Six simple tools for better intimate landscape photography

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There is a sub-genre of nature photography that deserves some attention. Unlike the Grand Landscape, which dazzles us with flashy colors and dramatic near-far views, the intimate landscape photography seduces us with subtlety and quiet invitation. It entices us to explore a deeper experience in the photograph. In plain terms, Intimate Landscape photos are smaller scenes extracted from the larger view. They may be comprised of an entire side of a mountain, or a small, interesting detail found in a pattern of leaves. Here are some tips to help you find your way into their world.

Example of shady conditions are ideal for Intimate Landscape Photography

Shady conditions are ideal for Intimate Landscapes, such as this one. Harsh light can make it difficult to impossible to retain fine detail in the highlights and shadows.

1. Seek shade.

Low contrast light may not seem terribly thrilling for a landscape photograph, but it is perfect for the intimate landscape photography. Intimates don’t rely upon flashy sunsets or low angle light. There are plenty of subjects that shine in shady conditions, such as trees, flowers, and waterfalls.

Example of intimate landscape photo are extracted from a larger scene.

Intimate landscapes are extracted from a larger scene. Sometimes the scene is at your feet, like these beautiful, frost-covered Autumn leaves I found one morning just as the sun crested the hill.

2. Get up close and personal.

Zero in on the most interesting part of a scene with a telephoto lens. A fixed telephoto or a telephoto zoom lens lets you frame the scene tightly, eliminating distracting elements, and compressing the scene. If you don’t have a telephoto lens, you can use a mid-range lens, then “zoom with your feet” to get closer to your subject.

Example of zeroing in to create intimate landscape photo.

“Spirit of Pohono” — Including sky in an image like this one would have been distracting. The light and mist of the waterfall was the story to tell. A 70mm focal length was all that was need to frame this scene. A shutter speed of 1/10 sec. at ƒ/16 ensured everything would be in focus.

3. Eliminate the sky from your composition.

Dramatic skies are an important part of the traditional landscape composition, but in the context of an intimate landscape photography, a bright sky can be distracting. The sky is usually the brightest part of a composition and will draw the eye away from your subject. By leaving it out, you will have better control of how you want the viewer’s eye to move through the frame.

  • Wide angle lens landscape photography example.

    The most interesting part of this scene is the texture and patterns of the desert floor.

  • Example of zooming in to create stunning intimate landscape photo.

    By zeroing in and eliminating the sky, the composition becomes something different than a snapshot of a place.

4. Start wide, go narrow.

As you approach that big, beautiful landscape, you may be tempted to pick your wide-angle lens out of the bag. Go ahead and do that, but don’t stop there. Start zeroing in on more interesting compositions within the larger frame. One way to pick out more intimate compositions is to expose an image using a wide-angle lens, then use the magnify button on the back of your camera to scroll around the image you just made to see if there are any smaller, compelling   compositions within the frame. If you have a frame card — a small piece of mat board cut with an opening proportional to your sensor — you can use it to frame up a smaller scene before you even get the camera out of the bag.

Intimate landscape photography example from Klamath, California

“Mouth of the Klamath” — The curvy lines and fleshy colors in the sand spit give this composition a gentle, sensual feel. A long, 30-second exposure reduced the surf to smooth, light, soft lines, contrasted against the dark, rocky shore. 

5. Speaking of composition…

Intimate Landscapes cannot rely upon dazzling sunrises to catch the attention of the viewer. So, composition is especially paramount in constructing an Intimate. Think beyond the “rule of thirds”, which is so common in traditional landscape photography. Pay close attention to the way lines and shapes move the eye through the composition and how those lines may evoke emotional response. For example, horizontal lines create a sense of serenity because objects parallel to the Earth are at rest. Vertical lines create a sense of power, strength, and stature. Diagonal lines create movement and energy. Curvy lines suggest comfort and ease. And symmetry conveys a sense of stability.

Example of an abstract to create intimate landscape photo.

“Jewels of the Merced”, Yosemite National Park — I spotted these patterns in the river bottom as I was exploring around Yosemite Valley. In order to freeze the movement of the ripples, I selected a fast shutter speed. And, I wanted everything to be in focus front to back, so I needed to use an aperture of ƒ/16 or smaller. Even though it was a bright, sunny day, a high ISO selection was required in order to balance the exposure. Canon EOS R, Canon 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 L lens, ISO 5000, 200 mm, ƒ/16, 1/250 sec.

6. Hone your eye to recognize textures, lines, colors, value, and shapes in nature

A photograph is constrained by two dimensions. Therefore, in order to create depth and movement through your composition, there are a few other tools in the box you can use. Texture, lines, colors, tonal value, and shapes are all devices at the artist’s disposal to make a compelling image. Look for them in nature. When you develop your eye for the building blocks of composition, you will begin to see them everywhere — texture in grasses; contrast of colors in the surface of water; sticks as lines; rocks as shapes. Use nature’s pallet to build your composition. Train your eye to see in two dimensions.

These few quick tips are only a start to help you begin to see differently. To read more about creativity and learning to see in a new way, you can read some of my other articles on the subject of creativity here. If you have some thoughts to share on how you have developed your own eye, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

About Author Charlotte Gibb

Charlotte Gibb is a contemporary fine art photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in landscapes of the Western United States. Her images are often taken in familiar places for the well-versed landscape photographer, but she prides herself on her keen an eye toward the subtle and sometimes overlooked beauty of the natural world. Charlotte earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and has exhibited her work in several solo shows throughout California. Her darkroom, long gone now, has been replaced with digital darkroom tools, and her style has evolved from a somewhat journalistic approach, to one that pays tribute to the natural world.