Resigning from the landscape photography guild

by Aug 22, 2019

It’s taken me a while to get my head around this, but I’ve decided it’s time to make a change. I’ve decided I need to resign from the guild of landscape photographers.

This is a decision that is long in coming and one in which I’ve struggled over for a long time. It’s no surprise to those that read my writing about photography that I’ve struggled to turn out landscape work I consider worth keeping, much less showing off.

When I look at landscape photography today, whether it’s on Flickr or Instagram or someone’s own site, so often what I see are images of fairly uninteresting scenes bathed in intense, saturated color. Hyper-saturated. Over-saturated. “Oh my got it’s fluorescing” saturated.

It feels to me like we’ve created a generation of photographers who don’t see good — or magical — light as a way to enhance a scene, but who think that the light makes the scene benign shown irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good composition or not, as long as the colors pop.

And don’t get me started about trophy shots, and that we’ve created an entire industry around photo tours that drag rafts of people out to trophy locations so that they can all take the identical shot using the identical light from the identical van gate point, and feel like they’re doing unique — no, seriously, that’s MY shot of the arch, and I only had to fight 20 other photographers for room to put down my tripod.

As someone who’s used the term “landscape photographer” for many years as a self-definition, I’ve come to realize my idea of what a good landscape image is has very little to do with what the mainstream considers a good one should be.

I believe, for instance, if a composition isn’t worth shooting at 2PM, shoving the saturation lever up to 11 won’t make it a good image. But I have talked to many photographers who, when it’s suggested they go out at 2PM and find a good shot, will tell you that’s simply impossible. They won’t even try. Heck, I have met many who will pre-judge the light and find it boring, so they won’t even pick up the bag and go out and try that day at all.

We’ve created a generation of photographers who are addicted to “magic light” and are unable or unwilling to consider photography without it. Of course, if you’re stuck without magic light, our processing tools can layer it onto your image for you — and the new version of Luminar will even invent you a dramatic sky if the one you actually got in real life isn’t magical enough.

I’d say seeing these endless streams of hyper-saturated images trying to make up for weak compositions makes me want to puke, but in reality, all I do is sigh. Maybe I’m just an old part whining about the good old days, but I really hope this is just another fad like HDR was a few years back — remember “grunge” HDR and the abuse we put our skies through? See how we (mostly) came to our senses and (mostly) have stopped doing that to our images?

I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile my dislike for all of this and trying to find a way to integrate what’s clearly the leading trends of modern landscape photography into my own work, and I’ll I did was wrap my landscape photography brain around a lamp pole, leaving me feeling like I had no idea what I wanted to shoot, and when I tried, it all seemed to suck for me.

It took me longer to realize that what most landscape photography fans seem to prefer — and pour likes on — is simple the kind of photography I don’t want to do.

So I’m not going to, but that also means I’m going to stop calling myself a landscape photographer, because it feels dishonest to define myself that way when most of what I see in mainstream landscape photography today I intensely dislike.

By the way, I’m not trying to play the “it has to be perfect in the camera and don’t manipulate it” game; some of my favorite landscape pieces were taken in incredibly poor light and only succeed because I was able to manipulate them into something I found compelling. It’s not about the enhancement,it’s about the abuse through excess and the disregard to good composition underlying the color in the image.

I’ve also been known to shoot my trophy shots, although I’ve always tried to put a unique look to them, and to be honest, the bigger the crowd at the trophy site, the less I’ve been interested in joining the mosh pit to try to get an image.

I seem to rarely go for them these days, even in iconic places like Yosemite, where in my last trip I spent the entire time shooting Cascade Creek and Fern Spring instead of Half Dome or El Capitan. That trip had by far the worst, weakest, most boring and glary light Iv’e ever had in Yosemite, and yet I’m incredibly proud of what I turned out, even though the serious photographers weren’t even bothering to pull out their cameras and I was out there shooting with “the tourists” (cue the horror movie music).

If I refuse to call myself a landscape photographer any more, then what am I? That’s been a tough question to answer, but I think I finally have some insight into it. The projects I’m defining for myself are more about showing off what places are than draping them in stifling masses of saturation. I’ve (slower than I probably should have) come to realize my interests have shifted from taking those picture postcard shots to more of a documentary bent. Tell the story of the place, not just the senior portrait fake beauty shot.

So for now I guess I’m calling myself a documentary nature photographer. We’ll see how I feel in a year after I have a couple of these projects under my belt and how it all mutates as I get some experience with this new esthetic.

If you like that highly saturated “magic light” look, be my guest! I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t. But I will just put in that quiet reminder that we felt that way about the grunge HDR stuff and look how that turned out. Are those images still going to be things you’re proud of in five or ten years? Is that was the viewers and the Instagram like button pushers are going to value?

If nothing else, a reason to maybe not be so gung ho about that is there are literally millions of other photographers doing it as well, and how are you going to stand out from all of them?

Me? I think it’s just not a look that is going to stand the test of time, and will go down with corduroy pants and mullets as things we wonder why we were so damned sure it was the future of photography.

Maybe I’ll be right. maybe I’m wrong. Time will tell. All I rally know is it’s not what I want to show off, and it’s not what I’m going to be chasing in the future, and what really matters is you’re chasing the look and images that matter to you, not the ones that get lots of likes on the social streams and look just like the thousands of other mostly interchangeable images that are flowing across those streams every minute…