How to build a Fine Art Landscape Photography Portfolio
Can you imagine if your whole fine art landscape photography portfolio could only be made up of images from one location? Well, that was the challenge that I faced as I embarked on a several-month journey to photograph the Mojave Desert as artist in residence at the Mojave National Preserve. Not only was I challenged by the sheer vastness and desolation of the desert landscape, but I also needed to create a fine art photography portfolio that was both diverse and cohesive – and that accurately reflected my personal experience and landscape photography style.
This was the first show I’ve done that needed to be site-specific. Every image had to be shot in Mojave National Preserve. That was probably the biggest challenge. I stayed in the Preserve for a total of four weeks (luckily I have an RV, so that was easy to do) and created a portfolio exclusively using images I shot during that time. Here are some of the lessons that I learned during this time:
Set Yourself Apart
A lot of previous photographers have shot Mojave National Preserve in color, so I knew I wanted to shoot in infrared. Infrared is my specialty. (I actually started off as a film infrared photographer, and when my film was discontinued in 2009, a friend gave me his converted digital camera.) Really with infrared, my biggest focus is what the sky is going to be doing. Sunrises and sunsets in infrared really aren’t that exciting.
So for me, I don’t have to get up at the break of dawn, but I do have to be ready for the pretty clouds. Shooting in infrared is really more about the subject matter and how it’s interacting with the sky and the environment. During my first eight full days I was presented with nothing but blue skies and I was really wondering if I was going to be able to complete a portfolio. With an average precipitation of 3.5 inches of rain per year, I knew I needed to take advantage of any clouds in the sky.
Scout Your Landscape Photography Location
To me, scouting is really important. Let’s say you have just three or four days at a location. It can be difficult to just show up at a place and get exactly what you want. Sometimes you have to spend the sunny days scouting and marking down which places you would like to return to again.
Returning to the same location multiple times can give you a better opportunity for getting the light and weather conditions you are looking for as well as allow you create a collection of fine art image with a common theme like above landscape photos from New Mexico found on Visual Wilderness.
Once you’re on location, a tip I like to give landscape photographers is to spend some time just really looking around. Remember, if you walk one direction, always turn around and see what’s behind you to make sure you’re not missing something. Don’t waste time worrying that you’re not going to be able to find anything to photograph. Sometimes you have to just breathe. I always tell people to pause, breathe and feel. A lot of times, images will just come to you if you do that. But if you’re rushing from one point to the next and getting caught up in the technical aspect, I feel you can loose touch with that connection to the environment.
Embrace the Challenges of the Landscape Photography
Some locations like Mojave isn’t popular with a lot of landscape photographers because it’s a difficult place to photograph. If you go onto the Internet and look up Mojave National Preserve photography, you don’t get this series of site-specific images like you would of, say, Yosemite National Park. It doesn’t really have those amazing, one-stop landscapes that a lot of other national parks have.
In some places, I liked the idea of the landscape, but when I got out of my car, it didn’t quite work. So I would hike by myself in the quietness, and that’s when I would get into my zone. In the desert, you can see across the valleys, and there are little cactuses, bushes and trees forever. So the challenge was trying to really pinpoint how best to capture that. And I think each person has to find their own style. If you’re a color photographer, work with the sunbursts, sunrises, sunsets, and the backlighting of cactuses. They are really pretty when the sun hits them.
Find Your Focus
My fine art photography portfolio quickly became about the desolation of the desert but the strength of the desert as well. I’ve always been attracted to the solitary tree or plant, and I swore I wasn’t going to go that direction again. But I’m just drawn to it. Probably eighty percent of my images are of those strong trees and cactuses that are preserving in this desolate landscape.
I wanted to show that life continues on. So the movement of the clouds kind of gives the images more of a life – a sense that yes, life is carrying on in this very calm and quiet place that seems like nothing is living there. So that is what became my focus as I put together the portfolio.
Find a common Fine Art Photography Theme
The most important thing if you’re going to put together a show or portfolio with a certain number of images is that there’s a style that threads through your images. So if somebody were to look at one of your photos, they could tell that it’s your photography because it looks like your other work. If you have a black and white shot on one side of the show and a colorful sunrise on the other, it can work if you’re purposeful about how those images link together. But it seems that the most successful shows are those that have a common style or theme such as the desert vegetation from White Sands National Monument in New Mexico that you can find on Visual Wilderness.
Post processing your images plays a key role in creating your fine art landscape photography theme. I know a lot of landscape photographers who have everything from landscapes to wildlife to macro photography in their portfolio. But because they’ve been processed in a similar way, you’ll see that they somehow all belong together when they are hanging on the wall. In my case with this show – and with a lot of my shows – I’ve stuck to the black and white or sepia look. For outdoor shows, I always feel uncomfortable when my booth is a mishmash of images that don’t really represent me as a certain photographer. I’m most comfortable when I feel like all my work gels together.
Fine Art Landscape Photography Prints
When I was processing my images, I was not only thinking about how the images flowed together but also about the walls of the gallery. I knew I could only fit three fine art landscape photography prints on some walls and had to ask myself, “which three images will fit together?” That part was challenging – not just the shooting and processing of the images but visualizing the images together. Here are some tips in choosing images to hang in your gallery:
Only Include Fine Art Prints that fit
While I was photographing, I kept in mind how all the images in the series would work together. I shot 500 or more images a day, many of which were long exposures, and ultimately narrowed it down to twenty images for the gallery walls (plus ten more for bin prints). The images I ultimately chose were those that felt like they created a cohesive body of work. There were some images that I thought I liked at the beginning, and as I continued working on the portfolio, those ended up being put on the back burner – like this shot of the Milky Way. I absolutely loved the shot, but it didn’t fit the rest of the wall art, which had a softer feel.
Fine Art Print Size Matters
Usually when it comes to prints, bigger is better, right? When I do outdoor shows, sometimes it seems like three feet by four feet isn’t even big enough. So my original thought was to print seven huge panoramic pieces. But once I finished shooting, it felt as if the images themselves were telling me they needed to be small and intimate. I didn’t want them to be in-your-face images. I wanted them to go along with the idea of the “breathe, pause and feel” thought that I had when I was there. So the biggest fine art prints was only 12×24 inches. The brownish tone I use also lends itself to that. It’s soft, subtle and calm. It’s more of a “stop and look, and you’ll find the beauty” feeling instead of “bam, it’s in your face.”
Have you hoped to hang your fine art landscape photography in a gallery or perhaps even do your own solo show someday? Challenge yourself to find the common thread in your work, and maybe even try limiting yourself to one location for a while. Don’t rush through your photography, even if you’re in a chaotic place. Sit down and breathe in and feel and look and see and become one with the environment. Don’t try to just rush to the next location. Landscape photography should be about emotion. With so many people being landscape photographers, it’s all about finding a way to separate yourself from the masses. And one of the best ways to do that is to have that quiet contemplation with your subject matter. When you really take your time, the emotion you feel in the field will translate to the gallery walls.