Landscape pro Steve Gosling talks us through his ‘less is more’ approach...
You specialise in minimalist landscapes. Is less really more?
I take what I call a ‘reductionist approach’ to composition – stripping out as much as I can in the frame to take the shot back to the core essentials of what I’m trying to say about the subject or the scene in front of me. My aim is to simplify and thereby hopefully strengthen the impact of what’s left in the photograph. The great Austrian photographer Ernst Haas summed it up when he said, “The less information, the more allusion; the less prose, the more poetry”.
Talk us through your compositional process – where do you start?
It’s important to think through, even before taking the camera out of the bag, why a particular subject appeals to you – is it shape, pattern, tone, texture, the light, colour? I ask myself, ‘Why am I taking this picture? What is it that attracts me?’ The answer provides a clarity of purpose that is essential to the whole process, from picture-taking to image processing and printing. It initially determines the compositional choices of viewpoint (where I set the camera up on my tripod), the design of the image (how lines and shapes relate to each other and how they lead to my chosen focal point, for example), and whether it’s best shot in horizontal, vertical or even square format.
What are the key ingredients to successful landscape photography?
I believe that landscape photographers require the three P’s – planning, patience and persistence – to increase our chances of success. Planning: to work out the best position of the sun in relation to the landscape, the best time of year to visit a location or the weather conditions required for a particular shot. Patience: waiting several hours for the light and weather to co-operate with me is a regular occurrence. Persistence: sometimes I’ll have to revisit a location numerous times before everything comes together. Getting a fantastic landscape image usually involves a lot of hard work – turning up at random to a location to discover a perfect coincidence of conditions rarely (if ever) happens.
Do you have a preferred time of day or weather?
It’s true that frequently the best time of day for landscape photography is early in the morning or late in the evening, just as the sun is rising or setting. The lower angle of the sun can create dramatic lighting conditions and bathe the landscape in a warm glow. However, I think good photographs can be found at any time of the day – the important factor is to match the choice of subject or location to the prevailing light and weather. In overcast conditions, I’ll go to woodland or search for water –rivers, lakes, waterfalls, the sea – or look for detailed, intimate images that don’t include the sky. For wider vistas, I like to work at the edge of a weather system, as stormy, wet weather is moving into or away from my chosen location. It’s at these times that the conditions, the light and the skies can be incredibly dramatic.
What’s the best piece of landscape photography advice anyone’s ever given you?
I think that a powerful image conveys a real sense of mood and should be seen as the photographer’s emotional response to the landscape before them. Sometimes the search for technical perfection can act as a barrier to achieving this – it’s easy to get overly focused on exposure, filtration, focus, or any of the other techy aspects. As the American photographer W. Eugene Smith once said, “What use is having a great depth-of-field if there is not an adequate depth of feelings?”
Are there any rookie mistakes or common misconceptions to avoid?
I come across a lot of photographers on workshops who are anxious to please other people – their friends and family, fellow photographers or the judges at the local camera club. The desire to win praise or recognition from others constrains the development of their own vision and discourages them from taking risks. The worrying consequence is that they’re then likely to play safe, to take photographs that are clones of images they’ve seen before. This is boring at best, but more importantly it stifles their creativity.
The only person you can guarantee to please is you, so my advice is don’t worry about anyone else’s opinion when you fire the shutter. Also, don’t just take landscapes with a wide-angle lens. Telephoto lenses are great for minimalist images as they enable you to isolate elements in the landscape and to remove unwanted distractions from the photograph by zooming in tight. Telephoto lenses can be an invaluable tool for demonstrating the ‘less is more’ principle.
Are there any technique ‘secrets’ you’ve learned over the years that could help our students?
It’s not a secret but there are many photographers who choose to ignore the value of using a good, solid tripod. I acknowledge that they can be a pain to carry and to use, but a good quality tripod can do so much:
- It will give you more control over the image taking process (compositional choices can be more easily made, and the camera precisely placed).
- It can provide more flexibility (enable long exposures that blur moving elements – water, windblown foliage and clouds – to create a sense of energy and dynamism in the image.
- It can enhance picture quality (no matter how good you think you are at handholding the camera, a tripod will give you a noticeable improvement in picture sharpness).
- Most importantly, a tripod will slow you down, encouraging you to spend more time reflecting on the landscape in front of you and what you want to say about it in the final image.
Steve Gosling specialises in contemporary travel and landscape images. His work has won many awards and he runs successful workshops. Last year he published his second book, A Beautiful Silence, of images from South Georgia and Antarctica. See more of his work here.