What is it that makes landscape photography so appealing? When I ask photographers this question, I often hear the same answers; ‘I love being outdoors’, ‘it makes me feel good’, ‘it gives me the satisfaction that nothing else quite does’. However, what I believe lies beyond these responses is that in landscape photography we are basically tapping into the same skill sets as our ancestors. In so far as, we are hunting and gathering. Not for food, but using the same instincts to guide us towards images that we will subsequently gather and collate.
The analogy with hunting can be further developed by considering that, as landscape photographers, we regularly rise before sunrise to ensure that we are in the best possible location which will help us fulfil the image held in our mind’s eye. This normally is a known location, which we revisit at a specific time of year at sunrise or sunset. Essentially, we are trying to place ourselves in a location that will allow us to take advantage of a series of events that have yet to happen, just in the same way as our ancestors who, watching a watering hole, noticed that deer came to drink each morning at a certain time. The following morning, the hunter arrived early and hid behind a boulder close to where the deer had previously come, knowing that if the wind was in his favour, he was close enough to throw his spear and kill the deer. These are exactly the same skill set that we, as photographers, tap into to achieve success – even a polar bear knows better than to sit down and wait for prey to arrive.
The other parallel we share with our hunter-gatherer past is that of season. If we stepped back in time, we would find our ancestors, each August in the same forests foraging for fungi – chanterelles, beefsteak fungus or dryads saddle, or a month later in other parts of the forest or adjacent woodland, collecting fruits. However if we dropped into the same forest in February, our hunter-gatherers would be gone and far more likely to be found snaring rabbits or breaking the ice on a river or lake to catch fish. As photographer, I too follow the seasons – in October, when the leaves have turned into their autumnal palette, I am to be found in forests. Whilst a month later when the leaves have fallen, and snow is covering the hilltops, you’ll find me back in the mountains. In May through to August, I’ll be concentrating on the islands where, instead of the green monotony of the mainland landscape, I can take advantage of white beaches, blue and turquoise water and myriad shades in rock and sky. It’s simply about stacking as many of the odds as I can in my favour.
Warm – Stac Pollaidh, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag from Sgurr an Fhidhleir, North West Highands, Scotland
Here’s two images of the same scene – this first (warm) image was (unbelievably) shot on February 14th, 2008 which was a reconnaissance trip for a winter shot under snow. Fast forward to December 2010, when an Arctic blast gripped the country in an iron fist for three weeks, I was poised for the ‘strike’ and climbed on two occasions, onto the summit of Sgurr an Fhidhleir to capture the panorama of the Coigach and Assynt mountains under such extreme conditions. My first attempt was thwarted by a band of cloud on the horizon at dusk and the light I sought never materialised so, ten days later, I found myself on the summit again, sheltering from an extremely strong north-easterly wind. Standing ten metres below the summit in the lee of the wind, I momentarily looked up and above me, motionless in the wind, wings taught as a drum skin, was a golden eagle. We stared at each other for no more than five seconds during which time I could feel a deep kinship and the feeling that I was momentarily part of the eagle’s world, in a way that no photograph could ever capture. Without appearing to move a feather, it released the air brakes and shot, arrowswift, across Loch Lurgainn, powered past Stac Pollaidh westwards, where it melted into the landscape.
Winter – Stac Pollaidh, Suilven, Cul Mor, Cul Beag from Sgurr an Fhidhleir, North West Highands, Scotland
To take the analogy a stage further, we could consider our approach in terms of a military strike. There’s three stages, the first of which is the most important. Reconnaissance – you need to have previously visited the location and walked the ground. Work out where the best ‘firing point’ will be – I say, ‘will be’ rather than ‘is’, because when you’re there, you’ll need to work out when the sun will be in the optimum position in the sky for shooting the definitive image. This may mean returning six months later where the position of the sun and light will be very different. Stage 2 is about checking and rechecking both your camera and camping equipment to ensure that everything you need is there and all you need to do is lift the bags, without even thinking ‘have I packed this?’ Finally, stage three ‘the strike’ is activated during a specific month and by a favourable 48 hour weather forecast and it’s simply about getting out and onto location. If you’re working on or around mountain summits, low wind speeds are essential – typically, less than 5 miles per hour are desirable. Luck also plays a part, but these images never happen by accident – they are normally the result of meticulous planning and execution and the reward is the satisfaction that comes on the back of a successful hunt.
So, the next time you’re out foraging with your camera, think about how you might take your work to the next level by adopting a little hunting strategy.
- Join Colin on a week of learning in the North West Highlands. Read more…