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Thread: Landscapes - defining the subject

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    terrib's Avatar
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    Landscapes - defining the subject

    I am trying to improve my landscape photography. In landscape photography, I am having a problem figuring out how to define "the subject". Maybe as a lifelong flatlander now living in the mountains I am just overly impressed by the panoramic views. But in reading about landscape photography, I hear things like "define the subject", "cut out distracting elements", "get rid of the large foreground", etc. But when I'm looking at a panoramic view that includes river, trees, mountains, and sky I just want to capture it all! In these cases, is it really about defining a subject or is it more about getting the exposure and colors right to try to convey what I see? Or is it more about going to a place at the right time rather than snapping when you happen to be there? I'm including a few uncropped photos to help with the discussion.

    I have no idea what the subject would be here. I was just struck by the vastness of the view.
    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Boreas Pass, Colorado by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    I suppose the river is the subject. How does that change my composition?
    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Eleven Mile Canyon, Lake George, CO by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    Again, I was struck by the vast view and the distance of the mountains.
    Landscapes - defining the subject
    View from Wilkerson Pass, Lake George, CO by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Probably something like that.

    Landscapes - defining the subject

    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Last edited by Radu Dinu Cordeanu; 3rd July 2012 at 09:43 AM.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    As a generalisation, for landscape photography the subject is often defined by the light which falls on it which is why a lot of landscape photographer venture out to get the light an hour or so each side of dawn or sunset. Check the weather forecasts as well, watch out for passing fronts, early mist or storms all of which will give you light that will transform your landscape from just a nice view into something special - or not depending upon how lucky you are. Another generalisation, blue skies around midday are the kiss of death for landscape - do macro or portraiture instead or read a book and wait for the evening. Often you find a form or a composition in the landscape and depending on the light or weather you either set up and wait or pack up and return if you can. I'd say light and weather conditions have the most impact and can transform the mundane into something superb, or in their absence, turn the suberb into something mundane.
    Being there at the right time, extracting the most of what you have with post processing and getting used to coming back empty handed - all essential landscape skills.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Quote Originally Posted by bambleweeney View Post
    which is why a lot of landscape photographer venture out to get the light an hour or so each side of dawn or sunset.
    Venture out. What a nice way of putting it In the case of a morning shoot that usually translates into "setting an alarm for some un-godly hour and then getting my sad and sorry butt into the car - and driving off at a ridiculous hour of the night". I remember one shoot - I got there at 3:30am - took the money shot at about 7am - and spent a lot of time inbetween in a sleeping bag with a hot water bottle and the camera on a 1 minute timer !

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    A few thoughts, Terri...

    Quote Originally Posted by terrib View Post
    Maybe as a lifelong flatlander now living in the mountains I am just overly impressed by the panoramic views.
    Hopefully it's not possible to be overly impressed with them. However, when you experience the views as opposed to the photos of them, you are seeing them in three dimensions and with peripheral vision that extends far to the left and right of the image. Your brain is also at work, causing your emotions to respond to whatever is appealing to you within the scene -- and most important -- causing your emotions to ignore all of the other stuff. When you view a photograph of the same scene, your mind works differently because it is looking at something different -- a two-dimensional image that is very small. The result is that your emotions pay attention to everything in the image. That is the reason it is so important to determine the subject before releasing the shutter and following up in post-processing to emphasize it.

    But when I'm looking at a panoramic view that includes river, trees, mountains, and sky I just want to capture it all!
    There are some situations when you can do that effectively. However, when you do, you must be able to immediately identify the subject in the photograph. Otherwise, you lose the viewer's interest. If you cannot immediately identify the subject, eliminate parts of the image until the subject is well defined, as your reading material suggests.

    In these cases, is it really about defining a subject or is it more about getting the exposure and colors right to try to convey what I see?
    It's both. But if you don't clearly define the subject, nothing else that you do will help the image very much.

    Or is it more about going to a place at the right time rather than snapping when you happen to be there?
    Going to a place at the right time and getting lucky enough to have light that adds interest to the subject is a particular plus in landscape photography. However, you can capture landscapes at other times of the day that you and others will enjoy even though they won't be money shots that make everyone respond with a "Wow!" Perhaps most important, even when you are at the magially right place at the magically right time, all of that will be wasted if your image doesn't clearly define the subject.

    [Your first image:] I have no idea what the subject would be here. I was just struck by the vastness of the view.
    When I saw this image, it was immediately clear to me that the subject is the stand of trees on a small hill in the middle of the image. Unfortunately, you probably didn't want that to be the subject. Even if you did, that subject has little interest at least for me and placing it exactly in the center of the image results in a static image.

    Notice the oval-shaped area of beige terrain in the bottom right area of the image. That is a strong element because of the relatively bright color, the interesting shape, and the strong placement within the frame (placed almost exactly to comply with the Rule of Thirds). It is such a strong element that it competes too much with the subject.

    Though the image conveys vastness to a certain extent, the vastness isn't interesting. The light is flat. The distant mountains are shrouded in haze. The clouds have little definition, resulting in a reasonably bland sky. The foreground tree on the left adds a little interest and certainly helps portray vastness but the foreground tree on the right is a distraction.

    I suppose the river is the subject. How does that change my composition?
    You're right that the river is the subject. You did a great job of capturing the interesting, meandering character.

    However, notice that you have three competing elements -- the river, the mountainous forest and the sky. As your reading material suggests, try eliminating at least one of those elements. The obvious choice is to eliminate the sky. Once you have tried that, you might decide to include only a small sliver of the sky, but only a small part of it.

    If you had eliminated the sky before releasing the shutter, you might have lowered your camera or used a shorter focal length to include more of the river, add a little foreground space in front of it, or whatever would work to enhance the subject (the river).

    [Your third image:] Again, I was struck by the vast view and the distance of the mountains.
    And understandably so! It's a beautiful scene to experience in person and you can make it a better photograph for others to enjoy as well.

    You mentioned that the mountains and everything in front of them that conveys vast distance piqued your interest. That being the case, why did you devote almost half of the image to a bland, cloudless sky? Try cropping just ever so slightly above the distant mountains. (Notice that the theme of eliminating an element once again dramatically improves the image.)

    Once the sky is mostly eliminated, what is the subject? You tell me.

    As you think about that, try to place yourself in my and all of your viewers' position: We were not there when you released the shutter. We have no memory of the emotions experienced at the scene. My point is that when you critique your own images, it's very important that you ignore your memory of the emotions that you experienced as you released the shutter. Instead, view the image as if someone else had captured it when you were miles away.

    Apologies for the long post, but I hope it helps at least a little bit.
    Last edited by Mike Buckley; 3rd July 2012 at 01:00 PM.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Hi Terri. Mike makes some excellent about the difference between what we experience in many landscapes and what we see. I have spent years trying to photograph the vastness of some panoramas and only seem to catch about half of the emotion I saw and felt at the time. The emotion is what we need to capture and convey to the viewers, without which our images are only half-vast.

    Don't be discouraged. The more you learn about composition the better you'll get at all kinds of photography. Although it is important to learn your camera and the technical side of taking and post processing your images, learning to 'see' and visualize your composition will provide you with the best sense of satisfaction.

    You may be interested in getting the Free E-Book on developing your photography composition 'Vision' - http://craftandvision.com/books/craft-and-vision/

    Hope this helps!

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Thank you, Paul. I had not thought of the light in that way, as possibly defining the subject. I will try to keep what you've said in mind.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Oh my gosh, Mike. Don't apologize for the long post - what a wealth of information to think about! Thank you so much for taking the time. I've read through once and can't wait to spend some time with it this evening, digesting the information and giving some of your suggestions a try. Again, thanks! I'll definitely be back to this.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Frank, thank you for your encouragement and for the ebook recommendation. I've downloaded it and will give it a read.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    I have attempted to modify the 3 pictures based on the suggestions and here are my results and comments.

    Photo #1: This is a crop, defining the clump of trees as the subject and removing a good part of the sky. However, after working with this I think this photo is best discarded (well, except from a tourist snapshot standpoint ). There are too many things wrong - uninteresting subject, haze, overcast - so I'm letting it go.

    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Better maybe, but probably best discarded by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    Photo #2: I have removed most of the sky and I really like this one better. However, I see what Mike means about getting this framed correctly to begin with. I'd like for the river to be at least 2/3 of the photo and I can't really do that and keep other elements that I want. I will definitely be revisiting this location to try and retake this photograph.

    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Cropped sky to focus on river by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    Photo #3: I have 2 new renditions of this one. I first cropped out most of the sky and saw the rock formation that I thought might be an interesting subject. Once I placed that where I wanted it, I realized that what I had thought is snow out in that vast field is actually a lake. So I cropped again, making it the subject. Again, the importance of defining the subject at the time is apparent. I need to go back and see if I can stand in a different position on the platform to get a better perspective on the lake and what I think is the prettier mountain peaks on the left. (about the original: this one was taken a few years ago and the camera did not record what shooting mode I was in. I apparently was not thinking about my settings with an aperture of 4.5!! Also, to answer Mike's question about why I devoted so much space to sky - I had read to put the horizon on one of the "third's" lines)

    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Is rock formation the subject? by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    Landscapes - defining the subject
    Maybe the lake is a better subject. by DreamspunFarm, on Flickr

    Thank you all again for your comments!

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    You have made VERY impressive progress, Terri. I'm referring both to your improved images and your comments about them. It's clear that this has been a great learning exercise for you and I suspect for many other viewers as well.

    I agree that the revised first one may not be a keeper, mostly because I'm convinced you will regularly get better keepers from now on. However, the subject is now unquestionable and your thought process about that will carry through to every image you make from now on.

    Everything you mentioned about the revised second version is spot on.

    You ask if the rock formation is the subject in your next to last revision. Generally, it is difficult to make such a small object (relative to the rest of the image) a landscape subject. With some magical lighting, small items can be effective subjects but that's the only exception I can think of off the top of my head. For me, the subject might be the diagonal line of trees but it's such a vaguely defined subject that I would toss that image up to a great learning lesson. EDIT: A small item can also be the subject if there is a lot of space around it, if other objects in the image frame the subject, or if leading lines direct the viewer's eye to the subject. (Notice that none of those conditions apply in this image.)

    The last revision is clearly the best image for me. I don't see the lake as the subject. Instead, I see the group of three layers (the foreground forest, the lake and the distant mountains) as the subject. The use of layers creates both interest and complexity in landscape photography and is often the subject. Sometimes interesting light is the subject. So keep in mind that the subject is not necessarily a single object.

    A quick trick to reduce haze: Select the hazy area of an image and apply the Level & Curves tool. Slowly drag the middle of the diagonal line toward the right bottom corner of the graph until you achieve the desired look.

    Again, you have done a fabulous job of working your way through this stuff about defining the subject. There is no doubt in my mind that your next set of keepers will be taken to an entirely new level.

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    Hi Terri,

    I struggle with landscapes too.

    I think what this shows to me is;
    a) Wide angle often isn't what is needed - these latest crops would have been better done at the time of capture with a telephoto lens
    b) They need to be much bigger - furthermore the wider the angle, the more 'screen filling' they must be.

    b) is so a viewer can get close to their screen, if they want to, in order to see more fine detail and get a 'peripheral vision' effect at the same time, so they appreciate better, the view you enjoyed. All this of is possible if a bigger image is linked and viewed in the Lytebox. I was going to demonstrate with one of you 1024 size ones, but couldn't get a bigger image url to use (I cannot get to grips with Flickr I'm afraid)

    Ideally, these need to be 1200 - 1600 wide if horizontal/panoramic aspect ratio, but not sure Flickr works that big

    Cheers,

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    Quote Originally Posted by Mike Buckley View Post
    The last revision is clearly the best image for me. I don't see the lake as the subject. Instead, I see the group of three layers (the foreground forest, the lake and the distant mountains) as the subject. The use of layers creates both interest and complexity in landscape photography and is often the subject. Sometimes interesting light is the subject. So keep in mind that the subject is not necessarily a single object.
    Well, that's a next step. I was thinking in terms of a single object subject. But I think I see what you mean.

    You are right that this has been a great learning process. Thanks so much for your help, compliments and encouragement!

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    Thank you for your comments. I agree that I need to try these again with a different lens. I'm not sure I understand the last part. I'm not familiar with Lytebox but I'll try to look it up. I'm afraid I'm not all that great with Flickr either!

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject, second round

    Terri,

    The Lytebox that Dave mentioned is a capability within CiC that allows viewers to click on your image and see larger versions of it, assuming you made a larger version of it available. The easy way to make that happen is to upload directly from your computer as provided in the first upload method explained in the following web page: HELP THREAD: How can I post images here?

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Quote Originally Posted by FrankMi View Post
    You may be interested in getting the Free E-Book on developing your photography composition 'Vision' - http://craftandvision.com/books/craft-and-vision/
    Thanks for posting this link, Frank!

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    Re: Landscapes - defining the subject

    Really helpful thread... thanks, Terri, for taking the time, trouble and risk of posting... and to Mike, particularly, for the really instructive and helpful comments.
    Ian

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