In the second of his 2 part series, David Lintern looks at photographing people in the outdoors.
Last time we concentrated on settings, position and lighting to make the composition work. This time is about the more ephemeral end of the photographic equation – trying to illustrate how it feels, tell a story and so on.
Let’s look at another style of shot, but one that’s also very familiar. I find I catch alot of this when people are taking a break and looking around. I have hundreds of examples, and I can’t stop taking them.
Let’s get the important technical detail out of the way: A higher depth of field is useful in this instance, as the subject of the photo is not so much the person, but that person’s gaze on the landscape. Arguably, this image is about their interaction with the land, not them in person, and so it’s useful to see what they are seeing. There are reasons why we see a lot of these shots. Empathy is the key one – all of us who’ve stood and appreciated wild places ‘get’ what that person might be seeing and feeling, without words. But even if we haven’t been to such places, we are behind the subject, seeing what they are seeing. The fact that we can’t see their face is also very important – it increases the chances we’ll empathise. The person could be anyone… it could even be me.
There’s another reason why these shots are ubiquitous – a friendly ghost called Caspar David Friedrich. Friedrich was a German painter working in the romantic period, well known for his paintings of lone figures silently contemplating nature’s greatness. One of his most famous paintings is Wanderer in the Sea of Fog painted in 1818. It was and remains a hugely popular and emulated image. In his book Mountains of the Mind, Robert McFarlane claims it became an archetype for romantic individual liberty, a key image for examining the notion of the ‘sublime’ so important to our cultural understanding of mountains and mountaineering. We climb, he says ‘to stand out… and be outstanding’. It’s probably no accident that Friedrich was painting just as the fashion for spending more leisure time in the great outdoors was kicking off. Perhaps as a result, this kind of iconography is imprinted on our outdoors collective unconscious.
I took shots like this for years before I found out Caspar was sitting behind my eyelids, working the levers! At the time, I was very disappointed with myself, but now I can have some fun playing with the form. Here’s one of my favourites from 2015. I like the colours here – it’s pretty mono apart from the packraft gear in my friend’s backpack – and it’s true to that romantic vision… except that there is no view to be seen. So we’re thrust back in the body of the viewer, trying to see, but seeing nothing. How must that feel?! Well, I was there, and I’ll tell you – frustrating, and cold. This was a key point on a coast-to-coast trip we took, paddling between the 9 highest mountains in the UK, back in May. I don’t often name my photos, but this one is called The Decision because this is near to where we decided to back down on 2 of those 9. It wasn’t a moment of ‘feeling outstanding’, at all, but we did learn powerfully from it, and that idea – that wild nature teaches us lessons we can’t learn at home – is a crucial part of our cultural attachment to mountain landscapes.
Images of people engaged in union with nature, having special moments outdoors, are everywhere. At this point, to me it feels like we’re at critical mass, with brands cashing in on our experiences of the sublime and telling our own outdoor soul stories back to us. Yet somehow, those images retain some of their power. Above is a more contemporary take on the Caspar tradition. I’ve brought the depth of field in, firstly because it felt like the subject was a bit more about the conversation between the two women in the shot, and secondly it also allowed me to take the shot with a high shutter speed, to compensate for shooting on the move with a sleeping baby on my back – always practical! It’s technically far from perfect – there’s lens flare, blown highlights in the top left, and the man in front is also hovering annoyingly on the shoulder of the green fleece wearer, but (to me at least) it conveys something of the fellowship and intimacy felt at the end of a great day on the hill.
Here’s an admission – as a landscape photographer preoccupied with shooting people, what I don’t do enough of is this:
I’m ashamed to say I used to think that photographic portraiture was iconoclastic, an(other) anachronism hung over from painting, but now I know a bit more about photography (and a fraction more about painting) I also know I don’t do much of this because it’s incredibly difficult to do well. I’d say this is one of my only half decent examples, and I’m certainly not claiming it as a classic of the genre. Let’s look at the technicals: first, the subject is the person, separated from the background by a relatively shallow depth of field (a lower f-number). Colours wise it’s a bit on the drab side by modern advertising standards (no asics colours here!) but at least the face is well framed by the hood. I’ve also managed to have the subject facing the right direction for natural sunlight to illuminate the features.
More importantly though – is the photo honest? I realise that’s it s a subjective question, and it’s not the same as asking if it’s posed. Let’s reframe that: Most portraiture is posed – is the subject relaxed and engaged? Helped in this case by a direct gaze, it feels I hope, as if there’s an honest exchange going on. It should do. This is my friend Tim at first light after a night benighted on a pretty scary crag at just under 3000m. I’d led him and another friend up there and had made a sketchy decision or two on the way. I’ve known Tim for decades – he knows me better than I know myself. You had better believe that his gaze is testing me! (Is this guy gonna get us down?) For portraiture to work, I don’t think you need to know the backstory, but the relationships between subject and photographer have to be intimate and relaxed. Additionally, the camera doesn’t lie so easily with a straight gaze pointed at it. I think that might be why it’s rock hard to do right.
For the last shot this time, no discussion of storytelling and the sublime in outdoors photography is complete without explicitly mentioning scale. I really love photographing people dwarfed by the mountains. Our relative size to the places we love to visit is a key part of the experience, isn’t it? For those painters and writers working in the romantic era, whose material still shapes so much of our thinking, it was too. Early Victorian visitors to the Eiger describe the scene as ‘horrid’ and ‘awful’, but that terror is a double-edged sword. I think a lot of us enjoy feeling tiny, atomised and put in our places when we’re in the mountains – the responsibility of self reliance is balanced with a feeling of release from our usual daily jobs of managing, administrating and caring for others (in our personal relationships and professional roles). Photographing scale in this shoot on Liathach meant me holding back and waiting, then shooting quickly with a high f-number and solid shutter speed, before my companion moved. He was far too far away to communicate with. It’s also essential to have a wider focal length. We’ve got a lot of mountain in the shot, and the figure is nicely isolated. I’ve thrown it into black and white to make it even more ‘horrid’!
To read more about lighting, position and settings for photographing people outdoors, see Shooting People Part 1.
To read more about the building blocks of photography, see M for manual.
To read more about choosing your subject, see framing your photos.
To read more about shooting at night, see Night Photography.
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