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 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 sometimes 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.  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.

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.
Birch woods
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.
Image
Landscapes can 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.
Ben Hee, Sutherland
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.

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