Strategies for longevity - the value of investing time in photographing the landscape

An article I wrote after considering what 'productivity' really meant in photography
I recently noticed that I had passed the 750 images milestone on my G10 and it got me thinking about what productivity means in Landscape Photography. I managed that achievement in under three months, yet I still haven’t reached anything like that number of compositions on LF film in over four years.

Clearly the G10 allows me to make more pictures, more quickly and, as I know from bitter experience, at a dramatically lower unit cost. On current trajectory, my G10 is going to come in at about 15 pence a picture this year and, assuming it doesn’t konk out on me like my other ‘digisnappers’, that should be down to 5 pence a picture over three years. Don’t ask me to work out the actual cost per picture per year of my LF setup, it is too scary to think about – but it has got to be way more than £15 a picture on film and development costs alone, without the capital outlay. So clearly my G10 is far more productive than my LF setup?

But what does productivity really mean in Landscape Photography? I have fairly high aspirations and standards for what I consider to be a strong or even satisfactory image and when I review the G10 images I have made in those three months, possibly one or maybe two images out of 750 have any longevity or depth to them. Compare that to Large Format where I would expect three quarters of the images to be very useable, more than half to be strong images and probably a fifth to have some aspect of that illusive longevity and depth I aspire to in my image making.

Now this is partly unfair in that I use my G10 camera a lot of the time for sketching rather than ‘committing an image to canvas’ to borrow a painterly metaphor. However I do use it to ‘chase the light’ as I did here:

'Dawn Light on the North Yorkshire Moors in Winter'
'Dawn Light on the North Yorkshire Moors in Winter'

I think this image works for me, and I might describe it as a satisfactory image, but it is far from being amongst my better images. For it to be even ‘satisfactory’ makes it very much the exception, most of the other ‘light chasing’ images I have made with the G10 would not spend any time on my living room wall. This one would probably join them in fairly short order.

So what are the characteristics of a strong image, an image that might pass the ‘wall test’? For any photographer this is of course a personal perspective and a very personal level or ‘bar’ to set. But, I think it is a necessary one to be clear about in your own mind if improvement is to be made.

For me, the composition must be very strong, possessing the ‘dynamic balance’ I seek in my images. It possesses both energy and harmony or balance. Balance should extend beyond the relationship between the main elements of the scene, which of course should resolve themselves, but the image should also have strong tonal and colour balance. The picture should reveal some aspect of the subject that I find interesting or compelling to look at and in some sense move me emotionally or challenge me to think about it in new ways. The subject needs to have a genuine quality I admire and be seen in conditions that show it in the way I want to interpret it. I use light to ‘paint the image’ and the light needs to be evocative or appropriate to the interpretation of the subject matter. This does not mean that the image needs to shout and I am beginning to really appreciate more subtle use of light. I dislike images that do the pictorial equivalent of shouting using capitals.

Some of my most pleasing images are slightly hypnotic – they seem to compel me to keep looking and the ability to sustain my interest is important. The image has depth, by that I mean it not only feels to a viewer like it is more than the two dimensions it is but that it reveals hidden depths either in the image or of the subject or place. The image of course should not have transparent technical flaws, obvious signs of forced photographic technique or too many obvious negative elements. Finally, it is essential that I enjoyed making the picture. My best photographs are also ones I have enjoyed making, feeling a genuine connection to the subject and a genuine excitement when I finally work out a way of interpreting that subject.

I repeat this is only my personal perspective and many people would write down different things or disagree with what I value, but in my experience none of the above or indeed any criteria one may like to apply happens by accident. There is no relationship to the number of images I take. More is not better. If I had taken 3000, 6000 or 9000 pictures in the last three months I would not have increased the likelihood of producing images that achieve even some of the above criteria. Quality matters.

Thinking about this got me reflecting on what are the top strategies I personally deploy to get my pictures closer to that illusive ‘ideal’ photograph I described above.

Strategy One: Invest time in making the image.

The best pieces of advice I got during my development as a photographer came from Joe Cornish and David Ward. ‘Get out more often and take fewer pictures’, said one. ‘Concentrate on making just one or two strong images in a session’, said the other. It boils down to the same thing: invest time in making an image not in taking a lot of photographs.

I remember it took me nearly 9 months from first hearing this advice to actually doing it (not unusual for me, as of course I always know best) and a lot of the transition had to do with changing to shooting large format. When I first started with 35mm digital, I was like a mayfly; snapping away almost continuously. I never stayed still in one place for more than a couple of minutes. I took literally hundreds of images in a day. And virtually all of them were rubbish.

Switching to Large Format forced me to slow down, commit fewer ‘pictures to canvas’ so to speak, to consider what I was doing. And it transformed my approach. I remember the day that that it dawned on me that I didn’t need to take 100 images a day in order to get one decent image. It was on a photography workshop with Joe Cornish and due to a combination of factors including the weather I only got chance to make one image that day. I made this image at Glen Brittle.

'Rowan Tree Falls'
'Rowan Tree Falls'

In every sense, this image was on a different plane to almost anything I had ever managed before. And it was the only image I made that day. What a lesson.

Now, I concentrate on making one or two compositions in any session and if I shoot all day no more than five or so in total. And I would typically expect to achieve two strong images and probably one really strong image with real longevity and depth as a result.

The cost and time needed for LF makes this easier for me to achieve. If you are shooting primarily on digital, this is a very hard strategy to follow because an image can be committed so quickly. The temptation is to move on to the next thing and ‘bag another’. That’s got to be more productive right? Resist. It is not about how many pictures you can take.

Strategy Two: Critique the image in the field not just when the result comes back

I have learned to edit and develop my image directly in the field not just afterwards when I review my images. When I first see the potential for an image, an internal dialogue seems to kick off almost immediately – I can hear myself critiquing the image afterwards. What do I like about it, what don’t I? How can I improve it, make it better? And as the ‘what if’s begin to kick in, I start the process of constructing the image. If I can’t improve it to something close to a strong image (it might need different conditions, light or time of the day) I will probably abandon it. If I think it has some potential for another day I might capture it in a ‘sketch’ – one of the main uses of my G10 camera - and review it later. I go back to such potential images on another day quite a lot.

This is a bit like having a mental ‘delete button’. I can take the image, critique it, work out how to improve it and delete it all in my head before I even setup the camera. Then even when it is setup, I might spend many minutes adjusting and fine tuning the composition until I am absolutely happy with the balance. Only then will I think about committing the image to film.

My workflow has become heavily dependent on the use of my Linhof viewer to ‘frame the image’ when I look through it before I setup. I find this helps me to critique a potential image by looking at the completed framed picture and working out what I like and don’t like about it. I can then setup the tripod and lens in the right spot. Another approach I use is to capture it with the G10 and review it on the screen. But I do sometimes wonder if I really need to do this. I do break the viewer from time to time (it happened again last week) and without it I have to spend more time imagining and less time ‘looking’ at the potential image. Maybe that is a good thing.

I also find working with another photographer an aid to this process. I have photographed a lot with Dave Tolcher and we frequently look at each others images before we shoot. Getting an independent perspective can sometimes help me see something I have been blinded to when I setup. At the very least it can reassure a tender, fragile self confidence that I am on the right track and that there is merit in progressing!

'Glen Etive'
'Glen Etive'

In this particular image, when I considered what I was setting up I realised that the separation between the rock and the landscape behind was a critical part of the image. Anything else would ruin the result. Therefore I setup the camera on full tripod extension and had to stand on my camera bag to see the image to focus it! Odd looking behavior but essential to making the image successful.

Strategy three: Anticipate, don’t chase the light

If I were to distill all my strategies to a single sentence it would be to ‘setup a composition and paint it with light’. I have found from bitter experience that when I work the other way round (chasing the light and then hunting for a composition), I make images that are shallow, limited and lack depth.

An example of where this strategy paid off was this image made at Saltwick.

'Saltwick Nab'
'Saltwick Nab'

There was a possie of photographers lined up for the traditional light chasing image into the setting sun. I chose a different strategy and found a strong composition with a reasonable chance of being well lit some time just before sundown. And I waited. It is a hard thing to do when you are not sure it will come off. In this case I waited more than 45 minutes. And sometimes it doesn’t come off, but the biggest mistake I could make would be to lose confidence and go light chasing. One of the reasons I carry a G10 is that I can satisfy that itch by shooting the light with that camera, leaving my LF setup ready for the moment.

Anticipation requires building up the experience to watch the conditions and predict when and where the light might perform in sufficient time to be setup there with a strong composition. Then it requires the patience to wait for it to happen.

Strategy Four: Scouting for locations and images

Scouting is something that is not talked about very often but it is a key component of many of my images. If a lot of successful photography is about being in the right place at the right time in the right position pointing in the right direction with the right lens and pressing the shutter at the right moment, then increasing the options available to you to get it right is pretty important. Virtually all of my images are made in a location that I (or other photographers I know) have previously scouted to examine its potential.

When I scout such locations for potential, there are a number of features I am looking for, many of which I described in a previous article on what makes a good location. Most importantly I try to imagine in what weather conditions, time of day and time of year the location might give me enough potential to invest some time there.

I visit some locations repeatedly and as I do so I begin to build up a library of potential compositions and subjects, many of which I will sketch out on a digital camera or even a trail LF image. I try to work out what would be the perfect lighting conditions for making such an image. When I return to the location in the right conditions, I don’t necessarily shoot the image or particular subject but it does give me an option that might be a starting point.

Photography days get planned, but it might be more accurate to describe it as dynamic/flexible plan rather than a single plan. A day of photography tends to break up into a maximum of four sessions - dawn, morning, afternoon and sunset. I would start out the day with a view of where I might be for these four sessions, but that would tend to change depending on how the weather and conditions look to be developing. In overcast, flat lighting conditions I would tend to look for locations with a rich seam of details. When the light looks like it might be good, I would look for places where vistas as well as details might be a possibility. Bright blue sky tends to imply I need to look for shade. In rain, I look for water or the partial cover of trees. And so on.

'Living Fossil'
'Living Fossil'

This potential for this subject was first seen when I was scouting this part of Robin Hoods Bay with Dave Tolcher, Joe Cornish and Nigel Halliwell one summer afternoon. Joe had shown me one of these concretions and it stuck in my memory.

When I had an overcast morning of photography a year or so later (on a trip with Dave and Tim Parkin), I remembered them and hunted for something to try. It was Dave who found this particular septarian nodule and it still took me more than half an hour to be comfortable with my composition before I committed it to film.

A strong image usually has much more time invested in it than the few moments it takes to press the shutter.

Strategy five: Develop a connection to and perspective on the subject and use that to inspire my image making.

John Blackmore calls this part of the photographic process ‘relationship’ and ‘realisation’ - developing the relationship with the subject and realising new and different ways to interpret it.

I am probably not alone but I find it hard to make images in places or of subjects I have no connection to. In fact I find photographing in places I don’t know well almost impossible. I am planning a trip to the Peak District with some friends in a couple of weeks time and I have such a fear of photographing an unknown place that I actually made a 150 mile diversion on a trip to re-join my family for New Year (twice - on the way down and on the way up!) just so that I could at least get to know the valley and build up a connection to the place before I photograph it with real intent.

There are 100s of ways of photographing any particular subject. If you don’t believe this, consider photographing a tulip for a few minutes and then buy, borrow or beg a copy of John Blakemore’s book ‘The Black and White Photography Workshop’. Then after you have read the book consider photographing tulips and think about the potential for different ways of interpreting any subject you might want to photograph.

One short visit and taking one or two decent pictures is quite likely to lead to a fairly shallow interpretation. Or at least it will be likely to be an interpretation that reveals more about the photographer than it does about the subject. Repetition, returning to a location time after time, growing your understanding and knowledge about a subject, developing an emotional relationship or reaction to the subject and using this response to inspire the creative process: these are all strategies that are likely to increase the quality of a potential image.

'Bamburgh Castle'
'Bamburgh Castle'

The castle at Bamburgh is what might be called a mature subject. It has been tackled many thousands of times, so why attempt it? Well, because I have been visiting it and photographing it for years. I have so many memories and experiences stored up from Bamburgh and this must be my 10th or 15th composition of the castle. It is the first that really begins to capture and express my emotional connection to the place. That is what photography is about for me.

Strategy six: Delay the moment of commitment

I have found in the past that when I arrive at a location and see the possibility for an image I can sometimes be too quick to close in on the shot and start setting up. As a result I can either miss other opportunities or make mistakes in how I might interpret the subject. I need to pause and consider before I commit.

Now when I arrive at a location I try to prevent myself from making an image for at least 10-15 minutes and spend the time looking for possibilities and thinking about the location and what I might want to attempt.

This image is a great example.

'Theme A Dot in the landscape'
'Theme A Dot in the landscape'

I actually spent 30 minutes struggling with and failing to be satisfied with an image of a tree stump before I realised I had committed myself too early. I packed up, put my bag down and walked around the area for 10-15 minutes or so. I started to look more closely at what was around me and noticed some logs on the ground and the decaying bark that was pealing off it. Then I noticed the holes in the bark from some kind of burrowing beetle. The potential for this image began to emerge and I started the photographic process again, afresh.


Last weekend myself and Dave Tolcher spend the day working the North Yorkshire Moors around Fen Bog. We photographed in four sessions, visiting three quite different working locations and I made five large format compositions during the day. I deployed all six of the techniques described above at some point during the day.

It was one of the most memorable and satisfying days of photography I can remember. Whether or not it has been productive or not is still to be answered (the film is still with Peak) but regardless of whether I get quality results or not I do know that I have done my best to increase the odds of success. And I enjoyed myself.

Comment on this article.

(c) Jon Brock 2010