drawing out shapes), and
    c) compositional (sky as constraint – or is it the horizon that’s the constraint?).

    I will record it down to my blog so that i can refer to the methodology when i take my photo next time :)

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi, I’m glad this was useful to you.

      I’d say it was ‘possible reasons for *considering* excluding the sky, rather than absolute reasons though ;-)

      Mike

      Reply
  4. David Barrett

    This, I hope, Mike, isn’t as pedantic as it sounds.

    I don’t agree that you’ve been making images abstracted from reality. Or even that, with the sky included, images are necessarily more representational. Our eyes-brain combination (well mine at any rate) appear take in any overall scene as a whole and also more or less intimate/discrete details that can be scenes in themselves, or scenes within scenes, which leads to the endless possibilities and permutations that make this art form satisfying and sustainable. Perhaps you’ve been representing more abstracting. You’ve been telling more of the whole story. You did qualify abstracted with “to some degree”. So this part of my comment may be more or less redundant.

    I agree that the last point on the list that a dominant sky (positively or negatively) can be a constraint, but I don’t buy, any more than I suspect you do, the “it’s a landscape” or “picture” used to pigeonhole or in the pejorative. And, again, I suspect I’ll be tilting at my own or your straw man here in insisting that we get over ourselves and, when we are not shooting to an implicit or explicit mortgage-contributing brief, we make the pictures satisfy ourselves sky or no sky.

    I usually identify—even set up!—a couple of Wardian(!) shots for my students to introduce/reinforce an eye for inner/intimate landscapes. Some see it as a style/genre that doesn’t do anything for them while others become indefinite devotees. Like most of us (I’d expect) I see the intimate/inner image as part of the story. This is a story that we can tell by ourselves in our own way through our own eyes. The story (stories) continue to develop and evolve. Even the cliches are new to newcomers and can be as inspiring as the esoteric.

    In summary: another good thought-provoking piece, Mike. And I am not convinced I’ve said anything that you haven’t, but I did look at it from a slightly different point of view, which reminds me of something …

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi David,

      No worries – I can be pretty pedantic myself ;-)

      I agree that I’ve not been abstracting far from reality; perhaps ‘representing reality as I envisioned it, rather than as it really was at the time’, is better? And I certainly agree on telling ‘more of the whole story’. I’ve written before about simplification and choosing which of the elements available for an image I should actually use – that’s ‘standard stuff’ of course – but it was something of a revelation to me that the sky is a really major item which isn’t always necessary or ‘useful’ to the image. So, to an extent the opinions and ideas in this article are a ‘straw man’ of sorts, yes. That said, I was not proposing that sky is bad per se, merely that it’s yet another element, and a significant one, to consider excluding, and that often people don’t do that (consider excluding it, rather than ,actually exclude it); I certainly hadn’t until fairly recently.

      You’re quite right: I don’t buy the pigeon-holing and pejorative use of ‘picture’ and ‘landscape’, but I do recognise the existence of that view, and variety in image content can only help to remove the possibility of that notion being expressed. Perhaps the idea should more be to mix sky and no-sky images in a project or portfolio? That’s certainly what I intend to do with my Howgills project. Again, the point of everything I’m writing on this journal / blog is that it reflects how my thinking is developing (and I reserve the right to change my mind on things, particularly when people successfully argue me out of nascent views!).

      As to the ‘story’ concept: yes, I quite agree that ‘intimate landscapes’ are just part of that story. I do think, however, that they are the part which has the most potential to express individuality and a personal vision. It is, arguably, easier to do something unique with a small part of a vista than to create that single, distinctive image with a panorama of land and sky (easier for me at this point, in any case). That doesn’t remotely reduce the value of the ‘big vista’ image, of course.

      In summary, this article is an advocacy to consider the sky as a compositional element, and to include it positively, rather than passively. I shall certainly be making plenty of images with sky in, I’m sure, but I’ll decide on whether it adds to the image each time, in just the same way as I would decide whether ‘the rock in the bottom left corner’, adds anything. I’m not in any way being prescriptive, just describing how my thinking is developing as a relative newcomer to landscape photography.

      Thanks very much for your considered and interesting comment.

      Mike

      Reply
    • Mike Green

      Thanks very much, Alistair. May I just point out the weird coincidence that I was writing a reply to your excellent article in Great British Landscapes Issue 21 whilst you were commenting here?! The two facts were not, I assure you, related other than by timing!

      Mike

      Reply
      • alistairhaimes

        I noticed that too! I was also really struck that both articles (and your thoughtful response: thank you) were very much on the same track. In fact, this might be fanciful, but I think that there is a bit of a “school” of landscape photography developing, perhaps influenced by Tim’s magazine. I saw Joe Wright this weekend and he made exactly the same point.

        Reply
        • Mike Green

          I have had that thought myself re a loosely-defined ‘school’ of landscape photography. I notice the same people cropping up all over the place. It’s most certainly a community, and as such I think it’s a good thing; and if Tim’s magazine efforts have engendered or strengthened that then he’s having a good effect. I should have linked to your article as it’s well worth reading: http://www.landscapegb.com/2011/09/music-and-photography/

          Reply
          • Julian Barkway

            Well, the ‘intimate landscape’ genre has been around a fair while – even Ansel Adams did a few – but it really came to the fore with Eliot Porter, Minor White and Harry Callahan. Since then, it’s been taken up by the likes of Jack Dykinga, Paul Wakefield, Faye Godwin – and, of course, David Ward. Because DW leads a lot of workshops and trips for Light & Land, and because of his writing and advocacy of 5×4, he has really popularised the idea amongst many, mainly LF, photographers.

            I think you’ll find that most of us who regularly work in this style have been on one or more of David’s workshops, or have at least read his books, so we’ve all been influenced by his work to a greater or lesser degree. I know for a fact that Tim has also done a few L&L’s with DW so it’s natural that he, too, works loosely in this style and, thorough his magazine, is in a good position to further promote the genre.

            And I do my bit as well…. ;)

  5. Mike Green

    I may well book myself on one of David’s workshops sometime I think. In the meantime, I have ordered a copy of ‘The Landscape Within’ to add to my tiny collection of photography books! I must read up a bit on the history of landscape photography too…

    Reply
  6. kevinallan

    Been heading down the same path myself, Mike. I’ve just reviewed my thumbnails in Lightroom and it seems like about 90% in the last three months are without sky. Part of the motivation for me is to get away from the big sky / water swirling over rock /Sigma 10-20 school that is so prevalent. I do like looking at those shots (although after a 100 or so they all merge into one) but I’m not very good at making my own so it’s nice to be able to take shots that no-one else is taking (I mean specifically the 12 inch square or so in a particular image rather than the whole genre). That way my mediocre efforts don’t sit side-by-side with someone elses’ great take on the same view.

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi Kevin, Thanks for commenting. Sounds like a very familiar story to me ;-) Good plan! I don’t think I consciously switched, but I certainly started out doing the whole ‘swirly water, wide angle’ thing – I liked it and still do, and I’ll do more – but, as you say, there’s more chance of creating something different when taking the more ‘intimate landscape’ approach to things, and that just makes things more interesting to me. I’ll be interested to see whether I swing back the other way after a period of taking the smaller view!

      Reply

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