Heightened Senses - An Interview With Landscape Photographer Chris Upton

Fujifilm ambassador and professional landscape photographer Chris Upton talks to us about his favourite locations, the picture-taking process and photographic heroes…

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Why choose landscapes?
In my youth I spent a lot of time walking in the Peak District and Lake District. They’re beautiful parts of the world and I guess I wanted to try and record those wonderful experiences. One particular occasion comes to mind when I was at Watendlath in the Lake District. It was a cold autumn day and I was shooting the farmhouse from across the tarn. The fells rose dramatically behind the farm as wisps of wood smoke appeared from the chimney. My black & white print captured not only what I’d seen but also what I was feeling and I realised then that this was the key to successful landscape photography.

What are the key ingredients to a stunning landscape?
The most important ingredient is light. The best light is usually around sunrise and sunset and shooting at these times can make a massive difference to your images without it costing you a penny. Interesting weather can also provide perfect conditions for capturing stunning images. So, the next time you see a forecast for mist, fog, snow or even rain, get out there with your camera – just make sure you protect it from the elements!

Carefully crafted composition is also key. Be clear on what you’re trying to communicate - where do you want the viewer to look? Is there a focal point? Ensure that your shot has depth by having a clear foreground, midground and background. Decide on the proportion of sky to land (or sea) depending on the conditions.

Simplify your landscapes by excluding anything that detracts from your main message and crop your images in post-processing to add impact. Adding movement into a landscape with water, clouds, trees or grasses blowing in the wind brings some dynamism and creativity to a picture. Use different shutter speeds to vary the effect. And don’t limit yourself to only using a wide-angle lens in the landscape - a 70-200mm focal length is a superb tool for isolating detail or compressing perspective.

Finally, don’t forget your tripod. They’re critical in not only ensuring shake-free images (just remember to turn your image stabilisation off) but also help massively in slowing you down enabling the fine-tuning of your composition.

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Where are your favourite places to shoot in the UK?
We’re blessed with so many beautiful locations in this country but I guess my favourite has to be the Lake District. It has everything from dramatic mountains to wooded valleys and beautiful tarns, all in a relatively small area and easily accessible.

While Scotland has all the majesty, drama and incredible beauty I’d also have to say the Peak District because it’s fairly local to me. I initially found it harder to shoot here because images don’t always present themselves and you have to search more for compositions. But whether it be the harsh gritstone in the north or the gentle rolling limestone dales in the south it’s a great place to shoot.

It’s easy to be seduced by the magnificent landscapes in our National Parks but don’t forget your local area. It’s really important to know of good locations that you can visit quickly when the conditions are right, be that your local park, canal, river or countryside.

Do you have a favourite shot of your own?
One of my favourite images was shot in the Peak District just a few weeks ago. The weather forecast looked promising for a great sunrise and, full of optimism, I drove into Derbyshire only to find myself in thick fog. I arrived in the dark and climbed up the hill, still in thick mist. I waited and waited, it got lighter, the sun rose (apparently), but still there was very little visibility. But then the mist started to clear slightly and I was presented with an inversion in the valley with the peak of Parkhouse Hill poking through the mist. It was an absolutely glorious morning that made getting up at 4.30am well worthwhile.

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What’s the best landscape photography advice you’ve ever been given?
Photography is all about emotion, whatever the genre, and the trick is to try and capture that emotion in your image. When we’re out in the landscape our senses are heightened and it’s important to take a moment to imbibe the atmosphere, to appreciate the scene for what it is. That feeling can be communicated in the picture through composition, exposure and movement. The saying, ‘Shoot what you feel, not what you see’ is so important in landscape photography.

Do you have any landscape photography heroes?
There are lots of landscape photographers I admire, some famous, some not, and it’s really important to look at the work of other photographers, not to copy but to draw inspiration. A few of the more well-known would be Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish, David Noton, Art Wolfe and Elia Locardi.

You run tours and workshops – what question are you asked the most?
The one question that comes up all the time, apart from what gear do you use, is ‘How do you see a picture?’ Many struggle with this as it’s a non-technical question and the one thing your camera can’t do for you.

Vision is the difference between taking pictures and making a photograph. The good news is that you can learn to develop your photographic eye. We start the process in the field by talking about what caught our eye - was it light, shade, pattern, shape or colour? We talk about how we feel and then run through various compositional tips to emphasise those key elements while eliminating anything which detracts from the main message.

The more we do this the more natural it becomes, but seeing is a skill and like any skill it gets easier the more you practice. It was Dorothea Lange who said, ‘A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera’.

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How do you approach the picture-taking process?
The start point for me is always to be clear on the message I’m trying to communicate. Am I telling a bigger story using a wider view or a more intimate one with tighter framing? I then concentrate on the composition and move around handholding my camera to find the optimum position before setting up the tripod. I’ll look for ways to lead the viewer to the main subject and check for balance within the composition, especially the relationship between the land or sea and the sky. A foreground can really help in a landscape photograph so long as it’s interesting and adds something to the image. Is the image better suited to a landscape or portrait format? How high or low do I need to be? Is there anything cutting through the horizon? Then I check around the frame edges to see if there are any distractions such as highlights or objects cut in half.

The next stage is to determine the depth-of-field I require, selecting the appropriate aperture and focus point. I consider whether I need to freeze or blur moving objects and then I decide what, if any, filtration is required before checking my exposure by using the histogram and releasing the shutter using the 2-second timer or cable release. Finally, I review and refine the settings if required.

What are your landscape photography gear requirements?
The choice of gear for landscape photography is a personal one that depends on budget and your preferred style of shooting. I’ve achieved great results using a Fujifilm X100F with its fixed 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens as well as using a much bigger selection of gear. However, for many, the kit will include a body, wide-angle, standard and telephoto zoom lenses. Robust construction and weather resistance are also critical factors and perhaps the biggest consideration will be weight depending on how far you’ll need to carry your gear. Filters, batteries, cable release and, of course, a sturdy tripod complete the kit list.

Chris’ favourite gear for stunning landscapes - we asked Chris to choose the camera and lenses he favours for shooting his scenic masterpieces…

Camera: Fujifilm X-T3
My favourite camera is my Fujifilm X-T3. I love the compact style and design, the lighter weight and build quality. But it’s the intuitive, user-friendly interface that makes these cameras such a joy to use with all the main features and controls available on the outside of the camera without the need to dive into menus. All of that means nothing if the image quality doesn’t match up, but with Fujifilm there’s a beautiful, filmic feel to the images producing stunning results whether you’re shooting RAW or JPEGs. Find out more here.

Fujifilm X-T3

Fujifilm X-T3

Lens: Fujifilm XF16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR
My workhorse lens is my Fujifilm 16-55mm (24-70mm equivalent). This lens is so fast with its constant f/2.8 aperture, sharp throughout and delivers excellent contrast and colour. It’s not the lightest or smallest lens, nor is it the cheapest, but the weather sealing is very useful for landscape photography and the image quality is simply stunning. Find out more here.

Fujifilm XF16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR

Fujifilm XF16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR

Lens: Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR
The other ‘red badge’ lens that I own is the Fujifilm XF 50-140mm. With its 70-200mm equivalent focal length, it’s perfect for pulling in detail and compressing perspective. The lens is also weather resistant, has image stabilisation and delivers superb image quality. Find out more here.

Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR

Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 R LM OIS WR

Chris Upton is an award-winning travel and landscape photographer, and a Fujifilm X Series ambassador. He lectures, runs photography tours and offers 1-2-1 tuition. See more of Chris’ landscape work here.