Intimate landscapes

 – holy grail or just pretentious waffle?

There’s a load of talk of late about something called the “intimate landscape”. It’s being epitomised by some “famous” photographer types and being hailed as the most difficult field to master. I’ve certainly met a few photographers recently who are talking about it as if it’s a holy grail and one well known photographer I’ve seen is charging eye watering fees for a weekend course on the subject where you “find order from chaos”. (And this same photographer isn’t exactly known for or has a body of work consisting of such images.)

This got me wondering, because in all the years I’ve taught people, it’s never once been the case where intimate landscapes were anything other than the easiest thing for a photographer to do – and especially those beginning in photography.

What is an intimate landscape?

An intimate landscape is where you basically take a photo of a closer portion of a wide open landscape. This can typically be a “zoomed in” view of something like moss covered trees or a close crop of mountains from a wide landscape view.  This is a fairly straightforward (and accurate) definition of the intimate landscape, but now the famous photographers of the establishement are preaching on social media that abstracts are intimate landscapes too, and that the whole field of intimate landscape photography is one that requires the elite skill that only they possess. Add to that, that in order for a mere mortal to acquire such skills, they need to go one one of their hideously expensive workshops in the North of Scotland.

Of course this is all complete nonsense, but it is packaged in such a way to sell you something you don’t need. In fact, I would go as far as to say that people going on these type of courses are being ripped off. Why? Because you can find the same moss covered trees or lichen covered rocks within a mile or two of most homes in the UK.

Can you tell which was taken at the bottom of the garden and at a remote location in the north of Scotland?
Can you tell which image was taken at the bottom of the garden and which was at a remote location in the north of Scotland? No…me neither!

Th fact is that intimate landscape photography is anything but an elite field. On the contrary, and in my experience intimate landscapes is really one of the easiest things to start off with in learning photography, and I back this up with 20 years of actually teaching this type of photography (it’s what I teach absolute beginners).

So why is it so simple? Well…firstly, intimate landscapes are easy to expose for because cameras are not tricked by things like bright skies against dark foregrounds (no need for filters in other words). For example, it’s not like when you go on holiday and you take a photo of the wide view, only to get back to your computer and the sky is all washed out or the foreground is too dark. This is because there’s too much difference in light for a camera to capture and we need filters to reduce the contrast. This rarely happens with an intimate landscape because there’s no big areas of sky to trick the meter and everything is pretty much in the same even light with minimal contrast in the scene. (note: there are exceptions of course but they’re rare) Quite simply with the majority of intimate landscape scenarios, you’re in a situation where your camera can expose easily for the scene in front of you and this take a lot of the thinking out of things for complete beginners.

With the exposure thing out of the way, this leaves composition – and this is where we’re being told it’s difficult to find “order from chaos”. Now, without doubt, when you go into a forest, it’s pretty chaotic, but it’s by no means difficult to find a decent shot at all. This is something I’ve experienced and proved consistently with students over the years. In almost every single case, my experience has been that complete beginners can capture brilliant shots in as little as 30 minutes.

I start off my workshops by setting a very simple task. I ask them to cast their minds back to when they were children playing the cloud spotting game of looking for shapes in the clouds. I ask them to apply this technique in the forest and set them off for 30 minutes to see what they can find. Without fail, everyone comes back with a decent photo and in many cases some brilliant shots which are the equal of anything a “master” could take. This occurs because they have a goal for their photo, and by looking for shapes and things in close up scenarios, they relate to things and thereby compose the scene naturally into something recognisable, and this is something we’re all pretty much programmed to do. If we weren’t able to recognise shapes in our brains, we’d all be walking about banging into things after all.

So with this in mind, if complete beginners can pick this up so easily, then why is it being hailed by some photographers as the hardest thing to do in photography? And by virtue, why are these same photographers being hailed as masters of this field?

I’d love to set a challenge where the work of these self proclaimed masters was displayed beside the work of a few beginners using the above technique and see if people could tell the difference.  That way, we’d be closer to determining if it’s all pretentious waffle or if it’s really the elite skill for which it’s being portrayed.

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