The Importance of Revision in Landscape Photography
Originally published in LPM Issue 77. I now bring you the full article on my personal blog:
Oftentimes in landscape photography, we prefer exploring uncharted territory, going where other photographers have not been or shot before. We do this mostly because we are in search of a great new addition for the portfolio or something that we have not yet seen online, in the hope that it will impress our followers on social media.
Visiting new locations is also essential to the progression of the artistic vision, as it means new challenges for the eye and mind. Each newly acquired experience translates, over time, into the basis for what we know and covet as “photographic skill“.
I want to argue though, that it is nevertheless just as important to revisit places that one has already visited, since these hold the potential to test what we have learned over time in a familiar setting. These opportunities offer us a variety of lessons we might otherwise miss in the chase for the next unknown scenic view.
Weather and Light
Light is one of the most obvious and yet important reasons to revisit locations where we have previously shot. Anybody can tell you that the sunset does not always blaze red, the blue hour does not always cast everything in a gentle-hued tones, nor does the Milky Way align at any time of the night above that one peak you head in mind. Instead, rain and plaintive sky may detract from the possibility of obtaining a decent shot. As such, it is always worthwhile to revisit a location for a second attempt at what might be the perfect or maybe just the better picture. Getting a decent shot may still be possible under any circumstances other than a extreme downpour, but nothing that isn’t worth a second try if it is possible for us to revisit the location.
This may sound simple but visiting a spot again might mean being there when the conditions suit the shot that you originally had in mind. The conditions are crucial and can make the difference between a decent and a great landscape photograph. Another interesting factor is capability of weather to reveal the different atmospheres a certain landscape may to offer. Perhaps the classic view of a certain landscape is usually shot in dawning light or at sunrise and most photographers tend to go to the location trying to fetch it in these conditions. Instead why not try to capture the scenery it with a rainstorm overhead or the moody dark of dusk, to show how drastically different the aura gets when you don’t adhere to the usual cliche sunset or sunrise setting.
Here is the classic view of the Aiguille de Avres mountain range in the distance, painted red by the setting sun. For my second visit I wanted something different, so I looked when the moon would be rising behind the mountains to capture an eerie night scene.
As briefly mentioned, an important lesson that a familiar footing offers is one of directly enabling us to envision our growth as a photographer in a simple way. Revealing the difference between how we approached a certain space upon first visit and after some time, with more experience under our belts.
Upon first visiting a location, the sheer excitement may distract from the attention that we have to pay to composition and light. The former, in particular, may be quite tricky as the first rule of many photographers is to „get the picture“ and only then will they think to „get the better picture“.
For many of us, this may lead to the mindset that after one has shot a certain composition, he or she simply moves on to the next possible composition instead of taking some more time to compose with more finesse. Due to this, we may miss that extra 50 centimeters to the left that would have resulted in the leading lines converging at a certain spot within the frame which might have been beneficial to keeping the viewers eye from exiting the frame to early upon looking at the picture, or neglected to place the camera a little lower to cover up a distracting element in the mid ground. Many photographers are content with this and accept these mistakes and rather head out to a new location rather than going back and improve their photos.
After the initial visit to a location the thirst for the undiscovered that propels many forward has been satisfied. On a second or third visit, all the minute details that might have been missed the first time around, which may have become apparent on the computer screen during later selection and editing, can suddenly come to mind and subsequently be corrected. This process has had a significant impact on how I approach a new spot these days. On the one hand, I am trying harder to pre-visualize what I want and stress to optimize my compositions, knowing that I may not have the chance to shoot the area any time again soon. Rather than getting three decent shots I am more inclined to spend time to get one well composed shot. On the other hand, I am much more adaptive and experimental when I do have the chance to come back, knowing that even if I make a mistake and will surely return and correct it. I believe that both approaches are important for schooling our vision.
Another integral factor that has made it interesting for me to revisit places time and time again, aside from weather or developed understanding of the craft, is landscape transformation. It’s simply to see what has changed. A simple example of this would be from my third visit to the Chamonix Valley in France, when severe winter storms had razed a small shelter which had been on the southern shore of the small Lac Blanc lake. Without it, the scenery became one of entirely different meaning for me. Once a landscape I had taken some of my best shots was now transformed into a spot of nostalgia, knowing that the pictures I took were now showing an irretrievable, utterly lost. Suddenly, I saw the place as one of retrospective that had a sad tone to it.
This was captured in one of my all time favourite images that featured the shelter as a central motif published in LPM 02/16.
Another case would be that of different naturally-induced landscape changes: During my different trips to the Portuguese coastline I reshot several beaches, always witnessing how the coast line had been reshaped by the tidal forces. The foreground differed drastically in between 2012 and 2013 and again looked entirely different in 2016, offering up a multitude of new compositions, making older ones obsolete and forcing me to adapt. The winter storms had carried away huge amounts of sand offshore and revealed new stone formations in the foreground as well as more of the sea stacks scattered across the beach, and multiple rocks had been broken off the cliff towering above and were now lying on the beach offering room for experimentation.
In my opinion, this mixture of old subject matter and new opportunities leads to a synergy of the best characteristics of photography: On the one hand we can assert that we have already shot the scenery and don’t have to scramble to get a certain shot but rather see what we might have missed last time, schooling our sight on a familiar sight in search for new angle and compositions rather than just pressing the shutter to document we have been there. These circumstances also prevents us from falling back into old patterns because the framing that may have worked the last time is now no longer an option. In my case the foreground was too cluttered by the rock fall that I had to look for something original. You may experience the same with a shoreline of a lake after a thunder storm has passed or a tidal pool having dried out.
Shooting A Series
The presentation of photography is often governed by the transcendence of a single image beyond the frame. As such, it can often be interesting to take advantage of the possibility of crafting a series of shots around a particular place. This can be achieved by linking images with a common theme to convey certain inherent, qualities, be it a place, a form of composition or light. Revisiting a certain location to take multiple images that only in combination can carve out the essence of the subject matter to me is one more reason to think about spending time at a place already visited.
During my stay in Iceland, I returned to Jökulsarlon twice in order to get all the shots for a series, knowing only then I could really communicate the vastness of this place. I may not have been able to achieve this had I only stayed there a night to take a single iconic shot which I had set out for in the beginning. After five different shoots, I had a complete series of panoramic images, shot during 4 different dawns and dusks. In their entirety, these images represent my impression and personal vision of the place better than a single image could ever have. I had to visit the place more than once to capture all these images, simply because I needed more time to complete the series.
Personal Satisfaction – (a better image than before vs. new imagery)
The aforementioned series also brings me to one last important issue: personal satisfaction. In the social media realm, meaningless likes and exposure often overshadow my actual reasoning for pursuing this art form. It can be hard to refrain from hunting for short-term external satisfaction. However, by revisiting a place three times and finally getting that one shot, or by understanding how I have improved yields more satisfaction for me than visiting only new places in order to fill my portfolio or to chase after a new view all the time. I have a list of many destinations I haven’t shot yet and I will get to them, but once in a while, revisiting previous sites is crucial for me. When I set foot on familiar ground that I have fond memories of, I am always surprised at how much it feels like meeting an old friend. Having a shot of the spot already in my portfolio takes the pressure off me so that I can free my mind and immerse myself in the experience of hunting for something even better without any distractions. For this reason alone, it is something that I would certainly recommend doing.