David Lintern shares a few tips for unlocking a more creative outdoor photography
It’s been a year since the last photographer interview on Walkhighlands, at least two since the last photo tutorial, and the start-stop nature of Lockdown (and of my tutoring and guiding work) has afforded time to reflect on why I still love to teach, and the kinds of technical and artistic issues students often present with.
As discussed online and in magazines, there’s no shortage of dogmas, opinions and ‘rules’ in outdoor photography, but face to face teaching has shown again and again that many of these are unhelpful at best and downright obstructive at worst. For many, the technical has been confused or overcomplicated, and the creative side has not been addressed at all. The men on the internet (and sincere apologies chaps, but it is often us men, especially in the photo world) are living rent free in our heads, whispering not-so-sweet nothings that need querying if we want to progress creatively.
So without further ado, this man on the internet will attempt to debunk a few of the myths which might be getting in the way of your creativity, too…
1.You need a tripod to be a proper photographer
Let’s start with an easy one: That’s a no. What makes you ‘proper’ is your intention, not the kit you have. Tripods are useful in a teaching situation, because they allow the student and I to look at and discuss the same image at the same time. They are also useful in low light where you need a longer exposure – similarly if you want to try your hand at ‘misty waterfalls’ or another effect. Otherwise, if I’m honest, I find them a bit of a pain. The legs are cumbersome and get in the way, especially in confined spaces or where the ground is uneven. Weather or light can change so fast that by the time you set up, the moment has passed. Marked improvements in camera technology over the last decade mean it’s possible to shoot higher ISO’s with less ‘noise’, meaning you can increase your shutter speed and camera movement is less of an issue.
Most importantly for me, their use discourages moving around. I try to encourage everyone to ‘find’ the shot first, at whatever height or angle looks best to them when handheld, and move the tripod into position last of all.
2. You need a fancy camera to be a proper photographer
Also, a no. They’ll be loads of photographers shouting at me now, claiming this is a straw man argument, and they would never suggest such a thing in a million years. Yet just like any other, the photographic industry has an imperative to drive sales, and the focus is often on technology over creativity; buying gear, not developing skills. Time and again, I work with students who are lost in the gear forest and can’t see the wood for the trees. Who hasn’t been there? I know I have.
Finding your way around whatever machine you have without the tech getting in the way is essential for the creative juices to start flowing. After that, developing our eye is about putting ourselves into interesting situations. These needn’t be faraway places, but it’s useful if they challenge our perspective – our usual ways of seeing.
I sometimes think about developing ‘seeing’ in terms of long-term deprogramming. As human animals we’re used to wandering around at eye level, identifying and interpreting the environment as we look. Our lives might still depend on these skills on a daily basis (It’s a car. How fast is it travelling towards me?) but… there are also tools to unlearn or suspend our primitive survival skills and rewire the brain for picture making.
Creative restriction is the oldest teaching trick in the book: Set yourself a task to only take photos in black and white for the next week, or to only use a particular focal length, aperture or crop ratio for a month at a time. Note the difficulties you experience, as well as the pleasant surprises. Forcing yourself into new habits can help break old, unhelpful patterns and help you to ‘visualise’ a scene differently the next time.
3. It’s all about the location
It’s hardly an original criticism, but Landscape photography (with a capital L) can be kind of formulaic. As an example, students have told me they must have ‘strong foreground interest’ for a shot to ‘work’ – meaning, to fit the genre. On one hand, it’s a fair assumption and one I use myself. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in itself until it becomes dogma. In the meantime, assumptions like this can lead to the same photos using the same techniques of the same places, over and over again. There’s a spot in front of the Buachaille Etive Mòr well known to tour operators, where the ground has been totally destroyed by the feet of tens of thousands of photographers – our feet – all getting identical images. Aside from the environmental impacts, in a post Covid world there’s a real tyranny to this approach, because of travel restrictions. We’re all stuck in a frustrating no-man’s land if we opt for the same old ‘venues’.
At the risk of sounding a bit stern, honeypot locations make us lazy. To learn, choose hard, not easy – over time, you’ll extend your reach. Examples: Make a long-term photo study of a tree, person or pet, shoot your dog walk, bike commute or park run over a period of time to show seasonal changes, or photograph in another ‘style’ (by which I mean choose a subject other than ‘outdoors’, especially if you are currently in a cityscape and far from the hills). Most of my photographic heroes worked in street, portrait or documentary, not landscape… but I use what I’ve learnt from appreciating their work in my own photos every time I frame a shot.
Another I’ve enjoyed recently: Photographer Joseph Wright making lemonade out of Lockdown lemons in the form of a study of nearby footpaths – such a simple idea and so resourceful. The images are lovely to boot, but even if they weren’t, what a wonderful journey of discovery, getting to know his own local rights of way intimately without the need for travel.
4. I’m not really a creative person
Sorry, you’re not getting out of it that easily. I guarantee you that everyone is – without exception. You might well not want to call it that, and often that is to do with social factors, and nothing at all to do with ‘art’. I’m just another man on the internet, but my advice if you are at all interested in anything is to take your hobby just seriously enough – not only enough to spend the money, but to do the graft and learn the craft. We can let the critics decide whether it’s ‘art’ later on!
Photography is mostly about noticing – being curious and observant – a minute to learn, a lifetime to master. Very many people lack confidence to take their noticing seriously, and sometimes that’s in case it’s ‘not good enough’, but try to give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Walking around and taking pictures is a pretty benign pastime, so cut yourself some slack. Take a break from the internal naysayer, stop and take the picture. Be nosey. Go on, you might even like it.
In time, you’ll realise that the picture needs to be made, not taken. And at that point, the game is afoot.
5. It’s all about the light
Yes and no, more or less. Many, many people at the beginning or even in the middle of their journey come to me without understanding how to read and/or interpret their camera’s built-in light meter. Getting a technically accurate exposure (by which I mean not blowing out the highlights and not shooting all blacks) is the foundation of good practice. So, switch to manual and learn how to control aperture, shutter speed and ISO independently of each other. When you do this, ergonomics quickly become fundamental. It may make you think differently about what you want from a camera in the future.
On the other hand, light isn’t everything – ‘good’ light can and does lift traditional landscape shots but in ‘dull’ light, you can reframe your attention onto smaller details or architectural features in a scene. You’ll notice I’ve used quotation marks around the value laden adjectives in the last sentence. Dramatic lighting is a convention in landscape work just as flat light has become in some documentary or fine art photography. There’s no harm at all in querying some of those conventions if you feel moved to – just don’t expect as many likes.
I was tangentially part of a twitter exchange recently where someone said something quite hard and final sounding – the kind of thing that goes down a storm on social media – along the lines of “vision matters, cameras don’t”. It felt a little macho and exclusionary. What’s perhaps closer to reality is that cameras do matter, but how we use them matters much more. So here is one more opinion to add to all the others: Off the cuff statements which shut down options, close doors or minds should be taken with a pinch of salt. They will only get between you and your subject. Instead, humour yourself. Take pleasure from the journey – near or far, developing your own way of seeing will take you to wonderful places.