Get to know your location and improve your landscape photography

If you want to make better landscape photographs then one of the fundamental rules I teach at my workshops is – get to know your location.  And I mean really get to know the location, both inside out & back to front and in all weathers at all times of the year. Knowing your location well comes across in the essence of your images and it makes the location instantly recognisable to the viewer.

Learning a location is a bit like forming a relationship with a friend or a loved one. The more you get to know and understand them, the more you appreciate their best qualities and see them in the best light. It’s the same for forming a relationship with a location for landscape photography and you will see the location in many different ways.

In depth knowledge of a location is certainly something you should expect your guide to have when you book a photography workshop and this is what I offer when you attend my workshops. However, there are far too many inexperienced photographers now selling workshops whose knowledge is limited to knowledge of the roadside tourist spots and it’s these you want to avoid if you want to do something different. There are dozens of organised tour companies who will take you to the same locations for a fraction of the price.

And it’s not just the inexperienced photographers. Several famous photographers are running big ticket photography workshops in areas like Torridon but they have very limited knowledge of the area. Of course, it could be argued that these great photographers can capture great images at any location, but these are workshops designed for the fee paying clients not the photographer to show off how good they are. It’s something you should question  before you part with your cash.

It goes without saying that there are photographers who possess exceptional knowledge of the locations they hold workshops at, and those at the top of their game have spent the best part of 20-30 years getting to know them. Whilst I am far from famous, I consider my own knowledge of the locations I shoot to be the equal of these photographers and far in excess of the photographers who come up to Scotland once or twice a year to run a workshop.

The best landscape photographers research and visit a location for many years before they eventually achieve that one special image that defines them. For my own part, I am no different in this approach and I have been learning the same 5 or 6 locations for the past 30 years. I visit them all year long, in all weathers and all times of the day. This is to watch how the weather and the light interplays with the lines and contours of the landscape. I will watch a location for hours, waiting for the light to combine with the elements to capture the image I want but more often than not I won’t ever take a photo. But this is never a wasted journey. On the contrary, I will have learned how the clouds move over a mountain, or how the mist rises from the ground after a summer storm. I will have learned how certain weather patterns and clouds formations can complement and change the way a landscape looks. Much of this is committed to memory but much of this is committed to paper notes and drawings for my next visit.

:ast light

My knowledge of this location over many years has taught me the best times to capture the evening light as it paints the tops of the mountains. It’s rare to capture scenes like this by chance.

How you learn a location can form the basis for many interesting landscape photography projects. On the one hand, you learn a location to capture that one single defining image that may be your signature for years to come. On the other, you can document the location over the course of the seasons or the course of a day. The opportunities are fairly broad and the more you learn the location the more you will see and this will come through in your images.

In the gallery below, I have lost count of the number of times I have visited this location over the years. It still captivates me and I still find new ways of capturing beautiful images. But the location is recognisable.

Limited knowledge of a location can take away the essence of the area you are trying to capture. To illustrate this, I’ll give you the example of my recent trip to the French Ardennes, the Verdun and into the Italian Barolo region. I went there to understand and appreciate the landscape and my journey was completely unplanned and haphazard, but beforehand, I did a little research on Google to give me an idea of what to expect. My search produced images of the area by the “Doyen” of landscape photography – Charlie Waite. I presumed his images of the area would be the pinnacle of photography and capture the essence of the area but that proved to be hugely disappointing for me and far from what I envisaged. In fact, I found his images didn’t represent the areas much at all.  His images of symmetrically arranged trees are without doubt very nice but they are literally everywhere on the roads from Lille to Nice, and his images of quaint doorways are literally 10 a penny in every Italian town and village. In other words, these images could be from anywhere in France or Italy and it suggested to me that there was limited knowledge of the locations and how to capture the essence of the area.

Now, I know that Charlie Waite is a sincerely nice chap and he has produced some very nice work, but being labelled the doyen of landscape photography in my opinion is really quite wide of the mark. I saw much better work from local and relatively unknown photographers during my trip. In particular, the work of Enzo Massa in Il Tiempo Del Vignetto and the work of Fabio Polosa in Vigne in Volo prove my point. They are both photographers based in the wine growing regions of northern Italy, and as you would expect, they take images of the vineyards. But it’s the essence of the area they capture in their images and they are recognisable for it. Both photographers have captured the landscape in their own way. Enzo captures the vineyards from the ground view and takes you on a journey of the vineyards and wine production throughout the four seasons. Fabio takes you on a similar journey but from an elevated helicopter view where he spent 16 years capturing the landscape in exquisite light and detail across the four seasons. Both photographers show clearly that they have a deep knowledge and understanding of their locations and this is my point.

Seeing the work of the very few photographers who devote their time to learning a location, I can’t help but think it’s becoming a lost art. The roadside tourist location is too convenient for many photographers and it’s a safety net for too many workshop leaders. Whilst there’s no doubt that the quality of the images being produced is remarkably high, they are still nonetheless, the exact same view as millions have taken before and I doubt it’s a good thing. But what do I know?

If you want to capture better images and give the world something new to look at, why not give it a try. Go out, find a new location, spend some time getting to know it and show the world your magnificent images!

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