The SAS motto of ‘Who Dares Wins’ was famously rubbished by ex-SAS soldier Andy McNab in his book ‘Bravo Two Zero’.
McNab replaced the catchy gung-ho war cry with one that was far more pragmatic: ‘Check, check and check again’. Now, whilst landscape photography may not have such dangerous outcomes as an SAS mission, the motto could well be the same. Or at least very similar.
Now, if you’re looking to enter the Photograph for Nokia in Puerto Rico Competition and win a an amazing trip to Puerto Rico with National Geographic photographer Stephen Alvarez, plus a Nokia Lumia 1020, you’ll need to do just that.
1. ‘Plan, Plan and Plan Again’
Great landscape photography is rarely the result of pure luck. Very occasionally serendipitous moments arise, but it is a discipline mostly about preparation, recce-ing locations and waiting for the right conditions. That means knowing the lie of the land and the best vantage points; it means knowing the sunset and sunrise times for the time of year; it means knowing about high and low tides (only if you’re shooting near water, obviously); it means monitoring the weather forecast; it means having the right camera kit in your bag (and a healthy supply of batteries); it means having the right clothing and seating (so that when you get there you can wait for the right conditions); and it means being mentally prepared for repeated setbacks.
2. The Golden Hour
‘The Golden Hour’ occurs in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. At this time the sun is lower in the sky giving you softer colours, amazing skies and vast amounts of depth to the smallest of undulations.
The most important rule about the Golden Hour is to get there before it happens! There is no point in watching the most amazing sunrise you have ever seen whilst frantically fighting the zip on your camera bag! Get there before it happens and get everything in place. (This will involve checking the location beforehand; great landscapes are rarely in accessible places or conveniently next to car parks. Added to which, finding a footpath in the middle of the night isn’t always an easy task!)
Although dusk has its merits (often in the form of silhouettes), most photographers aim for sunrise as it carries the added bonus of dewy blades of grass and misty horizons, which can give your shot that untouched, ethereal quality.
3. The Golden Mean
It’s all about gold this week eh? Well, this particular rule comes with some good pedigree and has consciously effected our aesthetic decisions for at least 2000 years! It has influenced the world’s architecture, painting and design – and continues to dictate how we compose our photographs.
Centrally composed images are not as pleasing to the eye as one may initially think. It seems that aesthetically we mostly veer towards an off-centre division of space. Classically, this has been defined as the Golden Mean (or Golden Ratio). It means that intersections of the space should occur in roughly these proportions.
In photography, a similar concept, ‘Rule of Thirds’ is also widely used. Indeed, you’ll find many cameras have a display function that overlays the screen with a grid of thirds for precisely this reason. This helps you compose your shots and avoids always having the pictures’ focus slap bang in the centre. (The thirds grid can also be usefully used to keep your horizons horizontal).
4. What am I looking at?
How many landscapes photographs have you seen (or taken) which have large areas of dull nothingness? The simple cure to this landscape boredom is to find something of interest in the foreground to anchor the composition and draw the viewer into the image. (This is sometimes known as the ‘Leading Line’).
You can use all sorts of things to accomplish this: a signpost, a fishing net, an interesting piece of driftwood… Even streams, paths, roads and hedges can be used effectively for this purpose. It just needs to be something that tethers the shot down and gives the viewer a starting point for getting into the picture.
Pre-clever digital gadgetry, filters were thin pieces of glass that you slide in front of the cameras lens to alter the light the film received. These could be grad filters, coloured filters, polarising filters, neutral density filters or a combination of all of them. Filters help you balance the light in your picture (thereby avoiding burnt out skies) or enhance certain colours or specific areas.
Of course, these days, most of our cameras have filters built into the device itself. And whilst this covers the basic criteria, we can then also download all sorts of Apps to mimic particular effects.
Rules are there to be broken
As always, once you’ve learned aesthetic rule, you should think about breaking it. If everyone else is working to the ‘Rule of Thirds’ your centrally composed shot will stand out like a sore thumb. Likewise, if everyone else is filling their foregrounds with focus points, a big empty space will jar people into paying your photograph some attention. The key thing is to know why you’re doing it (as opposed to blindly stumbling into it). Every photograph can tell a different story and speak to a different audience… just check out Andreas Gurskey’s ‘landscapes’; banality can gain a lot of attention.
P.S It’s also the most expensive photograph ever sold… so don’t be put off by breaking the rules!
Hopefully, you’re now inspired to grab your camera or smartphone and get shooting. If so, make sure you enter your best work in our Photograph for Nokia in Puerto Rico Competition. It closes on October 11th, so no time to lose. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your questions and comments down below.