June 26, 2022
Although I’ve seriously practiced the art of landscape photography for more than two decades, I’ve never questioned the definition of the term. It’s fairly obvious, isn’t it? If I am taking most of my photos outdoors – in the landscape – then I must be a landscape photographer.
But is this always the case?
In this article, I will delve deeper into what landscape photography can be considered to be – and, perhaps more importantly, what it shouldn’t be.
Wikipedia defines the genre as photography that “shows the spaces within the world, sometimes vast and unending, but other times microscopic. Landscape photographers typically capture the presence of nature, but can also focus on man-made features or disturbances of landscapes.”
This doesn’t sound like a very definitive definition to me, though: it could sometimes be this, but at other times it might also be that? For me, there are too many variables in such a definition, and this is what I’d like to explore in this article.
Some photographs leave us in no doubt. All photos of grand natural vistas undisturbed by any signs of human presence are indisputably ‘landscape photographs.’ When these scenes are bathed in the right light, they often evoke strong emotional responses. Mostly they make us wish we were there to experience the beauty for ourselves: in my own life, they certainly have inspired me to travel to places I might otherwise never have visited.
This is why such photos appeal to the travel industry. They inspire us to explore and to experience and capture our own amazing moments. It is also why so many landscape photographers who consider themselves purists prefer to photograph only pristine landscapes, devoid of all human influence.
I follow the work of many incredibly talented photographers of all genres, mostly because their photos inspire me to see their world through their eyes. Many of them could be called purists, but most are prepared to make exceptions to the no-human-influence rule. Some take photos only at the coast, while others love exploring the mountains.
Taking a brief look at some of the other acceptable (and not-so acceptable) sub-genres of landscape photography, it’s interesting to ask how many sub-genres actually exist, and also when can a non-purist landscape photo no longer be called a landscape photo?
Landscapes with People
There are often very good reasons for including people in a landscape photograph. Since we all know the size of the average person, including people in our photos usually helps us to imagine the relative size of the other features in the landscape, thereby adding a sense of depth and scale to the scene.
Whenever we see human figures in landscape photographs, we can also imagine ourselves to be one of those people, experiencing all that beauty ourselves.
But this is also where things start to get a bit murky. Our brains are instinctively hardwired to recognize the human shape (especially the face) amongst all the other visual clutter that continually surrounds us. Whenever we see people in a landscape photo, we can’t help focusing on them. This means that any visible humans will usually end up as the primary subjects in our photos – no matter how small they are in the scene.
It’s not only a question of how big the people are in our photos: it’s also about the type of landscape they’re in, and how much of our visual attention is diverted away from the landscape and towards the people. If the lone beach walker in the photo above was replaced by a newly-wed couple, could this still be considered a landscape photo? Or would it then immediately be classified as a wedding photo? This will always be debatable.
Landscapes with Animals
And what if we decide to include animals in our landscape photos?
We can use our general knowledge about the size of featured animals to determine the scale of the landscape, but if those animals become too visually prominent in our compositions, we might rather be referred to as a wildlife photographer.
In the picture of the penguins and the landscape below, was I deliberately trying to capture a biologically-detailed image of the birds, or was my intention to depict them in their natural landscape or environment?
You be the judge.
By the way – sharing this beach with these penguins at sunrise that morning was one of the highlights of my life. I went deliberately to photograph the penguins – and they might be small in the frame, but they do capture all of our visual attention.
This is the main reason why the difference between wildlife and landscape photography is one of the most contested debates in our field.
Who would argue that a photo of a grand mountain landscape scene including an eagle in flight was a wildlife photo, or that a photo of a lion, an elephant, or a giraffe in the African bush could be anything but wildlife photography?
So while (to some purists) including people or animals in your landscapes should immediately disqualify you from the landscape photography club – get comfortable with being excluded, because there’s nothing stopping you from including both people and animals in the same photo.
Even when we don’t include any people or animals in our landscape photos, the question becomes more fraught when the signs of human influence increase.
Is the urban panorama below a landscape photo?
It is if you’re an urban landscape photographer – another sub-genre of landscape photography, where the photographer deliberately includes one or more human influences in their landscapes, often to tell specific stories.
But there are limitations here, too. The story needs to be about how the buildings alter or enhance the landscape. When you give too much prominence to an individual building or structure, the image comes closer to being classed as an architectural photograph.
As always, even within the urban landscape photography sub-genre, a number of sub-sub-genres appear. Many urban landscape photographers are now specializing in roof-topping (photos from the top of skyscrapers) or exploring abandoned buildings, to name but two. All of their images might also be considered to be legitimate landscape photographs – but this depends on the subjective opinion of the observer.
Since most people around the world live close to the coast, it makes sense that many landscape photographers would spend much of their creative time searching for compositions along the beaches and amongst the rocks.
This is seascape photography – where the shape, texture, and color of the waves and the ocean become the primary focus of our photographs. Other elements of the scene – rocks, mountains, etc. – will certainly add to the visual impact of our compositions, but seascape photography will always be about the ocean and its moods, and about capturing them in the best possible way.
Most people would instantly recognize Table Mountain in the image above, and many would be forgiven for thinking that it was the primary subject in this composition. The main subject here is clearly the movement of the ocean, though: the mountain and the pink sky are nice additions – but for me, this photo was all about capturing the water in the most interesting way possible.
The higher we climb in the mountains, the clearer the air becomes. High-altitude landscapes are often completely devoid of human influence, so many of these photos would also comfortably fit into the (highly prestigious) category of ‘purist landscapes.’
Mountain photographers strive to go where nobody has ever been before, to capture unique photographs of things that nobody has ever seen before.
But what if we don’t live anywhere near the coast or mountains? Truly passionate landscape photographers aren’t ever discouraged by a lack of something. Instead they explore what they do have, and then they try to capture the best possible compositions of those particular geographic features.
Deserts and dunes might look bleak and featureless or even boring to some people, but they do offer an endless variety of photographic opportunities for purist landscape photographers.
We should never forget that each person who views our landscapes photos will have their own interpretation of that scene. For instance, a beautiful sunset photo of a wave breaking over the rocks (a seascape) might have a much stronger emotional impact on someone who has never seen the ocean before, than on someone living on the coast.
Anything can look amazing with just the right light. One of the most often-asked questions amongst the landscape photography community is: “If you had to choose between shooting an amazing subject in boring light, or a boring subject in amazing light, which would it be?”
I’ve always chosen the latter, always believing that anything can look amazing with a strong composition and the right light. There’s no denying that soft, warm, golden-hour light will always improve the appearance of geographical or other features. Also, no photo would be possible without light, so it follows that the quality of the light should be the most important element of our landscape photos. Well, yes and no.
Every good photo consists of three main elements; an interesting subject, a balanced composition, and good light. If you can capture all three of those in one photograph, you usually have a winner.
But good light doesn’t necessarily mean golden light (this was one lesson that took me many years to learn). The light should only ever highlight the primary elements of our landscapes, and should ideally never become the primary subject of our photos. The light at sunrise and sunset generally does make things look better than the light at noon, but in some sub-genres of landscape photography, the light may be best at other times – and yes, sometimes even at noon.
I believe that it’s always much more important to tell believable stories with our landscape photos than it is to chase after spectacular light. We’ve all seen amazing sunrises and sunsets, and as landscape photographers, we’re inevitably drawn to capturing them. But it doesn’t matter how technically excellent a photo of a sunrise or sunset might be, unless the image tells a story, it will just be yet another photo of a sunrise or a sunset.
Note my words in the previous paragraph: “we’ve all seen amazing sunrises and sunsets”. While it does make a lot of sense to wait for the best light, it doesn’t make any sense to ignore the landscape and its story while making the sun and light the primary subjects of our photos. Why not? Well, mostly because we all experience one sunrise and one sunset every single day of our lives, and while some of them may be more beautiful than others, without any interesting landscape features, those photos are usually boring.
Forests and woodlands offer landscape photographers a bottomless bucket of photographic opportunities, but they also offer us a number of serious challenges. Besides some of the more obvious technical constraints – like capturing all the details in both the highlights and shadows – one of the biggest challenges is finding something that’s more interesting than everything else, and then composing that thing in the most interesting possible way, without any obvious visual distractions.
It was in the Knysna forest that I learned some hard truths about landscape photography. Although the quality of the light will always be one of the key components in every photo, forest photography is mostly about subject and composition, with the light only playing a minor part. We might be lucky enough to find some misty conditions, but the light in the forest is usually only either on or off. It’s never orange or pink.
The Snowscape is another sub-genre of landscape photography where light doesn’t necessarily play a major role. Here it’s often the bleakest and gloomiest light that’s best able to convey the stark and featureless mood of a harsh, sub-zero landscape.
If you live in the extreme northern or southern latitudes where snow and ice are common, then please do continue taking photos like the one above. Even without a single hint of orange or pink, photos like these will always inspire people like me to explore parts of the world that we might otherwise never see. (This photo was shot on one of the Lofoten Islands in Norway. I grew up in balmy South Africa, so I can honestly say that despite the many thermal layers I wore on that day, I have never been so cold. But I was there to capture snow scenes exactly like this one, so that was what I did. No pain, no gain.)
If you live anywhere near the coast, you’re going to experience a few storms in your lifetime – although they aren’t restricted to the coastline. Violent thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornados, etc., occur regularly in many parts of the world. As the skies turn darkly ominous, so the air becomes electric.
Some landscape photographers spend most of their time studying weather patterns and chasing after storms. But while storms always happen outdoors above the landscape, storm photography is usually only about the sky, often with the landscape barely visible in the extreme lower section of the photo. Our landscape photos should always first tell stories about interesting landscapes, and only then about the light and/or the weather.
If you shot an amazing thunderstorm and got some nice sharp photos of lightning strikes but excluded any of the landscape, should those also qualify as landscape photos?
When the primary subject of our photos is only ever the weather, then we’re no longer landscape photographers. Instead, we have become weather photographers.
But why restrict our landscape photography to earthly features? The landscape doesn’t abruptly end where the sky begins – which is why it’s impossible to always exclude the weather from our landscape photos.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it all boils down to our primary subjects: what are we photographing, and what message are we trying to convey through each photo?
If the primary subjects of our photos are not existing features (natural or manmade) of the earthly landscape, then I don’t feel that those photos should be classed as landscape photos.
The panorama above was carefully composed and exposed to include as much of the Milky Way as possible. This photo is clearly all about the stars, and yet stars are not a part of the earthly landscape. So according to the logic already expressed, this photo shouldn’t be classified as a landscape photo. Yet it is.
This is because the stars aren’t the primary subject here. The radio-telescope is, and the story (in case you didn’t get it) tells of how the human species has evolved to the point where we’re now looking for signs of intelligent life on other planets.
If our photos of the stars don’t have any connection to the earth (if the primary subjects are only ever planetary), then we probably should be classified as astrophotographers, not landscape photographers.
The fact that the primary subjects of our landscape photos should always be earth-bound doesn’t necessarily mean that we should always be standing on the earth when we capture those subjects.
Some landscape photographers are fortunate enough to have easy access to the air. As with mountainscapes, this sub-genre of landscape photography enables those photographers to go to places where few other people ever go, allowing them to capture unique and unusual compositions of recognizable earthly features.
Aerial landscape photography presents a few technical challenges that we won’t find with other sub-genres. We can’t, for example, use a tripod, since the vibrations of the aircraft would be transmitted to our camera and our photos would all be blurry. Window reflections can often also present a big problem.
But passenger aircraft aren’t the only platforms for aerial landscapes: if you can’t afford to charter an aircraft to fly you to your desired aerial location, you might be able to capture similar compositions with a drone.
There is no better way to capture vast and unending landscape photos than from far above the earth. But few of us are able to afford helicopter charters – so unless we can afford a good drone, we’re probably going to have to stick to photographing the earth from the earth.
As long as we’re photographing something on Planet Earth, the result should be seen as a valid landscape photo.
Fortunately there is more than enough interesting stuff down here on earth. We only have to open our eyes a bit wider to the natural world around us, to learn to stop and pause and to look up… and then down. There’s something interesting everywhere. Landscape photographers who focus only on capturing vast and unending scenes often miss out on many (often more interesting) intimate landscape opportunities that are right beneath our feet.
You can get as intimate as you’d like in this sub-genre. Getting close to your subjects often reveals details that we wouldn’t normally see – and the closer we get (as in both macro- and micro-photography), the more we see.
It doesn’t matter how big or small they are, as long as our primary subjects are natural features connected to the earth, then our photos will most likely qualify as landscape photos.
Natural features connected to the earth don’t even have to be instantly recognizable for our photos to qualify as landscape photos.
Abstract photography is all about the shapes, textures, and colors of things, rather than the things themselves. But here our definitions begin to become murky again since there is a difference between abstract photos and abstract landscape photos. If we can’t always be sure what it is that we’re looking at, then how could we know for sure that it’s a natural feature connected to the earth?
It’s for this reason that some photographers feel that abstract photography should only ever be its own genre, and never a sub-genre of landscape photography.
However, the photo above definitely falls into both the abstract and the landscape categories, so in my opinion it shouldn’t be disqualified from either. There are enough visual clues here for most of us to work out what this photo depicts. It might be an abstract study of shapes, colors, and textures, but it is also clearly connected to the natural, earthly landscape.
One final (seemingly acceptable) sub-genre of landscape photography for discussion here is the field of altered landscapes.
In reality, an altered landscape is simply a composite (fake) image in which several photos are combined to create a completely unique landscape photo.
When I carefully combined the two photos above in Photoshop (a fairly tedious process involving lots of masking and colour corrections, etc.), I was able to create a single image of my own personal fantasy landscape:
Why Any of This Matters
Many readers will by now have thought of a few sub-genres of landscape photography that I haven’t covered here: underwater photos, for example. Surely they might qualify as landscape photos? (By the way, I haven’t included that one simply because I’ve never taken any underwater photos).
But why would any of this matter to anyone?
Truth be told, it usually doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter. The true essence of a beautiful photo will always remain impossible to define. Beauty is in the eye of the subjective beholder, and nit-picking about whether a photo fits into a specific category really shouldn’t matter to anyone at all.
Still, I hope this article will appeal to any beginner or advanced photographers who enter their work into photo competitions, which often require images to explore certain themes or set subjects. While most competition judges are usually fairly lenient, many judges (me included) would immediately disqualify a photo from the competition if it didn’t fit the stated requirements.
And now, after all these words, I still haven’t managed to come any closer to finding a crisp, clear, one-paragraph definition of the genre of landscape photography.
About the author: Paul Bruins is a semi-retired South Africa-based professional landscape photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. For the past 20 years, Bruins has worked to explore and photograph every corner of his hometown and country. He has organized and hosted a number of photographic exhibitions, workshops, and tours around the world. His photos have also won numerous competitions and awards and have been published in calendars, magazines, and books. You can find more of his work on his Flickr and Facebook.
Image credits: Header photo from Depositphotos