In this instalment of my tutorial series “Great Subjects”, we’re going to be looking at one of my favourite types of landscape photography: intimate landscapes.
As landscape photographers, we tend to become engrossed in the grand vistas, the vast expanses that make up scenes with great depth. But small scenes can have a large impact too. Photographs of intimate landscapes can make extraordinary images on their own or they can be used to complement the grand vistas that usually capture our attention.
What is an intimate landscape?
An intimate landscape is simply one small part of the scene that is extracted from the overall picture and put in a frame of its own. It’s about the smaller details.
Think of landscape images in three categories: the grand vista, the extreme close-up and what falls in between is an intimate landscape. While textures, lines, shapes and patterns are critical components in the composition of an intimate landscape, it’s more than just filling the frame with something. It tells a part of the story.
The term “intimate landscape” can be attributed to American photographer Eliot Porter who had the first exhibit of colour photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 – an exhibit titled Intimate Landscapes. I encourage you to view some of the photos from this exhibit to help you understand what intimate landscapes are.
One reason for pursuing the intimate landscape is that you’ll create images that are uniquely your own. Whereas everyone who pursues the grand vista of The Watchman at Zion National Park inevitably ends up standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a line up of photographers on the bridge, the small scene that happens nearby will change with every season, with every day, and never be the same. The resulting photographs are more personal, and more emotional.
How to find an intimate landscape
It’s easy to see a grand vista. When you have something interesting in the foreground, a lake in the middle ground, and mountains with snow capped peaks in the background, it’s hard to miss the composition. But once you take that shot, spend some time at the location, and soak it up. Think about how the place makes you feel and what kind of details are there that embody that feeling. You’ll be surprised at the details that start to grab your attention that you might not have noticed before.
Photographing intimate landscapes requires patience. You need to give yourself time to appreciate a scene and take in all the details. If you’re in a rush, you’ll miss it. Spend some time simply observing things and looking for subjects that give the viewer more information about a place or tell a story about a place. These “small scenes” contain the kind of details that you might overlook if you are focussing only on creating the grand landscape.
What else is there that is interesting? Consider the textures, patterns, shapes and lines around you. What grabs your attention? What shows the character of the place? Once you’ve found a subject, get a little closer to it. And then closer again. Think about how you can lead the viewer’s eye to it. Are there any leading lines you can make use of? What kinds of foreground elements could you use?
A good tactic is to “scout” the location first. If you have a day with harsh unforgiving light, that is often the best time to go to a place without your camera and just look. Be an observer. Take note of some special spots. Then on another day when the light is good, you’ll know right where you want to be during those few precious minutes of magic light.
The best thing about this type of photography is that it can be done anywhere, in any season, in any climate, under any conditions. No matter where you are, there will always be some small part of the landscape that contains a key feature that tells a story about the place.
What makes a compelling intimate landscape?
At any location, think about what “small scenes” exist that tell a story about a place. Once you find your scene, create a composition that contains an interesting graphic design. That’s a winning combination!
Look for elements of design to include in the frame such as lines, textures, patterns, colours, and shapes (especially repeating shapes).
When I was visiting a historical settlement in New Brunswick, I came upon an old woodshed. In it were all sorts of treasures! I was attracted to these three barrels because of they told a story about the place and there was a repeating graphic element.
You’ll find these kinds of scenes everywhere once you start looking for them. At the beach, the combination of rocks, kelp and a seagull feather tell a story. Within this small scene, you get a feeling for the nature of the place. I positioned myself so that the feather would create a diagonal line through the frame.
In Palm Springs, I visited Palm Canyon, a beautiful location with palm trees (of course), springs (of course!) and all sorts of plants in amongst the rocky gorges. But what interested me more, was the dried up palm leaves that littered the ground. These leaves told a story about the place without the viewer having to see the grand vista.
I made this photo in historic old town in Seattle, Washington. As I’m sure you can imagine, there was a lot to see at this location. But this one street sign captured my attention both for the statement on it and the shape of it against the ornate buildings behind it. By only seeing a little bit of the place, you get a piece of the story being told.
There are lots of intimate scenes to be found at a marina. In this photo, you immediately get the impression of a large dock where a large boat is tied, without seeing either of those things. I was attracted to the lines and textures in this small scene.
You can’t see the swamp, but you know it’s there. In this photo of an alligator at Everglades National Park in Florida, I focussed on the S shape made by its arm and the textures of its skin.
How to Approach the Scene
When making images of intimate landscapes, it can be hard to know where to start when you have a scene with lots of different things going on. I usually start by taking a wide angle photo of the overall scene. Then I look at the photo and look at the scene in front of me and start making some choices.
You don’t have to decide what the best thing in the scene is, you just have to pick one portion of the scene to work with first. You might choose a different portion later. Take some time to think about what parts of the scene are most interesting, pick one, and then start getting closer to it. Make sure you have decided in your mind what exactly you are photographing and what your purpose is. That will help you to convey meaning in the image.
When you are working with your small scene, take some time to think about whether you want the entire scene to be in focus or not. Don’t just go with whatever settings your camera chooses, be thoughtful about whether you want a shallow depth of field or if you want everything in the frame in focus. If you want a shallow depth of field, where the subject is in focus and the background is soft and out of focus, use a wide aperture like f/5.6. If you want everything to be sharp, use a small aperture like f/11 or f/18. For more information about depth of field, read my tutorial Taking Charge of Depth of Field in Your Photography.
If you are using a small aperture, and you have a low light situation, you might find that you need longer shutter speeds, so carrying a tripod will be helpful. Using a tripod will also help you be more purposeful in your compositions.
Now that you’ve decided what portion of the scene you are working with, what your goal is, and what kind of depth of field you want, make sure that you focus in the right spot. If you are using a shallow depth of field, then you can just focus on your main subject and let everything in front of it and behind it fall into blur. But if you want everything in the frame to be in focus and you’re using a small aperture, generally the best method is to focus one third of the way into the frame.
Now, you can get all scientific about it if you want and calculate exactly what the hyperfocal distance is, but personally I hate doing math in the field. All you really need to know is that if you are trying to maximize your depth of field, the best place to focus is one third up from the bottom of the frame.
Once you have made your photo, be sure to preview the image on your LCD to make sure you have the essentials covered before you move on to the next scene:
- check your exposure using your histogram
- check your focus by zooming in and making sure the most important elements in the frame are sharp
- check the edges of the frame and the background to ensure there are no distracting elements
One of the features of intimate landscape photographs that I mentioned above is that they represent a small portion of a larger scene and they serve to tell a story about that scene by drawing the viewer’s eye to some specific detail.
Think about telling a story about the larger scene with your intimate landscape photos. Take a look at the grand vista before you and spend some time thinking about what it is saying to you. What is important? Come up with some words and then make photographs that feature those specific things.
For example, one of my favourite small towns in the United States is Terlingua, Texas. It’s just one of those special places … One day when I looked at it from afar I thought “Why do I like this deserted place so much?”
It doesn’t look like much from a distance. So I decided to go find and photograph those specific things that make it special. Here’s what I found:
Of course, I found some grand vistas too, but I think it’s these intimate landscapes that do a better job of telling the story about the place.
When my plan is to photograph details in the landscape, I often go out with just one lens for a few reasons:
- First, with only one lens to work with, all of my attention is on finding a good subject and making an interesting composition. I’m not taking up any time in the field by switching lenses. I’m just looking, finding, and photographing.
- Second, by not being burdened by the weight of additional gear, I am able to be more agile, hike further, and find things I wouldn’t have reached if I had been carrying lots of stuff.
- Third, a mid-range zoom lens is the best lens for creating an intimate landscape. Landscape photographers usually love their wide angle lenses, but when it comes to an intimate landscape, wide angle lenses tend to include too much background and too many different subjects that distract attention away from the details that are the main subject. That’s not a hard and fast rule, but generally speaking a mid-range zoom tends to work best. The lenses I use most often for intimate landscapes are the 24-105 with my Canon 7D, or the 55-210 with my Sony NEX6. I prefer the Sony for this type of photography for the weight consideration I mentioned above.
- Fourth, when you go out for a day with only one lens you have an opportunity to really learn how that lens works with different subjects and settings. That is something that can be hard to pay attention to when you’re switching lenses all the time.
Another essential piece of equipment for the intimate landscape is a tripod. Even in situations when you have lots of light to work with and you might not need a slow shutter speed, a tripod helps you do one other thing that is key to this type of photograph: slow down. By taking your time and getting to know the place, you’ll discover the important details that make the scene special and those are the best subjects for your intimate landscape.
For more in this tutorial series, check out “Great Subjects”.
If you enjoyed this post, please share it with your social networks!