Fine Art Landscape Photography Guide
Fine art landscape photography is a subjective genre by its very nature.
If you ask photographers ‘what is fine art landscape photography’, you are liable to get a different answer from each person. While I have been a fine art landscape photographer for 10 years, I still found this relatively difficult to answer due to its subjective nature.
In this tutorial, I will share some of my insights into what makes photography ‘fine art’, and I will explore some of my top tips on how to become a fine art landscape photographer.
What is fine art landscape photography?
I believe the most simplistic explanation of fine art landscape photography is this: capturing and then editing photos to serve an artistic purpose and vision.
You will seldom find an unedited photo in this category of photography.
Having a vision and direction of what the final image should look like is paramount to your success. Sometimes that vision happens before you take the photo, and other times it will come through during the editing process.
At some level, it becomes similar to the way a painter interprets a scene from nature, shaping and painting it to be in line with the way they want their painting to feel. You must create a mood and ambience that can be embraced at the level of art.
How to become a fine art landscape photographer
Of course, there are many paths to becoming a fine art landscape photographer, so I must only speak to my own experience.
I studied the works of others for years and I’m certain that I looked at tens of thousands of images. For each image, I critiqued the good and the bad, and the reasons that I enjoyed the photograph.
I curated a group of photographers that I considered to be among my favourites and spent my time pouring over their shots wondering why I liked each image. I would consider the contrast they used, the colours, the mood, the light, and the composition.
The location is just as important as the rest of these things. Since I live in an area of the world that isn’t very photogenic to my preferences, I realised that I needed to travel to pursue the kinds of images I wanted to capture.
After studying a wide breadth of photography, I created a hierarchy of places that I wanted to travel to shoot the types of images I gravitated towards the most.
Developing a photography style
While studying the work of others can give you the framework of where to begin and give direction, you simply don’t know how something will turn out until you practice.
In addition, many great photographers have released tutorials on processing images in their unique ways.
Purchasing these tutorials and practising the techniques will give you a baseline understanding of an array of techniques that go into processing images successfully.
Once you have enough of these ‘tools’ of processing at your disposal, you can selectively use them in your photography to begin building your own style based on what you think looks good.
Developing a style is an ongoing process, and is liable to change over the years. It will change most rapidly in the first few years of photography until you become comfortable with your work, and then it becomes a slow-moving evolution.
Read more: How to Develop a Photographic Style
Fine art photo editing
As I mentioned above, fine art photographs are often edited to bring the photographer’s artistic vision to life. These tips will help you get started in editing your fine art photographs.
Editing for contrast
Contrast is one of the first things that will draw the viewer’s attention to a photo.
Darker sections of a photo will reduce a viewer’s attention to that area of a photo, whereas brighter sections will draw the eye in.
While contrast is typically a good thing when editing to create visual interest, it is equally important to use it in smart ways.
Contrast that is applied to the entire image equally is usually to be avoided since it can create too much tension in the photo – being selective with it is a better strategy.
Each object in a scene/composition (individual rocks, clouds, water, etc.) shouldn’t have a lot of contrast within the object itself – most of the contrast should come from creating contrast between objects themselves.
I like to think of a composition as a series of geometrical objects that fit together. Imagine a highway that has grass on either side of it: the highway would be one object, the sky is another, and the grass is the final object.
Creating contrast between each of these pieces of geometry is a great way of dealing with contrast and visual interest. If you create too much contrast within the individual blades of grass, it will be distracting and pull all of the viewer’s attention.
This is the difference between contrast and micro-contrast, and it is important to spend time balancing the varying types of contrast in an image.
Aim to create smooth transitions of contrast within objects themselves, and contrast between the geometrical pieces.
Another way to think of this is an analogy to music.
If every instrument in a song was playing as loudly and quickly as possible, the music would be incredibly distracting and unmusical.
Certain instruments will need to be played at lower levels and slower speeds to create musical contrast for the other instruments playing loudly and fast. The use of silence in a song is what allows music to exist and goes a long way toward creating a harmonious structure.
Deciding what is important in a photo, and what is there as a supporting structure, will allow you to make artistic decisions on what needs to be the ‘silence’ of your photo while using contrast.
There are entire books written on understanding colour, so we will try to only cover the basics here.
One of the first things to do when trying to understand colour is to look up information on “colour theory”. This will cover many types of colour combinations such as monochromatic, analogous, complementary, split-complementary, triadic, tetradic, square, etc.
The way that you edit for each of these colour combinations will depend on what colours are present in the photograph.
This is going to largely be up to nature and what you are photographing, but knowing colour theory will give you the tools to understand how to deal with the colours in each scenario during processing.
While understanding the technical aspects of colours is beneficial, you will still need to trust your eyes and instincts when you are editing a photo.
Many people will edit and post photos too quickly, only to realize later that the editing does not look good.
A good strategy to employ, and one that I use on all of my photos, is to let a photo sit on your computer for a few hours or days before looking at it again after the initial editing.
This gives your eyes time to refresh and get resensitized to what you are processing.
If you find that something seems odd or off-putting about the image, it’s your job to figure out if it’s the colours that are clashing and continue the editing process.
Remember to trust your instincts, and they will help to guide you.
Practice pushing and pulling the colours in different directions to see how it changes the harmony of the photo. You can start by lightening or darkening a particular colour, and also shifting it slightly to its nearest next colour.
This would be like shifting yellow towards red or towards green, which are the nearest colours on the spectrum. Making these slight shifts allows you to see if the colours work better together, and you may find it suddenly ‘snaps’ the photo together.
I will often look at the works of others and find photos that are similar to what I am processing at the time. This gives ideas on how the colour harmonies can fit together and of how I may want to edit a photo.
To find success in fine art landscape photography, becoming comfortable with failing at capturing and editing is incredibly important. Being able to fail often means that you are still creatively open, and it will help guide future decisions.
Piece by piece, you will be able to put together the understanding of why certain types of photos or processing do not work. Since there is an infinite number of ways to fail, but only a few ways to succeed, failure will help guide your mind’s eye.
Failure helps you understand how you perceive your surroundings, and it allows you to tune out the ‘noise’ of bad photography decisions all around you.
I spent years without capturing a photograph that I was happy with. Once I finally made the first image I loved, my previous failures began to make more sense, and little by little I developed a framework of understanding that still serves me today.
Learning to trust the process, accepting failure, and ultimately enjoying your successes when they come will get you a long way to loving and becoming a fine art landscape photographer.
Surround yourself with other photographers that you respect and feel comfortable with and allow them to critique your work. Often you become so close to your own work that it is hard to notice your failures, especially in the first years of photographing.