Serene Life

by garik

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I found this scene to be quite beautiful for sure, but when I look at it from the photographer's view point, I find that that person just went there, saw the scene, clicked the photo and returned home.

It doesn't seem to me that he has made this scene special. To me it sounds as if the scene was there and he just bothered to use the camera.

Same is the case with this photograph I took. Beautiful flowers, but what have I done there to make it "special"?

Question: How to make a nature photograph rather than take it?

And, no, when the nature is already beautiful, I won't want to spoil it by throwing a human or a newspaper or a toy in it.

Here are the kind of pics where I would say that the person has "made" them not simply "taken" them: Green dead body, by Alonso Díaz , and Hyacinths & Tree, by Lars van de Goor.

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8 Answers 8

I think the answer can be found in the study of Ansel Adams, unquestionably one of the greatest, most famous, and most popular photographers of nature. Not only was Adams a great photographer and writer, this question is one of the essential parts of his life's work: the legitimization of photography as an expressive art form, not merely a mechanical recording medium.

From a 1984 interview:

I think of Stieglitz's definition of photography — a paraphrase of what I heard him say many times. In the earlier days, when people were very scornful of what he called "creative photography" or "photography as art," they would ask: "Mr. Stieglitz, how do you go about making the creative photograph?" He would answer, "When I have a desire to photograph, I go out in the world with my camera. I come across something that excites me emotionally and aesthetically. I'm creatively excited. I see the picture in my mind's eye and I make the exposure and I give you the print as the equivalent of what I saw and felt." The word "equivalent" is very important. It's two things — what is seen and what is felt about it. That's why the naturalistic element in photography is very important. When you intentionally depart from the natural situation you can get into trouble. Unless you depart far enough.

(A video of a similar interview from around the same time is available on youtube. Skip the first minute to get right to Adams directly.)

Adams' "zone system" is a technique for exposure, but it's also a technique for taking the scene before you and producing a final print which shows these two elements, the seen and the felt; both, as you say, "the scene which was there", and an artistic interpretation of the emotional impact of that scene.

Your comment that "To me it sounds as if the scene was there and [the photographer]" reminds me of an oft-repeated but apocryphal Adams quote: "Sometimes I do get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter." But even then, one has to have the technical skills — the craft — to make that click happen just right. More often, taking a successful a landscape or nature photograph requires more initial effort than the final result may indicate. For some people, in fact, getting that feel of an effortless capture of natural beauty is a goal, even when it actually took a great deal of work to get into the exact right place at the right time.

So, this isn't a literal how-to answer, but I hope it points in the right direction to a larger, more comprehensive answer. I think that by carefully observing the work of some of the great nature photographers, and by reading what they have written, you can set yourself on the path where you can find the answer. Adams has a trilogy of books, The Camera, The Negative, and The Print which in this digital age can be seen as partially obsolete in a technical sense, but which are full of wisdom on photography in a timeless way. (And they're an easy, conversational read — and you can skim the parts that you don't find helpful or interesting.)

To distill what I can, though:

  1. Understand the process of turning a visual idea into a final image, from camera to post-processing to print (or online display).
  2. Find something that appeals to you emotionally or aesthetically — have something to say, even if it is just "these are pretty flowers".
  3. Visualize the result of that something — how are you going to say that something? — and use your practiced skills to turn your idea into a photograph which can be shared with others.
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It basically boils down to having a vision and making that vision happen (and I think you understand this, as it seems to be the point of the question).

A photographer "makes" the photograph not only by choosing his or her lighting and composition carefully (as has already been pointed out), but by actively taking a roll in the process and modifying the environment as much as possible to match his or her vision. Take for example this blog post by Bryan Peterson where he gives several examples of actively modifying the environment before taking the photo by modifying the scene (in one case by placing a leaf on a rock, and in another case by placing a shell on an otherwise empty beach). So keep this in mind as well, just because it's a nature photo doesn't mean that you can't modify the scene to make it more interesting.

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You have to start by scouting locations. This means noting the orientation of the the scene, knowing how the light will fall at varying times of the day, what the light looks like in the various seasons and how the scene itself transform itself into during these various seasons. It takes years of "mind framing", note taking and imagination to develop a list of favorite locations. This work never stops. Some photographers do scouting without bringing any equipment to solely use imagination before taking a single photo.

Check the weather reports daily. It's essential to be in tune with the weather. Different weather conditions translate to different light, look, feel and atmosphere. You should learn to anticipate weather and be prepared to compose a shot in one of your favorite locations on a moments notice. There is some risk taking involved too; Waking up at 3 AM and arriving to a location in anticipation of the best possible light around and shortly after sunrise sometimes or often doesn't work out if weather changes unpredictably.

Compose the photograph - This takes practice and experience. Technical knowledge about which lens will work better blends with artistic feeling and vision. Ultimately every part of the photograph is equally important. You might want to translate the feeling you are feeling at the moment of taking the photo. If you want to alter the mood in post processing you might want think about the technique you will be using in order to create the mood you want.

Review & Post processing - This is where you "develop" you final vision from the "raw" images you took "on location". Review your raw files and select only the best to create your final photo. Almost always there is some degree of post processing required. From minor such as noise reduction or sharpening to complex HDR or introducing foreign elements (photo-montage). For some photographer's the goal is to create a surreal world, for others it is to create an image that is as realistic as possible, possibilities are endless. Some post processing can take minutes other images may require weeks of work on a single photo. I have seen a NG documentary where it took more then a year to create a single photo of a redwood tree.

There is so much more, after all books have been written about it...

So in my opinion it takes a lot more then showing up and pressing a button.

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I terms of composition, based on your examples, you seem to be trying to identify that pictures such as these are better with foreground elements and a 'beginning' 'middle' and 'end' portion.

Take the first example, it's clearly a scene with much effort put into the shot. Its a lovely scene but the composition is ultimately little more than foggy trees. Now take the third and similar shot, its again, foggy trees but this time we have a composed shot with a clear piece of foreground interest (bright green tree), a middle in the few stumps, and the fog creates the ethereal background.

The 2nd, of your flowers, is closer to a portrait than a 'nature' photo. Its a single subject photograph really. The last picture of the field of flowers highlights the composition with the flowers in the foreground, the tree in the middle, and the sky in the 'background'. Its this composition that 'makes' the photo in your mind.

Having a start, middle, and end, or at the very least a foreground element, helps provide interesting and leads the eye around the photograph. To me, these are the fundamental differences here.

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I think you MAY have been too hard on the photographer. While the hotographer MAY have just come/clicked/left, it's unlikely.

What you see there is very likely to have been the subject of much though - both in original composition and possibly in post processing.
Using even simple tools you can produce a number of post processed results from that scene which give distinctly different feels. All these were available to the photographer both on site and subsequently. What you see in the final photo is his attempt to make you feel what he felt.

The photo below and those [in this web album] are presented with the intention of meeting both th spirit and letter of the "fair use" provisions of copyright. The image belongs to Francesco Mangiaglia and is presented here in various possible forms as a comment on what he chose to do and what he could have chosen to do and how th potentials "feeling" varies.

I'll present one only variant below.

Theoriginal and 5 possible versions can be seen here

Roll - do not click initially.
Comments on changes at lower right in each case.
All images copyright Francesco Mangiaglia.

The Forest Primeval - some way from "Into Deep Sleep".
The photographer's choice of what you see compared to what you might have seen is evident.

enter image description here

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If I've understood your question, then you are asking what it is that a photographer contributes to a beautiful image besides the good fortune of discovering a beautiful place.

Let me list a few things:

  • She went looking
    • The photographer may have invested time, effort and possibly money in locating a beautiful scene. Perhaps this isn't the case, but it's a consideration.
  • She waited for the light / weather / season
    • This is similar to going looking for the scene, but it's a search in time rather than in space. The scene might have looked perfect when she arrived the first time, or she may have made many visits in different light, at different times of the day or the year before the scene was just right.
  • She captured the scene
    • We all know that even given the most breathtaking scene, there is an incredible amount of skill and artistry required to capture it in a way that communicates that breathtaking nature to the viewer of the final image. Following are some components of this:
    • She chose the viewpoint (i.e. the precise composition).
    • She chose the exposure correctly/appropriately.
    • She chose the point of focus and depth of field.
  • She brought the image to us
    • Maybe I'm getting a bit too philosophical, but the act of sharing an image is an artistic act.
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have edited the question. –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 2 '12 at 10:54

I would like to question your description: "just went there, saw the scene, clicked the photo and returned home". You could describe this way every possible human activity, and it also has a literary value (Caesar's "Veni, vidi, vici") but reality is a bit different.

To just "go there" he had to walk around, in search, spending maybe hours. One cannot simply study the travel directions from google maps or whatever, get up from the computer and go straight to the point.

Regarding "seeing the scene": that's the whole point of photography. You visualize and capture something, and maybe a lot of people had seen the same thing a lot of times but didn't think/were able to capture it. Consider the title of Freeman's books: "The photographer's eye", "The photographer's mind"... how many times a mundane subject becomes a great photo? He had to find a good point of view (For example I am always left with the feeling that I have missed something, that it was possible to do better, to be more incisive...)

Regarding "clicking the photo": he had to find the right balance to achieve what he wished. And maybe he was carring a tripod all along in his walk in the trees.

So, it's not at all so easy. Your question seems to imply that since nature is so beautiful, taking a beautiful shot is "easy". But taking a shot always requires your point of view (and your opinion about picking one subject rather than another). And it requires your photographic skills, just like other (maybe much more controlled, e.g. in studio) kinds of photography.

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I think that I should have mentioned in the question that I was solely talking about the "composition", not of the light effects and all. Edited the question. Secondly, you said: *"You could describe this way every possible human activity," * No I cannot. I cannot say the same regarding the first trees and the bench photo I posted here few days back. You might not have liked (at all) that scene if I had simply taken it from where I was standing. I am talking about the "composition", only. –  TheIndependentAquarius Apr 2 '12 at 10:53

IMO, In Nature and Bird/Animal photography, you don't need to make a photograph. I would be a great picture if you clicked the picture from an unconventional angle, perspective etc, but it is not absolutely required. Nature in itself is beautiful. That said, you need to know your gear pretty well if you have to capture the brilliance. I have seen several instances of both brilliant and mediocre captures of the same scene.

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