Landscape image of Death Valley National Park
Landscape image of Death Valley National Park
By Erin Babnik
By: Erin Babnik
March 08, 2018
One of the greatest rewards of photographing landscapes is the transformative experience of being outdoors. Regardless of how well the photography goes, spending time in beautiful or invigorating environments is time well spent. Nonetheless, most landscape photographers would prefer to return from an excursion with new additions to the portfolio to show for it, and that desire can make exploring new areas seem like an imprudent expense of time. Focusing on results can lead to a creative cul-de-sac, however, sometimes causing a photographer to privilege scenes that are ‘safe bets’ instead of taking risks with unknown territory. Although playing it safe with familiar locations can bring desirable short-term results, the greatest rewards come from venturing outside one’s comfort zone and into situations that encourage personal discovery. Exploring new terrain is one of the greatest habits that a landscape photographer can form for the purposes of creative growth, not only because exploration is challenging, but also because it is exciting and extremely fun.
The process of exploring an unfamiliar location involves making a variety of decisions that can benefit the development of a landscape photographer. From the moment that we begin to ponder which destination to choose, we are invoking the creative process, letting our own interests and curiosity bring certain questions to mind. Pablo Picasso once called computers “useless” because, “They can only give you answers.” Indeed, asking questions can often be far more valuable than answering them, especially for anyone in a creative field such as photography. “What interests me about this place?” “What might I find here?” “What would I like to find here?” “How might it all change in different seasons?” Questions like these stimulate ideas and lead to experimentation.
The opposite approach is to reproduce familiar scenes. Many locations in the world today are home to views that are proven crowd-pleasers, views that tend to sell well as prints and are likely to play well on social media channels because they trigger fond memories for many people. Of course such scenes gain their popularity by virtue of being particularly photogenic, and most of them are consistently interesting and accessible enough to offer a fairly high return on the investment of time that might go into photographing them. So there are a lot of good reasons why a photographer might want to concentrate on such scenes, but the world has much more to offer creative photographers, and it is extremely worthwhile to go beyond the obvious options. Although unfamiliar scenes run the risk of bringing no photographic rewards, they also have the potential to bring the highest ones. Any photograph that registers a high level of ‘seeing’ generally brings more satisfaction than one that draws its visual interest from any other quality.
Even more importantly, the process of seeing, composing, and imagining possibilities is a precious experience in itself. Any photographer who has ever become immersed in these activities knows the feeling that many creatives call “The Zone,” that creative space that brings a sense of excitement and purpose and has lasting benefits for personal happiness and artistic growth. All of the photographs included in this article came out of my personal explorations and register my experiences of being in that wonderful state of creative flow.
Last but not least, exploration is worthwhile for the sheer adventure of it. Not only is it exciting to experience new places, but true adventures are also great for sharing. Any landscape photographer who enjoys producing behind-the-scenes photographs or videos will likely produce the most interesting and entertaining content when bringing their audience along on a vicarious adventure.
Where to Begin?
Exploration can happen anywhere. Once you venture out into an area where you are unsure of what you might find, you are exploring. An unknown area could lie adjacent to a known one; it could be very accessible; it could be unknown only to you. Choosing an area to explore can be a conscious part of the creative process or it can be the result of instinct or even of serendipity. If no location comes to mind immediately, you may find it helpful to consider certain aesthetics as starting points. Are you particularly attracted to atmospheric mountains or to mossy trees or to glistening icicles? Listen to what your aesthetic cravings are telling you, and then go looking for a place to satisfy them. Also remember that determination can usually bring about a viable plan, so allow yourself to think big. In my own experience, most obstacles are only temporary problems, including physical fitness, vertigo, financial challenges, and many other issues that might make a particular location seem unreachable at first.
The Explorer’s Toolkit
Today’s landscape photographers have a wealth of resources available that can aid in location research. Maps are of course an essential resource, and a plethora of options exists for consulting them. In addition to good old-fashioned paper maps, there are apps that can superimpose notations about celestial events onto a variety of digital maps (my personal favorite in this category is PhotoPills). Other apps can help you to navigate through remote terrain and to keep track of interesting features that you discover (Gaia GPS is a good choice in this category). And of course the venerable Google Earth is a great resource for virtual exploration, enabling a three-dimensional visualization of terrain and even how light will strike it during different times of day and months of the year. For areas where the terrain is highly changeable, such as desert environments, it can be helpful to look for satellite maps on websites that offer them from different years for the same location (such as TerraServer.com); knowing the history of change in a location can help to predict how its features might evolve in the future.
There are many other resources that can be extremely useful for researching when to visit a particular location, such as weather apps (e.g. Wunderground), forecasting websites (such as NOAA, which features a detailed hourly forecast graph), apps that chart tidal changes (e.g. TideTrac), and a whole world of options for planning with the night sky.
Beyond the essentials of maps and apps, there are a few other items of gear that I prefer to have with me at all times. For more remote locations, the importance of having a GPS SPOT device cannot be overstated. Having a well-stocked first aid kit is also important, as is an analog compass for longer treks.
Finally, there is a creative tool that I recommend for all types of exploring, in locations both nearby and remote. I really appreciate being able to think through a location with the help of a small camera because it allows a certain level of freedom that is not always attainable with my regular camera gear. Even better is a small camera with more capability, such as the Canon M6. Having interchangeable lenses, a large touchscreen, and an APS-C sensor all in highly portable and lightweight package makes the M6 the perfect creative companion for exploration. It is useful not only for thinking through ideas to execute with a more substantial camera; it also has the resolution and image quality to produce photographs for a variety of final uses, including prints. So if you happen to catch a fleeting moment with the M6 while experimenting with your ideas, the resulting photograph could be a keeper that you would not have come away with otherwise. In addition, the M6 makes an excellent tool for capturing behind-the-scenes content or for vlogging while out adventuring, thanks to its flip-up screen, mic port, and its ability to record beautiful full HD 60p video.
Finding the Balance
The greatest risk of exploring an area for landscape photography is the possibility that you will find nothing that results in particularly compelling photographs. Anyone who explores regularly will surely have days when the experience of being outdoors is better than the photography that results from it. So while exploring has the potential to result in photography of a certain high quality, it also has the potential to limit quantity.
Although quality is typically regarded as the higher good in most contexts, the age-old dichotomy between quality and quantity is not wholly applicable to the creative process. In general, creative pursuits benefit from a lot of activity, and prolific artists tend to reach the highest levels of virtuosity. Practice not only helps to develop craftsmanship and technique, but it helps to work through ideas and to develop an approach to personal expression. Therefore, the problem of exploration limiting a photographer’s productivity is a legitimate concern.
So how does one find the right balance between exploring regularly and producing photographs regularly? My suggestion is to experiment extensively with whatever you do find while out exploring. Photograph smaller scenes, vignettes of nature, distant details, and grand landscapes, regardless of your usual habits that might omit some of these options. Work in different qualities of light and in weather conditions that might seem unappealing or even absurd at first. Even if these experiments do not all result in portfolio images, they are sure to be valuable exercises in seeing, in imagining, in practicing technique, and in asking questions that can lead to creative growth.
Landscape photographers create their art through a combination of technology and ‘found’ outdoor features, both of which can seem inflexible at times. Technology always has its constraints, and outdoor features are relatively fixed as subjects go—so exactly where any room for creativity lies in that mix is not always obvious. Therefore, it can be challenging for a photographer to develop his or her creative voice and to identify it once it takes shape. Fortunately, habitual exploration can help to support creative development by providing a foundation for it. Choosing locations, seeing visual opportunities, and bringing pre-visualized ideas to life can all combine as a sort of hallmark of the artist in the end. Indeed, the more that you find to photograph, the more that you find yourself.