Photography of nature is a popular past time for many. Although it isn’t necessarily easy to pull off nature photography well, it is a pretty easily accessible subject, often spectacular, and doesn’t talk back. There are no modeling fees involved, expensive studio lights, or even expensive cameras. Even HDR (High Dynamic Range) exposures once the domain of the technical elite are now available instantaneously (no tripod required) on the latest Iphone. And because people tend to look at the recognizable subject of the nature image and ascribe only the meaning of that object, it’s an easy win. A mountain is a mountain, a tree is a tree, a river is a river, right? It’s just that some people apply the magic of HDR to tweak the cliché in a spectacular way to a chorus of oohs and ahhs….and create a romantic fantasy of nature with incredible tonal range and saturated intense colors. The images are spectacular and trigger an affirmative response.
I think of exposure as a tool of expression. Trying to represent an almost limitless range of tones from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights limits the photographer’s range of expression through exposure. Nature is presented with a monocular vision – all the images look the same.
The purpose of the zone exposure system, once popular for exposing film, is to help a photographer choose a priority – a value to emphasize – at the time of exposure. In order to know what should be emphasized, the photographer needs to have a concept in mind.
There really is no such thing as a good or a bad exposure in and of itself. The question really is, does the exposure help convey the photographer’s concept? Without a concept, exposure is meaningless.
This brings us to the question of what is the concept behind the HDR landscape photographs that seem to proliferate the Internet? That is an answer that we should be able to find in the images themselves. What can we observe in the images? The images seem to follow a certain formula: many seem to be taken at sunrise or sunset when the contrast of light and color is quite intense, they images are captured with a wide-angle lens and small aperture so depth of field goes from a foot to infinity, the foreground objects have a strong linear draw to a light in the distance, and most importantly there is a level of cleanliness and purity that seems to wash over any potentially extraneous detail. Humans or human elements are only included as props (hikers, windows, old buildings) to frame nature. Jay Patel describes their approach to photographing a dune landscape: “When we shoot the dunes, we avoid the areas that are frequented by most tourists. We don’t want footprints in our photographs – so the biggest dunes don’t get much attention from us.”
It is clear in many cases, that in addition to applying an HDR exposure, that segments of the image are manipulated further in postproduction to emphasize color saturation, often with other-worldly results. Despite a setting sun and near dusk conditions elements of the foreground appear in bright saturated coloration and detail. Some photographers even take multiple images with different focus points and then blend the images together in Photoshop for the ultimate range of deep depth of field.
These images depict nature as a sublime cliché; an idealized version of wilderness using very selective viewpoints constructed through multiple exposures and post-production work. There is nothing inherently wrong with these photographs, unless you think they actually document nature. They are what they are and have a following from people who want to believe in a vision of an idealized pristine nature. What these images do not have is a concept that drives them, rather they are shaped by a process of combining dramatic elements of nature to portray beauty. There is nothing more to be revealed past that point.
I have had so many students announce that their class project will be to depict a pristine and pure nature, untouched by human hands. I always ask them what time period in nature do they want to show…untouched today?..as it was 100 years ago?…1000 years ago?…and if they are standing there making the photograph how is nature untouched by humans? What they really want to create in their photograph is a romantic ideal of a utopian vision of nature – a fantasy they they will have to construct in some way.
There are other photographers who use nature as a way of expressing a concept or communicating a meaning that transcends the actual subject. One example of landscape photography that is concept-driven is the work of George DeWolfe.
He applies exposure, design, and framing for a very specific purpose:
“Contemplative Photography proceeds from the correct perception of reality to the clear expression of it. It is different from other types of photography in that it demands nothing from us and nothing from the object. It is an expression of the pure visual nature of reality as it unfolds in front of us in the moment. Learning Contemplative Photography requires that we tear down the conceptual edifice that was unknowingly created from infancy by our culture and reconstruct a new one: a mind that is calm and a vision that is aware.” – DeWolfe
A student of Minor White, George DeWolfe makes images that use nature, but are not attempting to depict the sublime even though they many times exclude human impact. His intention is to create objects of contemplation by using nature combined with the photographic choices he makes at the moment of exposure and in processing.
Chris Jordan is photographer who uses nature, or references nature, to provoke his audience to consider the impact of consumerism. His photograph “Paper Bags” looks like a birch forest, but when you look close up, you realize that it is comprised of stacks of 1.4 million paper bags; the number of bags consumed in the U.S. per hour. An image that appears to be a pristine view of mountains and river, “Denali Denial“, is actually made of up the automobile logos. (Jordan, 2006, 2007)
Making photographs of nature is complex; our viewpoints come with a lot of baggage – stereotypes that we have absorbed from childhood and ideals of beauty. A photographer should recognize and understand their point of view and how it relates to their approach to nature. Photographers can apply the language of photography – exposure, frame, movement, focus, and depth of field – with a purpose that transcends the subject or moment in time.
Carmel, E. (2011). Caribbean Sunset IV. 2012, from http://www.elizabethcarmel.com/PhotoDetails.asp?ShowDESC=N&ProductCode=CARIB108
DeWolfe, G. (2011). Contemplative Photography. 2012, from http://www.georgedewolfe.com/contemplative.html
Jordan, C. (2006). Denali Denial. Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait, 2012, from http://chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#denali-denial
Jordan, C. (2007). Paper Bags. Running the Numbers: An American Self-portrait, 2012, from http://chrisjordan.com/gallery/rtn/#paper-bags
Patel, J. (2011). Beauty Creek, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. 2012, from http://www.jaypatelphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/light-and-color/img_1092.jpg
Patel, J. (2012). Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (WY), USA. 2012, from http://www.jaypatelphotography.com/wp-content/gallery/light-and-color/img_1703.jpg