Why Do (or Teach) Landscape Photography?

I confess I’m getting really excited about potentially being able to do another Landscape (Photo 245) course at City. (For details click on the link in the banner at the top of this page.)  I’ve not yet heard if it was approved but since students had been asking about it I’m very, very hopeful.  I’ve worked on a preliminary itinerary for topics to cover because I want to make it the best we’ve ever had.  But I also have to be aware that the world of photography is changing and changing dramatically — after all I just wrote a book on it (www.lulu.com/spotlight/ndavidking).  And perhaps, more important to us, from a professional AND educational level is that the world we work in is also changing dramatically and it will have a profound effect, some of it quite negative, on not only how we do our work but how we make a living from it.

Most of you are aware that even the great iconic landscape photographers (think Ansel Adams as the easiest example) did not make their livings just from their landscape images.  Adams was a master darkroom technician but he was also a master marketer and understood that being able to merchandise his images would bring in extra revenue hence the books and posters and calendars and postcards of his images.  He also did commercial work and (you might want to be sitting down for this…) did commercial work for one of the (then) major oil companies taking photographs of their gas stations around the country for calendars and posters. In my case I was primarily a commercial product and editorial portrait photographer who used landscape as a personal artistic and emotional outlet that had the wonderful by-product of getting me into the bush and out of the studio and town.

Many modern landscape photographers support their artwork with teaching, school or workshops or both, and/or by writing books or producing tutorials and demos for the web.  Still a major goal was always the creation of “take your breath away” wall hanging shots to rival even those of the master landscape painters such as Bierstadt or Moran.  One of my fun facts is that I have a landscape photo hanging next to a Rubens painting in a castle in Colorado… what a rush.  But before one gets too enraptured with this, do some math and budgeting.  How much do new, as-yet-not-famous photographers get for a photograph?  What does it cost you to produce that photograph counting travel and actual print and display costs?  What is your net?  If you hang in a gallery you will be lucky to get 50% of the sales price.  So how many prints must you sell per month to maintain the revenue stream necessary to maintain the standard of living to which you aspire? Those were the issues in the good old days when people had homes with wall space that could visually support such art and had the discretionary income to afford it.

That was also before everyone with a cell phone thought they were God’s gift to photography, an attitude reinforced when their social media friends see their beyond-mediocre images made with frenzied filter use and then posted on Facebook, and pronounced them as beautiful and stunning imagery.  And it was before photo-feature magazines like “Life” or gorgeous outdoor magazines like “Arizona Highways” and “Colorado & The Rocky Mountains” succumbed to the web’s unrelenting assault on publications, books, magazines, and newspapers.

Well, you may ask, if I have that grim outlook, why do a course in a genre that is tough to make a living doing?  Or, more to the point, as a student you might ask why would you take the time and cost to attend such a course?  I’m glad you asked, otherwise I’d have no real reason for writing this post.

One of the biggest reasons is that it is in this genre where you can openly and unabashedly work on the artistic component in your imagery.  Yes, I believe it will be increasing the brilliance of your unique vision and concept that will be required to set your commercial work apart from the competition as technology continues to level the technical playing field.  But honing and growing that conceptual ability along with the tools to render your vision, not to mention the exercises to develop your vision in the first place, can best be done away from the constraints of clients and art directors whose vision is often at odds with yours but whose vision and successful rendering may determine whether or not you walk away with a check.  In landscape work it is yours – and only your – vision and story that counts and will support the image you are creating.  Art is about interpretation not narration.  To interpret a scene you have to “feel” it so there is something to pass on to the viewer.  Without a story that elicits an emotional response and some reflective thinking there is nothing to attract, much less hold a viewer’s interest.  Landscape scenery presents itself to you stripped of the marketing needs and advertising copy attending the commercial piece; you and you alone can let the world see it as YOU see and feel it.

You and you alone can make the choices of tools and elements to bring to bear to render your own unique vision; you and you alone can make the artistic decisions as to what is the real subject of the scene and what do you wish to tell the viewer about it.  Minor White told his students that if a subject in nature saw in them someone it felt capable of rendering its “portrait” it would wait for them.  And it is true that at times nature can be extremely patient with you, unlike a client or director hovering over you pressing you to “get on with it” or losing confidence when you hesitate to think through a visual problem.

The really successful commercial shooter is one who can take the most mundane product and produce an image of it so appealing that someone can see it, and even having no clue what they are looking at, want to buy it anyway.  The conceptual and technical ability to do that shot after shot is often best honed in the quiet moments looking at something most people pass by and never notice – a rock, a leaf, a cloud.

Arthur Koestler in his book on creativity, wrote that the truly creative people he had studied and done biographies about all shared a common trait: they were able, “…to see the familiar as strange.” They could look at some common item and somehow see it as if they were seeing it for the first time without all of the normal limitations prior experience has placed on it.  That ability is as necessary to the advertising image of a muffler as it is to a nature detail shot of a crack in the sun-baked desert floor.  But it is easier to learn in the quiet unrushed environment of nature.

Nature photography also allows time to really learn one’s tools and how they all uniquely render a subject; one can learn how lens focal length and distance changes perspective; one can learn about lighting through observation of what happens as the sun moves across the sky to change the visual appearance of the  world under it; one can learn about color and color correction by having to deal with and exploit not just neutral color of normal daylight, but the so-called “golden” and “blue” hours.  Outdoor photography requires the artist to learn to feel the light and deal with scenes where the range of luminosity from shadow to highlight exceeds that of their medium – an ability of equal value in the studio.  And they can learn all that in an environment where their livelihoods are not at stake, and where errors and mistakes can become educational experiences and not strikes against employment.

The artistic skills you can learn doing top-quality landscape work are perfectly adoptable to the commercial world and will, in fact, help to set you apart in the approaching world of increasing sameness.  In our course we will be examining many of those elements to create powerful landscape imagery.  But it will be important to remember, they all have a proper and important place when you are shooting in the studio for a client.  The difference is only in that when doing landscape and artwork, YOU are the client, and your payment is the serotonin released when you can really see that the effort paid off with a great image.

So for me, it is fun to develop this course almost from scratch.  Retirement has given me the time to play with it, turn it over and over and really analyze where, in my own work which, as noted, was primarily commercial, did it apply and help me.  For the successful photographer the marriage of abilities usually seen as separate and apart is necessary.  We think of the “art” photographer as primarily interested in those aesthetic issues of the image and less concerned with the technical.  And we think of the commercial photographer as primarily interested in the technical side of things and less in the aesthetic.  But that is an incredibly false dichotomy.

The truly superb art photographers, like Adams (to bring this full circle) were absolute masters of the technical and “Craft” sides of their work. After all he was the co-creator of the Zone System for exposure and development mastery.  And the really superb commercial shooters were and are masters of the aesthetics and artistic sides of their work.  Both were masters of rendering a vision of that familiar object now seen as strange.  White told students to see things, “…not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are.”

So landscape photography can be as important to your photo growth as any specific skill and discipline if – IF – you also learn to take advantage of the less stressful shooting environment to hone those skills you will need in the professional world.  And while you are at it, you may produce some imagery that actually does generate some revenue directly or indirectly.  And best yet, you can do it in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

How could that not be attractive to you?

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the specific issues and elements we will be addressing in the course and in other photo courses and topics as well.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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5 Responses to Why Do (or Teach) Landscape Photography?

  1. Krys says:

    Very interesting and inspiring writing. However your admiration to the landscape photography surprised me as I remember once you said on your class that you prefer to work in studio because there you can control a light. It was very odd to me. I thought that you cannot control the natural light but you can properly use it and no “studio lights” give you a beauty of the natural light. It was a pleasure reading your article about landscape photography.

    • ndking says:

      Good catch! Yes, I do like controlling the light in the studio. But much of what I learned about light and what to look for in a subject, came from observing light in nature. However for students in an age when instant gratification is not quite fast enough, it is sometimes easier to reverse that process and use the control of studio lighting to get them to think about the lighting outdoors where they cannot control the light source but can control the orientation of themselves and the subject. I think the learning in both situations also applies to the other but often they are taught as if each is its own world with no cross over.

      • ndking says:

        Just to expand a bit and show the relationships. I learned my first lessons about light and texture when as a very young kid my uncle was teaching me to track. He was down on the ground, nose to the dirt and I asked him if he needed glasses. With merciful patience he showed me how at that angle, the light skimming across the ground revealed marks not perceptible when standing or from other angles. Now when I am teaching lighting and showing how to use light to enhance texture and surface detail I still often think of the tiny little tracks that suddenly appeared once I got my eyes to the correct angle.

  2. sandiegoimages says:

    good post….Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy Tablet

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