The Challenges and Joys of Landscape Photography
I’d like to address the sentiment that photographers charge too much for their images. I’ve seen so many people walk into a gallery, see a print for $1000 and you say “$1000? man! I could do that with my iPhone”. In reality it takes way more work to capture and create and produce and frame a single great image than most people realize. In this article, I would like to delve into how physically and emotionally challenging high-quality landscape photography is and offer some insight into my creative process.
I fell in love with the Sierra when I was a 10-year-old boy and the whole purpose of many of my photographs is to be surrounded by this piece of heaven when I’m not there. Mostly, I’m just trying to bottle some of that amazing experience and bring it back with me. The Sierra moves me and I’ve been trying to do this magical place justice since my parents gave me my first camera, a Brownie.
The images featured in this article were all taken at the same spot overlooking a place called Hot Creek Gorge, about 10 miles east of Mammoth Lakes California. The support images are from the Alabama Hills. I visit Hot Creek Gorge every time I go to the Sierra and I’ve probably been on that overlook 75-100 times. It is on “my route” and I return there year after year to experience it in different weather and light. Like me, many photographers have spots that they know could make a great photograph under beneficial light conditions. I’ve spoken to many photographers and most of them will say things “um yeah, that one there, that one took me about 15 years. I’ve been going back for 15 years to catch the light. That one took me 20 and that one took me 5. I just kept going back and kept going back until I got it.” I admire that commitment and persistence to the get the shot.
Hot Creek Gorge is my spot. I grew up fishing Hot Creek and after all these years I still feel a kinship and almost stewardship over that spot.
Around Hot Creek Gorge, there’s a 10-mile network of dirt roads in Long Valley and my wife jokes that I drive up and down the same stretch hunting for the perfect shot. It does seem a bit crazy but I love that place and that’s pretty much what I do. Yet, no two days are ever the same and that leads me to the craziness and impracticality of landscape photography that I love.
You really can’t predict the one element that you are totally dependent on – nature. Landscape photography is impractical on such a high level that you need to have a good sense of humor or it will frustrate you. You have to be out there and be out there and often up before sunrise, braving scorching heat, hunger, fatigue, sand storms, rain, freezing winds, frostbite, or whatever finds you. Perfect sunny days at noon tend to make for rather boring photos. I generally go by the rule that if it doesn’t take my breath away, the chances of it taking someone else’s breath away are slim. And, all else being equal, it’s simply the quality of light that can transform a nice photo into a breathtaking masterpiece.
Speaking of breathtaking, I had this crazy
experience the last time I was in the Sierra. I checked in at my Hot Creek overlook one late afternoon and I decided that the light wasn’t hitting it right so I headed down the road. Later there was the potential for a nice sunset so, after a couple coin flips, I arrived at a spot that seemed good. I got a few mediocre shots of the sunset but nothing portfolio quality. The next evening I ran into a professional photographer who was experiencing his first time in the Sierra. As we were wrapping up our conversation he asked me excitedly if I happened to have caught the previous night’s sunset and asked if he could show me the shots he got. He showed me a sunset shot captured from my overlook at Hot Creek gorge, where I’d been just two hours earlier the previous day. This was one of the most gorgeous and glorious color shots I have ever seen. In his shot, the sky was bursting with coppers and golds and light and details that are impossible to describe. It really was a lifetime image. I would have been overjoyed to have captured that image but I had missed it by two hours and just two miles. That was MY spot!! It’s a spot of contemplation and reverence on my route and I know it like my appendages. Despite all that, I missed that shot and this guy who had never even been to the Sierra just happened to be in the right spot, at the right time, and got the shot. I didn’t know what to do with my face when he showed me his image. I am going to take that sting to my grave.
This story is just an example of how crazy, impractical, and frustrating landscape photography can be. I don’t believe in luck but you just can’t control nature. If you call yourself a landscape photographer, you need to accept that you’re largely at the mercy of nature and celebrate both the hits and misses when they happen.
You have so little control and you just have to take your chances. You guess where the light is going to be and occasionally you can hit it perfectly. Even a blind chicken finds an acorn once in a while. There will be plenty of times where you aren’t hitting it and you know there’s a guy a mile away on the other ridge that’s just nailing it. That may sound depressing but it’s that thrill of hitting it that drives me. That’s the exhilarating part to me but also the thing that makes me the craziest.
Beyond the unpredictability, there’s also an economic reality in landscape photography. Few people realize or appreciate what it takes to produce a gallery quality image. If you’re trying to make a career out of photography, you have to understand the slim margins that selling through galleries can produce and you should have all sorts of other income streams from your work. Going back to my Sierra trip, all things considered, that was an awesome trip. I got 4 or 5 portfolio quality images from that week. A 20” x 30” framed gallery print should sell for around $1000. But between gas, hotels, meals that week probably cost me $1000, not even counting the investment in my photo gear. With 5 images, that’s $200 an image just in terms of the direct cost. So then by the time you pay to print it, frame it, and hang it in a gallery, at $1000 you might make $200-$300. I would have to sell multiple images just to break even on that trip.
It really takes hard work to consistently create quality images; it’s expensive, it takes a lot of time, and it takes commitment. When people see an amazing image, it’d be great if they also had an appreciation for the craft and dedication that it took to create the image. On my Sierra trip, I was getting up every morning before 5am to be out there in time for the light. Each morning it would be pitch-dark and I would have to have spotted the spot where I thought, I hoped, I prayed, it will be good. Then there would be this little window of like 5 minutes where it might be glorious. Sunrises are crazy and just like that, they’re gone. When you see great landscape photography, it’s not by accident. There was blood, sweat, and tears in that image. Photographers don’t go slogging through swamps and getting bit by mosquitoes only for fun. We do crazy stuff because we’re obsessed with getting shots that move us.
My creative process is really simple. First and above all, I put myself in places that moves me emotionally and only shoot subjects that inspire me. I hike or drive around until something tugs at me or stops me in my tracks and either try to capture what’s in front of me or wait for the light. Taking great pictures requires patience and letting nature do a lot of the work. It’s kind of the old “f8 and being there” idea. I try to not force it and allow the inspiration to come to me. I also try to not let the equipment or the technical side control me and stay on the emotional side of things. While composing, I’m looking for my breathing to relax before I lock down the tripod and make the exposure.
I do time my trips based somewhat based on weather reports and I’m always looking for storms and “good bad weather”. You still can’t predict nature but with, modern technological conveniences, you can improve your chances of being there with interesting or dramatic light. It’s impossible to overstate the success you can have by going out in “bad” weather when it makes no sense. I’m not encouraging anything dangerous or irresponsible but, within safe limits, if you don’t go out in the storms you’ll never be there when a storm breaks to capture that glorious light. It’s also important to go out there with the knowledge that the odds may not be too good but still keep a joyful expectation. I never want to feel like I have to get a great image or the day/trip was wasted. Then it turns into a job and it isn’t fun anymore. In the majority of my life, much of what I do is reasonably practical and deliberate. I earn a living, I take care of my family, and do things in a certain deliberate fashion to succeed. With photography, in a way, it’s the impracticality of it that makes it fun for me. It’s the potential of the next great image being just around the corner that drives me onward.