Drawing with light: reflections on landscape photography

The word ‘photography’ derives from two Greek roots, which roughly translated mean ‘light’ and ‘to draw’ so photography means ‘drawing with light’.  It isn’t ‘copying with light’ because when photography was introduced it did not reproduce what was in front of the camera exactly as seen. Individuals draw the same scene differently, emphasising what is important to them, and until not so long ago, the same was true of photographers – they interpreted and presented what was in front of the camera in quite different ways.

With the advent of high-resolution films and, especially, digital photography this changed, to a very significant extent. The camera can reproduce to a very high degree of fidelity, a scene as shot by the photographer and leaving aside differences in post-processing, two photographers faced with the same scene will produce very similar photographs. My photography reflects my interests in the outdoors so is dominated by landscape photographs and in this area there has been an explosion of high-quality representational images of mountain and coastal landscapes. Some of these are absolutely stunning images, which show the beauty and the grandeur of the outdoors.

Yet, I must admit I am tiring of both taking and looking at these images. They may be technically superb and visually impressive but they often fail to get over what the photographer feels about the landscape. As Niall Benvie, a Scottish photographer says in his book ‘You are not a photocopier’   these are often simply high-quality photocopies. His book is about photography and art and, while I don’t agree with everything he says, it is a provocative read. A particularly good point that he makes is that we should not necessarily present photographs on their own but that interpretative text can make these more individual to the photographer.

For some of my own landscape photographs, I’ve been thinking about how these communicate how I felt when I took these pictures and how to present this. I have decided that colour is a distraction – it’s easy to admire the prettiness and to fail to ‘see’ what’s really in the photograph.  With a black and white photo, it’s about the light, not the colours. So I have been converting the original images to black and white with a bit of digital manipulation. I haven’t gone to the extent of removing or adding elements to a scene, although I don’t have a problem in principle with this if this presents a better picture of what the photographer actually sees. But I have avoided the more extreme digital manipulations simply because I think these are mostly gimmicks that fail to do anything except impress the viewer with the skills of the programmer who developed these effects.  Captions, I think, are very important so I have thought about longer, explanatory captions that try to describe why I like the photograph.

Here are a few examples and I would appreciate any comments that the occasional viewers of this blog have.

Lairig Ghru

Looking east through the Lairig Ghru. 

Many writers remark on the beauty of the Cairngorms and, especially under snow, Cairngorms views can be superb.  But the Cairngorms are rough, harsh, unforgiving places which are often not conventionally beautiful but which awe the viewer with their majesty.I’ve been through the Lairig several times and what has always struck me at the summit of the pass is my insignificance in the landscape. I’ve tried to capture the harshness of the land in this image, which is dominated by rock yet at the same time reveal the attractiveness of these magnificent hills.

Morrone birchwoods

Morning sunlight, Morrone birchwoods

Outdoor folks in my experience tend to be quite taciturn about what they feel about the environment and they don’t talk much about the emotional impact of the outdoors. But I suspect, like me, one of the real attractions for them at least is the sense of joy and happiness that you sometimes get from being in a particular place (often but not always a summit) at a particular time. I experienced this on a walk through the Morrone birch woods near Braemar where I was struck by the spring sunshine coming through the fresh spring birch leaves. Trying to communicate happiness in a landscape photograph is pretty hard but the lightness of the leaves reflected my lightness of spirit that spring morning.

Road to Achiltibuie

Towards Fisherfield from near Achiltibuie

Sometimes when you are out, landscapes surprise you and this is one like that. We were heading to Achiltibuie on a mostly dull day when we came across this view to An Teallach and the hills of the Fisherfield Forest. What was so striking was the contrast between where we were (in the dark foreground) and the frieze of hills that were revealed. It was just one of these ‘wow’ moments that makes your heart sing.  Entranced by the view of the hills, I didn’t see the road furniture (passing place signs) and telegraph poles. Someone with better Photoshop skills than me could, I’m sure, get rid of them but I decided that I quite liked them as they showed this was a living landscape and not a calendar scene.



Sometimes, it’s the unexpected that makes your day. We started to walk up Ben Hee in Sutherland in dull, claggy unpromising November weather with a sprinkling of autumn snow on the ground. As we approached the summit, however, we started to get hints of a change and a few minutes later the clouds started to clear. The times when you realise that you are going to get great views are amongst the best in the hills and I’ve tried to capture the first few moments of the emergence of the landscape here.

I won’t stop taking ‘pretty pictures’ in the hills or, indeed, admiring such pictures taken by others because, sometimes, these are simply the best ways to document walks and trips.  But I also plan to think more about why I took a photograph, what it really means to me and how I can represent this. I have no pretentions to being an artist but I hope that by focusing on light rather than colour, I can better communicate what being in a landscape means to me.

4 thoughts on “Drawing with light: reflections on landscape photography

  • February 26, 2015 at 10:16 pm

    Excellent, post and great photographs. As you point out, it is the wrong question with these photos to ask “what do you see?”. A better question is “how does this make you feel?”.

  • February 27, 2015 at 10:58 pm

    That last picture made me stop in my tracks. Wonderful! It brought back so many emotions and memories of stumbling over clagged-in tops to be confronted with a brief window of complete beauty.

    I love B&W, but feel that there are times when colour can be magical as well. A lit birch tree, singing against a black thundering gorge.

    We both seem to like birch trees.

  • December 1, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    Dear Ian – I require permission to use Geo 1 – a photo of yours showing a narrow view of a steep-too rocky inlet in the cliffs at Findon – this I want to use as background on the cover of a slim book of poems in Lallans – does the photo lie in public domain – if you release it to me for the purpose mentioned I would give you credit and a copy of the book – that as well as payment in cash – my need ties in with the fact that Granny was born in Findon in the 1800’s – that she spoke Lallans and after the first time I climbed the sea stack [the Black Tower back then,] my companion fell plummeting out of sight into the sea – he couldn’t swim so reaching down towards him – him surfacing eyes closed and his arms flailing – grabbed my booted foot and A pulled him – drooked – aye – sypin weet – he stood there like a drooned rat whiles A couldna stap lauchin.

    • December 11, 2015 at 10:08 am

      Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your comment. I’d be happy for you to use it. If it’s helpful, I could send you a full resolution version which would reproduce better



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