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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!)
- 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.
- 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.