Scenes Are Not Found, They're Created
Photography as an artform isn’t just about documenting something that’s already there, it’s about using your materials or surroundings to create and share something new. But how is this possible in landscape photography if we can’t change our surroundings? A resourceful artist is never confined by what is available to him, rather he is enabled through it. We may not be able to move mountains and trees to change what’s around us, but we can choose what we allow to be in our frame, how we combine lighting and weather elements, the angle we look at things from, and the mood we process it with to create the final product. These decisions are what create a story that not only tells us about the world we live in, but the way the artist perceives the world as well. This is why I always say it’s not necessary to visit a never before seen location in order to create a never before seen image.
"You don't take a photograph, you make it" - Ansel Adams
1. Choice of Subject: Any story we tell will always be about something. It may include other characters, but there will always need to be a main character that the entire story revolves around. This gives the story (photograph) its purpose. In photography we are free to choose to make anything around us the subject of our next image. It could be a mountain in the distance, an interesting tree, a colorful rock, or even a leaf on the ground. It can literally be anything you want! This is a choice, it’s not predetermined for us, and choosing a different subject, will help us tell a different story. Choosing this subject is the first part to creating our scene and should come naturally through what it is that we feel moved to photograph the most. Like I said, we don’t find subjects, we create them, by choosing one and then creating a composition around them that helps them to sing louder than their surroundings.
A few months ago, while I was out looking for interesting aspen scenes after a fresh snowfall, something else caught my attention along the way. Since the snowfall was early in the season, instead of covering up all of the downed leaves, it created a nice, white, clean backdrop underneath them, that I thought contrasted so beautifully against the vibrant and varied colors. Once I saw this, I decided to make the leaves my subject, and tell the story of the transition of fall into the winter, instead of aspen trees like I had planned. Throughout the day I also saw some nice aspen scenes that I photographed, but since I had an open mind, I was able to shoot this scene which I hadn’t necessarily been counting on.
2. Inclusion/Exclusion of Objects: After we choose our subject that the story we are telling will be based around, we get to make another decision: What else could we include to help complement our subject and make it look even better? Or even more importantly, what things should we exclude that would detract from it and draw the viewer’s attention elsewhere? A true master doesn’t only see what’s there, but what is not there as well. Managing the negative space in a scene is just as crucial as the positive space. This is where we really begin to create our own scene, as we are in charge of what goes in our story, and what stays out. We can create additional characters that help tell a compelling and intriguing story about the subject we have chosen, or we can just exclude everything else all together. Let the subject and scene dictate what you should do.
Behind this grove of trees that I photographed, were big, snowy mountains with beautiful atmosphere happening. I decided to exclude them though, rather than include them into the scene by shooting wider, because the wonderful details of these frosty, bare aspens would have been lost and the peaks would have called all of the attention instead. Rather than creating a confusing image, where the two subjects were competing rather than complementing each other, I shot them each separately instead.
3. Adjusting Your Angle and Perspective: The amount of distance you put between yourself and your subject, or the angle you shoot it from, can cause profound transformations to occur within your scene. Creating more space between objects or causing them to overlap will change the feeling and tension of the scene entirely. It is good to know what kind of feeling will go best with the subject you have chosen, so this should also be a deliberate decision made before you shoot. Scooting farther back and zooming in on a popular scene that most people tend to shoot wide, can create an entirely new scene with a completely different look and feel. Moving up close and shooting wide can also cause your subject to look bigger and help it to stand out amongst its backdrop and surroundings. Each subject will dictate something different, so it’s always important to be conscious of this and move around, trying out different perspectives.
At first glance, this was just a normal clump of aspen trees, but as I began to move around and look at it from different angles, the content and feel of the scene transformed entirely. From this precise angle I was able to create a very rare and unique scene with all of the aspen trees stacked together, something that you could only view from this exact spot, meaning that most people probably would never see this scene if just walking past, and hardly anyone would know how to find it.
4. Effective Lighting: After we create our composition by choosing what goes in and what stays out, another question arises: What is the best kind of lighting that will make our subject stand out amongst the rest of the scene? There is a huge variety of lighting besides just sunrise/sunset, and contrary to popular belief, there is no single type of lighting that works best for every kind of scene. So this is a very important decision that should be made deliberately, sometimes ahead of time, or sometimes in the very moment that it occurs. It’s always important to be open to these opportunities as they arise, because sometimes the perfect scene will only appear for a few moments, for example, when the shadows from clouds cover the entire area except for one spot where they illuminate an intriguing object.
While I was out shooting on this particular morning, I noticed this hill of all variations of colored aspens, dusted in a light coating of snow. The storm was just clearing so the clouds were moving by overhead and I noticed they were casting shadows all over the land. I waited until the edges of my frame were in the shadows, and the center was being hit by a ray of light making its way through the clouds. This was done intentionally to create a central focus in this scene and draw the viewer’s eye towards the center as opposed to the edges of the frame.
5. Adapting to Weather: While we can’t control the weather, much like lighting, we are able to decide what we do with it. Being able to make choices in the moment and come up with visions for scenes on the fly is challenging but also very exciting. The best part of it for me, is that I never know what to expect beforehand, even if it’s a sunny day with blue skies. I try to leave myself open to these unique kinds of opportunities that can present themselves for just a moment as fog rolls in or out of a valley, or the angle that the sun is shining on the land changes, or once the light begins to fade away all together. Working with the weather you are given will make photography more fun and less stressful, since you won’t be expecting any kind of desired outcome beforehand, you will just be going with the flow.
Normally, this group of aspens would be lost in the backdrop of the forested hill directly behind it as well as some bright, blue sky. When this thick layer of fog was nestled behind it for a few minutes, I immediately noticed the specialness of the scene. The simplified background caused by the unique weather conditions helped to isolate these interesting aspen trees and allow them to be appreciated more fully, without distractions, thus creating a whole new scene than what you’d usually see here, highly unlikely to be replicated by another photographer.
6. Processing Mood: After you have chosen your subject, composed the scene, achieved the ideal lighting and weather conditions, and taken your photo, the last choice you will need to make is how you process it. Certain scenes will call for brighter, less contrasty processing, while others will look more appealing with darker tones. The way you process your image will affect the overall mood of the scene. If you have a subject that you feels portrays happier, lighter emotions, then it is probably calling for brighter, more vibrant processing with a softer feel. If you have a subject, like an imposing mountain with dramatic atmosphere and lighting, it probably calls for darker tones, less saturation, and more intense contrast. Every subject is different, and its important to know what it is you would like the viewer to feel.
What attracted me to this scene was the amazing tonality. The way the blue, gold, and white created such a defined contrast while also being complementary to each other. In processing, I decided to add more contrast by going a bit darker with the midtones and spread highlights and darks apart so the different colors would separate a bit more from each other. This helps to draw attention so the viewer can easily identify what it was I loved about the scene. I also permitted more saturation in the gold and blue colors seen since the main appeal and structure of the scene was the interesting colors reflecting on the water.
Even though with other mediums, like painting or writing, it is more obvious that the artist is only constrained by the limits of their imagination, the same is also true in landscape photography. The point of art is not to merely document and share the world around us that everyone is already familiar with, this wouldn’t change or impact anyone. Rather, the opportunity we have is to share our world, the way we perceive everything around us and what it is that moves us personally. This will teach people more by showing them things they may never have noticed otherwise, giving them the chance to appreciate and see something brand new, that they would never have experienced in their own world, confined to their own perception.
“One should photograph objects, not only for what they are, but for what else they are.” - Minor White