The Tide of Changing Expectations in Landscape Photography

December 27th, 2012 by Robert Rodriguez Jr.

I’ve been noticing a trend recently in people’s attitudes and perceptions on landscape and nature photography. I see it across different segments of people I talk to and work with—photographers on workshops, print buyers in galleries, people I follow and who follow me on social media, and just talking to friends on the street.

But I’m also seeing it in the industry as well, whether that be professional established photographers or leading magazines.

What trend am I talking about? The trend towards a more organic manipulation and processing of images, a return to reality, veracity, and hopefully art for art’s sake.

I’m getting a strong sense that the tides are changing against a heavy-handed approach to digital processing and manipulation. People are not impressed anymore with super saturation, or technical perfection, or perfectly exposed images where every tonality is perfectly captured and presented leaving little to the imagination.

On my recent talk at the Sierra Club in NYC to about 65 members, I mentioned how HDR has gotten a bad reputation because it has been abused, and how in many cases it hurts an image, and many nodded their heads in agreement.

Now to be clear, I’m talking about images that are shared with the intent of being fine-art in nature. I don’t think anyone cares if you’re up front about what your work is (or isn’t). But if it’s landscape or nature photography in the lineage of Elliot PorterAnsel Adams, Galen Rowell, or David Muench, then there’s a tradition of veracity and artistic merit that is expected.

Here are a few real world examples that I’ve come across that made me think of this change, and where we might be heading.

Facebook

I frequently post images on my Facebook page, and enjoy the feedback I get from followers and friends - positive and negative. It’s a great way to get a reality check on my own work and it keeps me honest. I also look at other photos that are posted, and it’s easy to see that images where there’s lots of manipulation or extreme HDR processing are often shunned by others.

National Geographic

We all know how NG symbolizes the epitome of the nature photographer, working under difficult conditions to capture rare, evocative moments in nature that tell a story. It’s what got me excited about photography as a 9 yr old when I couldn’t understand the words, but the pictures were so captivating.

So I wasn’t really surprised when I noticed recently that the rules for their photo contests prohibit images processed with HDR. I suspect this is not because there is anything wrong or dis-honest about HDR, but because it has been used in a way that exceeds people’s expectations of reality.

Tom Till

Tom Till is one of the worlds best landscape photographers, and based out of Moab Utah. His work is primarily of the southwest, has his own gallery in Moab, and has been influential to many including myself.

Recently however, he wrote an article for Outdoor Photographer Magazine where he regretted how overly saturated his prints have been over the past two years. This was very interesting to me since I had visited his gallery in Moab earlier this year and thought the very same thing. Why was a photographer of Tom’s caliber and experience going too far (in my opinion at the time) with his processing? Surely he didn’t need to given his mastery of composition, light, and ability to capture truly unique images in such a popular location.

Or did he? I wondered, and thought about where photography was heading.

Then he wrote this truly eye-opening article which was timely and brutally honest. We can all learn from it, and I have a deeper respect for Tom and his work after reading it. (And I certainly respected him before.) Read it now, then come back when you’re done. It’s that good.

Conclusions

So where does this leave us as landscape photographers? I think there a few points we can take away and I want to share them here with you.

  • Perceptions Matter – Regardless of how we chose to express our creativity, people have perceptions of what is real vs what is not. Yes there is lots of room for interpretation and opinion here, but there is a line where I think many have crossed with HDR and other types of manipulation. If you’re work is photo realistic or similar, then say so. But, I do believe the subject matter and aesthetic content of your work has to reflect that as well.
  • Digital Processing is a Tool – Just as great painters master their medium, so we as photographers must master our tools. This includes our digital tools like Photoshop and Lightroom. There’s no excuse not to become as versed as possible in your chosen RAW processor, the alternative is to be mastered by it, and it’s easy to see how that can lead even the best artists astray.
  • Find Your Voice – Composition, vision, and story will always trump the impressive yet short-lived approach of over saturation, processing, and eye-catching manipulation. Focus on your opinion, your way of seeing, and make that an integral part of your work. And stop comparing yourself to others.
  • Think Long Term - Sure instant gratification and immediate feedback is great, but what about after a month, a year, a decade? Will your images stand the test of time? I believe they can. Images that transcend the subject, location, or specific techniques will be valued and appreciated for much longer than those without these timeless qualities. An image may have a high initial impact, but if that’s because of ultra-realism, will be at risk to have the same positive reaction in the future.

Finally, please remember these are my opinions, and only mine. I’d love to hear yours if you have a differing one, or perhaps just a different perspective. I’m always open to hearing your feedback. Thanks as always for reading!

Check out Robert’s website for images, workshops, webinars and more: LINK

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