The Truth About Landscape Photography

The Truth About Landscape Photography

Landscape photography can become frustrating if you get too focused on results and constantly compare yourself to other photographers. While browsing the web and visiting social media sites, you see countless photos of spectacular sunrises and sunsets. But getting truly awesome conditions is rare, even for those who are pros at planning. Let me share what the reality looks like.

If you look at my homepage, you see a portfolio of fairly decent landscape and cityscape photos, many of which were taken with a colorful sky as a backdrop. But the images I share online are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the time, I work with less-than-ideal conditions, and the resulting photos are mediocre. Usually, nobody will ever see those, and that's a common thing in the photography community: we only show our very best images.

A photo like the following will never see the light of day. It was the best I could come up with when photographing Mount Bromo in Indonesia a few weeks ago. Granted, the time of my visit was not ideal, with the rainy season approaching. But unless you have unlimited financial resources, you must make compromises from time to time while traveling. If you do a quick Google search for "Mount Bromo," you'll understand why I'm disappointed with this photo.

To photograph Mount Bromo, I got up at 2 am in the morning to arrive at King Kong Hill viewpoint around 3:30 am. Then, I waited for two hours, hoping for the forecast to be wrong. The evening before, I hadn't even seen the mountains. This morning, I got at least a little glimpse.

Landscape Photography Statistics

While I always hope for conditions like the ones I had while taking the title photo of Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland, what I had to deal with in Indonesia is much more common. Let me share some statistics.

During the last 13 months, I traveled for 284 days as part of a sabbatical. I visited many spectacular places in eight different countries, spending a few months in Costa Rica, exploring South East Asia, and visiting some beautiful European countries. Although it wasn't possible to take photos every day, I can safely say that the number of photoshoots at sunrise and sunset combined lies above 300.

While the shutter count of my camera went up by 15,000, I'd say that I took around 1,000 different photos. That's because I typically have the camera on a tripod and take between 10 and 50 shots for focus stacking, exposure blending, or time blending. Of those 1,000 photos, between 100 and 150 will make it onto my homepage.

You could now say that getting one portfolio photo for nearly every second photoshoot isn't too bad. I'm ok with that. But you must also know that those portfolio photos do not all look like this one.

At first, it didn't look like anything special would happen this morning. Wind and rain nearly drove me back to the car. But, I withstood the elements and was rewarded as the sun broke through the clouds.

The light during this sunrise on Madeira was something special and the best I got during the past 13 months. But how often did I get to experience something in this ballpark? I went through all the photos I took and counted 25 photoshoots with great conditions. That's less than 10%, and it doesn't only include great light. That one day of fog I got in the Fanal forest is also included, for example. I can count the photoshoots with exceptional light on one hand.

It took me five visits to Fanal, until I finally got the conditions I was looking for.

How To Stay Motivated

During my travels, there were periods of several days or even weeks without anything worth getting up for in the middle of the night. But I still did it. I went out for sunrise whenever possible and tried again at sunset. I draw a lot of the motivation for that from those rare occasions when nature puts on a show for me.

I didn't have a real plan what to photograph this morning on Corfu. I visited a popular photo spot for sunrise, which was a dissapointment. Yet, on my drive back to the apartment, I came across this magical scene. It's not often that I get that lucky.

But I also learned to be less focused on the results. There must be balance. Landscape photography is as much about the process as it is about the photos for me. I enjoy being out in nature. That's why it's never a wasted effort if I climb a mountain in the dark only to be greeted by a view like this.

This is a cellphone photo, documenting the view for which I climbed 4,000 vertical feet in the dark. Not worth it from a photography perspective. But I still had a great time.

I went up the Grand Veymont again two days later and still didn't get the conditions that would have yielded a great photo. But I enjoyed my time on the trails, the relentless climb in the dark, and the tranquility up on the mountain.

Some views are for the eyes and less for the camera, and learning to take joy from those is important. There was a time when this was hard for me. In 2016, I traveled for six months. During that time, I beat myself up over the very few good photos I was taking. In South America, I sometimes felt that nature had conspired against me. I saw all those great photos of places like Machu Picchu, the Atacama, and the Andes online. But none of my photos would come even close.

A mindset that was too focused on results lead me into a creative rut. The irony was that I thought only great results would get me out of it. So, I went out again and again, hoping for special light and weather. But this was out of my control, and I was getting frustrated.

Back then, I learned the importance of taking joy from the process and seeing the photos as the icing on the cake. Why did I travel in the first place? I wanted to explore beautiful places and photograph them. Yet, even without photographing them, I could still make great memories and have a good time.

Conclusion

The truth about landscape photography is this: It's not easy to take great photos. You must put in the work and be out there as much as possible. Expect to be disappointed by the conditions, but don't get disheartened. Thrive in the process, enjoy your time out there, and be grateful for those rare, magic moments. And never forget how great it is to be able to experience nature and the elements, even if there's no photo to capture.

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9 Comments
Larry E's picture

Thank you, Michael. I have seen so many beautiful landscape photos, I expect it is easy to capture them. I should know better. Your essay is a well-articulated testament to reality.

STEVEN WEBB's picture

Landscape photography can be a lot like a typical person's golf game. You'll hit a lot of bad shots and some ok to good shots. It's those few really good shots and holes and the beauty of the golf course that keeps you coming back. And....the challenge.

Ruud van der Nat's picture

Your conclusion is spot on. Landscape photography is like therapy to me, no better experience than seeing and hearing nature come to life pre-sunrise.

João Chainho's picture

Thank you so much for sharing your experience!
And for sharing your artistic view around Lisbon and Madeira 🇵🇹

Yannick K.'s picture

Landscape photography is made of disappointments et good surprises. What is important is to take your chance and to accept when things are not what you hoped for.
I had a similar experience than yours, in China. Climbing in the dark under light rain and no visibility. But I finally had few minutes of no cloud over the Li river for a decent panorama. A nice hike anyway.

Dubi N.'s picture

Great article. Also worth noting is you can turn some disappointments to excellence during post processing.

Charles Mercier's picture

Wow, amazing photos!

Zdenek Malich's picture

The truth about landscape photography... If you don't like to be outside, you're not going to make difference and you going to be just one more to the many other around. Do what you really enjoy....

Stephen Felce's picture

Not clever."I took around 1,000 different photos... between 100 and 150 will make it onto my homepage."

Do not shoot blindly and hope. Do what I do and cut it down to what works and only take them, learn from experience so you know before the event. I spent three weeks touring the South West USA twice, travelling between 2,500 and 3,500 miles, flying over from my home in England. On both occasions I took only about 100 pictures other than extra for bracketed exposures. My success rate was high on both occasions.

However, I like most of the pictures and a lot.