I Tried Landscape Photography, Became Bored, and Came to an Important Realization

I Tried Landscape Photography, Became Bored, and Came to an Important Realization

If you've followed my writing, you'll know that I rarely pick up my camera if I don't have a contract attached to the action. Call it the joys and perils of being a commercial photographer. You get paid to do what you love, yet your love morphs into a duty and can lose its allure. This is why I surprised myself on my recent work trip to California.

After a full workday, I decided to take an evening walk and see what exactly these shorelines had the Beach Boys all worked up about. I half-heartedly grabbed my camera, "just in case," on my way out of the door.

Is Beauty a Valid Reason for Capturing an Image?

Was what I found a beautiful scene? Yes. As a painter, it's a miracle of nature how colors can somehow all melt into one another while never getting "muddied." A double rainbow slowly started pushing through the sky.

I clicked furiously, moved by the beauty. But regardless of how glorious the scene was, I found myself looking at the images and thinking with irritation, "These are so boring!" Is something being beautiful a reason to take its picture? I have a distant memory of my painting teacher scoffing as she talked about decorative art. I once almost didn't date someone because as we walked through a gallery of modern art he blurted out, "Well, I wouldn't hang that in my house" — the ultimate sin sentence according to Carla Poindexter. Decorative beauty is not the measuring stick for the validity of art. Is something being pretty a good reason to create a picture? Surrealist rule-breaker Max Ernst once expressed:

Painting is not for me decorative amusement (...)  it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.

This brought me to the question as I prepared to capture my next frame of the sunset: "What's the purpose of taking this picture? To show that it was 'pretty'?" The word pretty made me almost gag. Probably a leftover reflex from University lectures.

"No, I'm not making pretty pictures."

It was American critic and writer Susan Sontag who claimed:

Interpretation is the revenge of the intellectual upon art.

Max Ernst and Susan Sontag might have challenged me to delete my first set of images.

I wanted to express the feeling of the moment but with my own language. I turned my shutter speed way down to 1/50. It was too sloppy; blurry—but not blurry enough that it looked intentional. I had to abstract it more. Being the rule breaker that I am, I decided to shake the camera. Up and down. Nope. That's a mess. This series is not called "Beach Seizures". Left to right. Hmm. Now we're talking.

I spent the next 30 minutes playing. Chasing the waves in and out, shaking my camera, breaking all the rules. I picked up a bottle of Malbec on the way home to sip while I tied my vision together in Photoshop. I made my first set of pieces. I felt pleased with them.

Shot with my Canon R5 and my RF 15-35mm lens at f/8, 1/25 sec,  ISO 100, shaking the camera left to right. 

Shot with my Canon R5 and my RF 15-35mm lens at f/8, 1/25 sec,  ISO 100, shaking my camera left to right.

As requested, I sent them to my friend, a talented landscape photographer. He rapidly whipped back a brief and not-so-subtle disapproving response, "It looks like you had fun".

That's it.

That's all he wrote.

I wanted to pull him by the ear to one of Poindexter's rants against decorative arts. "Fun?" Now I was mad. I went back the next night to outshoot my previous warm-up. As I stitched my image together, I jotted down an ill-tempered artist rebuttal to his disapproval. I disguised it in flowery phrases. An "accompanying poem for the photograph" sounded more palatable than "My artist statement against your decoratively trained palette." Here is the "piece" [laughs to self] I wrote with the adjoining artwork.

This is a composite that I manually stitched together in Photoshop of made from three images. The three shots were captured with my Canon R5 and my RF 15-35mm lens at f/22, 1/4 sec, ISO 100, shaking my camera left to right. 

What’s My Point? Pretty Pictures Are Invalid?

No, of course not. (And if I secretly did think that, I surely couldn't write it on Fstoppers.) My point is that if you're an artist, there is something unique that only you can contribute. Nobody comes to a scene with the same curiosities as you, the same life experiences, the same color preferences, and other likes and dislikes. Your mind is completely unique—so what if you ran the image through your unique filter and delivered something that no one else could? Something more than a pretty picture. Something that you interpreted in some way.

My Challenge to You

My challenge to you is to push your art one step further than you have. Lean into something that is unique to you, and inject it into what you shoot. As Stripling said, bring your own intellectual interpretation into the art. Just do something slightly different than you have in the past. Lean into your own creative genius, your own vision, and show us what we have not seen. Then share it in the comments below! I would love to see it!

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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107 Comments

All the images looked a lot more than "pretty" to me. Really cool.

I just had a look at your images and WOW that's a very big compliment from a talented landscape photographer like yourself. I'm not a landscape photographer, but I did enjoy seeing what I could come up with when I went back to try to make new discoveries. It's really interesting not just seeing something beautiful, but seeing someone's interpretation of something beautiful isn't it? Your interpretations are very cool!

I like these unique images. They actually resemble long-exposure motion blur, and I suppose that is what it is, but the exposure times sounded quite quick. However I don't understand the premise of getting bored of 'Beautiful' images. I hope there are some of us out there, that still appreciate taking photos of wonderful landscapes. Then if the photo captures the eye, and keeps the user looking for at least a few seconds, you win... and even if your own photos do that for you. You still win.

Thank you Robert Koernke for your insightful comment. I wanted to be clear to not remove the merit of "beautiful photos". This is why I wrote in the conclusion that I did NOT think that straight forward, beautiful photos had little validity. I don't think that. I think beauty is inspiring. It warms the heart. It makes us stop and feel gratitude or appreciation. Beauty washes away fatigue, stress, frustration. It's just inspiring isn't it? My main challenge is for artists to think, "what if I tried capturing the beautiful thing (the way we have all seen it) but then PUSHING myself as an artist to show my own unique interpretation of it?" When I have managed teams I always encourage them to choose a concept to tackle for the day: framing, panning, using shadows as a main element of composition. When I was an art teacher (millennia ago) if a student turned in a photo from "man's eye view" I would write on it "I've seen it this way already -show me a different way". The idea I've always pushed is creativity, and pushing past the art being successful just because of the scene being intrisincly beautiful, but being successful because of color, composition, perspective, etc. What do you think about this idea?

Michelle, that is a very well articulated explanation. Oddly, that reply to Robert's comment expresses your point more clearly and completely (to me) than your article does.

Your article hits on so many levels - the value of decorative art, a capture vs a creative vision and/or enhancement, differences of opinion between artists, etc. I think pretty pictures will always have their place, but many artists want to go deeper than that.. and mystery can make you never grow tired of an image. One can also tell the difference between a capture, and a creation. Question: why not right to left? 🙂

Greg Bulla I love this distinction you made of "Capture vs creative vision" That's a great way to put it, and as you say, both have their merit. I'm used to "creating". I'm hired, basically, for 'coming up with creative ways to take pictures of things' to sell them better. That's my full-time job. I think maybe since that's how I'm used to behaving when I take pictures, it spilled over into my landscape adventure.

I'm kind of curious if the "capture" camp challenged themselves one excursion to push the boundaries far into the creation side, if they would be surprised with what they came up with.

I know that no one else can see this, but that's okay. One of the differences between the two approaches is, those who go for beauty are saying, "Look at this", while those who think they're artists are saying, "Look at me". It's just a different POV.

That's also a very interesting thought. One is saying look at the beauty of the scene and the other is saying "look at what I created". Do you then thing that one type of photography is inherently humble and one is inherently show off-y? Or not necessarily?

Maybe it’s not an either or. Enhancing a landscape ads to its glory. The artist gets some credit but shouldn’t claim too much.

I finally joined after lurking for a while, just to express my appreciation for your article. It's a beautiful piece and I would "hang that in my house" .

Hahaha I don't know whether to be flattered or insulted. Thank you Steve!

I am a painter, but your last paragraph will be printed and put up against my work station, just what I need to start again after an elbow injury. Thanks for that!

WOW!!! That means so much to me!!! Ironically, I was trained as a painter too, I just somehow ended up being a photographer. That night kind of made me think of my gym sessions. Sometimes I go to the gym, I run my 2 miles, I lift my weights and I leave. It was a good exercise, but I didn't GROW. I kind of just did it on auto pilot. Other times, I open the folder on my phone to see what the heaviest weight was that I did at a certain exercise (it's called progressive weight overload) and I put it one higher. I can only squeak out 4 or sometimes even 3 reps .... but then the next time, 5, then 6, then 8. Once I hit 8, I add weight and fall back to 3 or 4. That's how I get stronger. I think as artists sometimes it's a good exercise to do this. "Okay I captured the beauty now push deeper, what else do I see?" "Is there a way I can integrate a concept of art in an interesting way? Or a new technology (generative fill/Adobe Firefly) into my art for the first time? If you're a painter is there a new brush? A bamboo brush you've never painted with? Or the use of raking or gloss medium mixed in the with the paint and play with the concept of translucently? I think we could sometimes use some "progressive overload" training in our personal journey as artists.

You are still a painter. You paint with light.

Love that thought. Different medium but an artist no less

AWE! that's a nice thing to say. I never thought about it that way. I found it interesting that my landscape somehow ended up looking so much like brush strokes.

Another amazingly well-articulated paragraph! Thank you so much for engaging with all of the comments. Your responses help me to much better understand your article and your overarching perspective about art and photography.

Photographing the beauty... There are many, many very good photographs out in the world capturing nice places with excellent light. Snapping pretty photos would add just another shot. I can do it for myself.

Yes, such images are heartwarming, calming down. Making the illusion everything is good or will become good. These number of beautiful locations is dropping. Caused by us humans. Modifying the landscape. Giving it a new shape. Often dull and boring.

My answer, maybe I won't make money out of them....
https://www.heise.de/foto/galerie/album/Wirtschaftslandschaft-73338/
https://www.heise.de/foto/galerie/album/designed-Landscape-70329/

Yes, i also enjoy the challenge of ICM landscape, sometimes the results are great. Thanks.

What does ICM landscape mean? I'm not a landscape photographer and I couldn't find the term online

Intentional Camera Movement. It’s been a thing for quite a while. And one of the very first subjects to try is at the beach.

The stupid "how should I make art" question.... I tried writing before. I thought - just a nice story is not good enough to be a piece of art. Then I tried breaking the rules, but all I got was crumbled nice stories. I tried the effects - surprising the reader, making the story so slow or so fast that it begs the reader to stop and think about the story. But that were just effects.

I was bashing my head against the wall with that stupid question and came to the conclusion that art should be the representation of your feelings, but you need to have interesting feelings. So I gave up.

I believe it's the same with the landscapes. You can shake your camera and scratch the photos, but I bet someone did just that back in the 30s. I think you need to make them about yourself in order for the pictures to work.

I'm sorry your journey has been so frustrating with writing. In the small amount of writing I do, I can COMPLETELY relate to the exhaustion of the sentiments you describe. What if instead of giving up on the writing you give up on people's appreciation, understanding or approval of the writing?

I have a quote by my desk which is a paraphrase of a Warhol quote. "Make art, and while everyone decides whether they like it or not, make more art".

It's not about "people's appreciation, understanding or approval of the writing". It's that I didn't like it. Also that was just a hobby, I didn't have big plans with it. But that awful feeling that you don't know how to approach the cold marble in which you want to carve your art....

Bloody landscapes are everywhere! You can snap a photo of those landscapes, and the photo would be beautiful just because the landscape was beautiful. That means you could put a webcam there and people would see that beauty every day during the magic hour. Where's the artist in that?

Artist should show their relation to the landscape, and that's where you get into the jungle of clichés, and experiments that were already done before. Finding your way through that jungle, making a picture that is more about yourself than about a beautiful sunset is what is so hard..

I see traces of your great writing even in this response. Great thoughts and thank you for sharing!

Michelle, your article and thoughts are timely! Thank you from the bottom of my heart as you struck a cord! My goal as a photographer has always been to capture what might otherwise be missed, but also to encapsulate the emotion of the moment. As much as people enjoy seeing images of this nature, I have found that it is fleeting and therefore, challenging to keep the interest and inquisitiveness going. After all, isn't art created from a sense of curiosity and wonderment?

Thank you Anna McClintock for sharing that feedback. I'm so pleased to know that my little adventure can have a positive impact on another artist somewhere in the world. I almost didn't write the article. I try to write more "serious" pieces. As one of the few female writers on the staff globally I steer away from pieces that are emotion based to show that women can also be smart and technical. I'm glad I broke my rule this time and it had a positive impact for one or two people out there. Happy creating! Feel free to come back and share an image below from your next inspired excursion.

The images are ok, what's missing is a compelling composition. There are no other elements in the scenes, other than the sunset, to draw attention to the images. Additionally, some are rather underexposed.

I've been into photography at least 30 years, started off with the obvious 'landscape photography' it bores me to death now, I much prefer the challenge of street photography, social documentary. (I even got bored with wedding photography) There's no challenge involved in landscape photography, I mean if you are in a beautiful landscape how hard can it be to get good photos? You could give a monkey a camera and it could get good landscape shots, maybe better as it could climb trees etc. I do sometimes indulge in Cityscapes, got a few I was pleased with on my last visit to NYC, sold a few of those.

The evolution of the artist. I've jumped from one subject to another also. I think it keeps the curious mind challeneged

Michelle, I completely agree with you. I also am not particularly interested in decorative art, nor in derivative art. I prefer contemporary photography and get tired of photographs that get repeated over and over (and btw win multiple competitions) such as: snowy field with a lone tree or house on top; distant mountain (background), river (middle ground) and rock (foreground); any insect sitting on a flower with a very blurred and uniform color background (generally macro), and the obsession with Photoshop and the like that turns photographers into technicians (also rule of thirds etc etc). In my opinion, there should be more photography that is disruptive, cutting edge, and just different from what we see too often. And regarding a previous post, art is whatever you want it to be - I thought DuChamp settled that a 100 years ago, in 1917.

I don't want to dog on beautiful landscape pictures (though I did laugh actually out load at your painfully accurate description of the competition winners). I do, however, really enjoy seeing artists INTERPRETATIONS of scenes. Perhaps it's a personal preference but I find it very fascinating to run the same scene though the lens of different artists and see completely different results based on each person's mind.

That reminds me of Sir Thomas Beecham, a famous British conductor (1871 - 1961) who apparently said (adapt the following to art / photography terms):

The plain fact is that music per se means nothing; it is sheer sound and the interpreter can do no more with it than his (sic) own capacities, mental and spiritual, will allow, and the same applies to the listener.

From A mingled chime.

What a beautiful thought. Thank you for sharing GS

These images are phenomenal. They were not boring to me. The colors and the camera movement are all well thought out and make the end result just awesome. I do agree that the headline of this article and its premise, that somehow beautiful images are boring, are both misplaced. Yes, perhaps pointing your camera at the horizon and pushing the focus to infinity and simply shooting whatever is in front of you might simply produce a "snapshot," however, these images are not that. The intention shown to create the color palate, the way the light starts on one side of the image and seemingly moves to the other. These are all excellent images, and decorative art as well!

Wow David Senoff you sure know how to give a pat on the back. I really appreciate your feedback thank you.

Those images are fabulous, Michelle. Just my cup of tea. The compositions are superb, which is hard to achieve with ICM. Thank you for the superb article to accompany them too

Your bird pictures which I am completely obsessed with were a big inspiration. When I was looking at my images bored, I went through a mental rolodex of landscape photography that I liked. I don't follow any landscape photographers so I didn't come up with much. BUT I remembered those beautiful birds stripped down to their minimalism lines of flight. That memory was what sparked me to start with a long exposure. From there I added camera shake and so on.

I really love this article. The first one I've seen on here as a newbie. And it's hit at the heart of everything I hold dear to me. I mostly shoot art nude and conceptual images and when I'm shooting my personal work I aim to create something that's different to anything else I've seen. So if I can Google it then I probably won't photograph it. And what I really don't understand is those guys with cameras who produce mood boards to re-photograph somebody else's idea. So good on you for trying ring the changes!

I don't have any intention on minimizing the art of other photographers. Diversity is truly one of the things which makes art so special. But I did really enjoy the challenge of pushing past the expected shot, and trying to come up with a personal interpretation of the scene. I'm glad you liked it and thank you for the feedback. I see in your work, your use of perspective and shape makes for really creative work. When I was a teacher I could kind of be tough on the kids that turned everything in from "man's eye view". There are so many other ways to look at something. Let's get some of the bird photographers to get underwater gear and shoot up at their swimming feet with a long exposure. Now that's a shot I want to see! Who's going out and taking it for me?

I'm terribly sorry to say this but what I am reading here is a bunch of people who have no idea how to shoot a landscape so it is not just a postcard. To do it right you have to find the place, spend time in it, feel SOMETHING about it (hate, love something), think, visualize, and then begin to experiment with angles, times of day or night, focal length, shutter speed. Sure I occasionally spin the focus wheel to get a generic fun "Zoomy" picture to excite the kids, or really slow the shutter speed and change the WB for fun and show them what they can do. A good landscape is like a good portrait, or a good piece of photojournalism, or documentary.
A bad landscape is like most street photography, cliched, been there, seen that 100 times with no thought or purpose.

Really?!? Have you ever captured lightning in the middle of a surprise thunderstorm on a beach you have only visited once or twice, on film, with a manual focus camera? If not, I am sorry for you. Nevertheless, those images are nowhere near what anyone would call "just a postcard.". And yet on the few times I have successfully executed such images, I did not "find the place, spend time in it, feel SOMETHING about it (hate, love something), think, visualize, and then begin to experiment with angles, times of day or night, focal length, shutter speed.".

Had I done so, I would have missed the shots.

But maybe when you saw the brewing thunderstorm near the beach the photographer in you did indeed feel something having found the place and then subconsciously think, visualize, and maybe considered whether or not to use a time exposure, zoom to an appropriate focal length, and position yourself to get the right shooting angle? In the same way Henri Cartier Bresson might well have said that he just went into the streets and pressed the shutter when it felt right!

Exactly

David Senoff,
Remind me to never hire you for a portrait shoot.

Thank goodness I never hire out to shoot portraits.

Oddly, I spend a lot of time fantasizing and planning what I will do in the situation you describe, so that I AM READY TO DO IT, when it happens.

Thank you for your feedback. Aren't we saying the same thing Robert Johnson ? What do you disagree about?

Your whole attitude towards landscape and indeed photography. You only pick up a camera to get paid, is a whole different attitude to "I love photography and am thrilled that I found a way to support myself and get paid to do it when I'm not working on my personal thoughts and ideas."

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