Making Intimate Landscape Photos

One of my goals as a photographer is to make interesting and expressive intimate landscapes. I discussed these as an art form in earlier posting. To help my learning, I’ve been seeking advice about what makes a good intimate landscape and the practices that will help me succeed. I’d like to share what I’m learning.

1. Finding subjects is a specialized task. My eyes are trained to identify grand landscapes. In addition, I’m accustomed to making close-ups and macrophotographic images. But identifying good subjects for intimate landscapes, which lie in between, requires tuning the eye to see differently. One place to look is the foreground of an otherwise grand landscape, as long as it’s a subject that can stand on its own. But middle ground and even background images can also be used. The key is to look for interesting colors, textures, patterns, and relationships among the objects in the scene.  One advantage of intimate landscapes is that they can be found in most locales, so long trips are not needed.

Must they be limited to the natural world? Most photographers would say yes, that the hand of man should not be evident within the frame. But some photographers choose to photograph groups of manmade objects. While these photos can be quite effective, I’m not inclined to include them in my definition of an intimate landscape. That doesn’t mean I won’t make such images; I do and will continue to do so. But I’ll simply refer to them by another name.

What drew me to this scene was the color in the rock and the patterns of the white ripples against the brown of the river bottom. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
While I enjoy photographing groups of objects such as this block and tackle composition, I don’t describe them as intimate landscapes. Nova Scotia.

2. Lens selection should enable abstracting scenes. Normally, this means using either a medium telephoto lens or a 70-200mm zoom. The latter is favored by William Neill for its ability to reach into a scene and abstract portions of it from its larger context. However, at least one photographer argues that wide-angle lenses can also be used to good effect, though they need to emphasize the relationship among a few objects and does not pull in a wide scene.  At other times, longer lenses may be used with good effect to abstract small parts of a larger scene.

3. Lighting will tend to be a subordinate consideration. Flat lighting, either from an overcast day or a subject covered in shade, puts the emphasis on the subject and its colors. Effective photos can also be made during the “pastel hours” before sunrise and after sunset. This is not to say that intimate landscapes cannot or should not be attempted at other hours, such as in the golden light of sunrise or sunset. But the emphasis on the subject is stronger if the lighting is understated and does not compete for attention.

An overcast day helped emphasize the brilliant colors of this autumn scene in Virginia.
This grouping of ferns would have been blown out had it been photographed in sunlight. Instead, the flat lighting of an overcast sky allowed the richness of the greens and yellows to stand out. Maine.

4. Move in close for intimate compositions. Either by moving yourself and your camera closer to the subject or by using a longer lens, eliminate all the non-essential elements in the larger scene to focus on the intimate details. Usually, it’s best to keep the sky out of the photograph altogether.

A tight focus places attention on this suggestive composition of lichen-covered rocks. Isles of Scilly, United Kingdom.
Although intimate landscapes normally exclude the sky from the images, there are times when the sky can be an effective element in the composition, as in the case of this silhouetted tree. Chicago.

5. Composition is especially important. Intimate landscapes, if not crafted carefully, can easily be confusing and lack a clear focus or organization. The most successful intimate landscapes will be organized around shapes, textures, patterns, or colors that cohere thematically. The image usually needs some kind of focal point, toward which the other elements relate. The arrangement of the elements of the scene, their relationships with each other, can be especially important.

Though this image is quite busy with details, the diagonal alignment of the tree root gives it overall organization and coherence. The leaf and feather add points of interest to the composition. Proving that intimate landscapes can be made close to home, this photo was made in my own Virginia back yard.

6. Look for abstracts. Some compositions will appear as abstractions. Often these will be close-up images. Abstract images can be especially interesting and invite visual exploration by the viewer.

The flow of mineral-laden water from natural thermal pools creates a riot of color suggesting an impressionistic painting. Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

7. Study the masters for ideas and inspiration. This is the, I think, best advice I’ve found. Identify photographers whose work you find inspiring and study their techniques. Eliot Porter invented the intimate landscape medium and his books, available in used markets, are an important source of inspiration. I especially like the work of William Neill, about whom I’ve written in earlier posts.

I’ll do my best to implement these suggestions in my own work. As I do, I’ll share my work in this space.

Published by Norman Reid

I worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 27 years in the field of rural community and economic development. I retired a few years ago and have been devoting my time to photography and writing. I've been a semi-pro photographer for more than 25 years and sell my work on the Web. I live in rural Virginia not far from the Shenandoah Valley.

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