Put photographers in front of a gorgeous landscape and we’re happy campers. We’ll drink in the beauty of the grand vista and make an artful composition. And we’re so taken with the beauty of that great, big, majestic scene that we just might miss the other photographic possibilities at our feet, or off to the right. So, after you’ve shot the grand view of the Yosemite Valley, take a few minutes to look around for some more intimate compositions. You won’t be sorry!
An “intimate landscape” is one in which you’re picking out and isolating one small part of the scene around you. Eliot Porter is generally credited with coining the term as it was the title of a 1979 exhibit of his photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The firsts time I heard the term intimate landscape was at the 2017 Improve Photography Retreat, in a presentation by Australian photographer Dale Rogers of Photo Rangers.
Note: The Improve Photography Retreat is a great opportunity to hear a variety of excellent photographers talk about composition, processing, equipment and the business of photography; to shoot on location and in studios to practice what you’ve learned; and to spend time learning and socializing with the nicest bunch of photographers (amateur and professional) you’d ever want to meet. The 2018 Retreat is in Charleston, SC, in March.
An intimate landscape might be a smaller part of a grand landscape. It might also be a small composition that focuses on shapes, lines, colors, textures or patterns. It’s similar to but distinctly different from macro photography. In macro, you’re magnifying the small things and making visible things we typically can’t see with just our eyes—an extreme close up. An intimate landscape puts a frame around a small part of the world around us and, thereby draws our attention to something we might not otherwise notice.
While shooting on a rainy day in Acadia National Park, I was focused on the colors and patterns of leaves on the surface of Upper Hadlock Pond when I noticed there were frogs there, too. With reds and greens, complementary colors, I had myself an intimate landscape.
A frog in fall leaves, Upper Hadlock Pond, Acadia, ME.
In some ways, intimate landscapes are easier to photograph than a grand scenic. You’re typically not dealing with extreme dynamic range–bright skies and dark foregrounds. Instead, you’ll usually find fairly even light on your subject. No need for split or grad ND filters, though polarizers might still come in handy. You can often shoot during the middle of the day. And it’s easier to find order in chaos when you’re dealing with a limited area and number of objects. However, making a compelling composition that tells a story can be much harder with an intimate landscape than it is with a grand scenic or macro photo. A moonrise over Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite instantly grabs the viewer’s attention. How do you pull a viewer into and lead their eyes through an intimate composition?
And, you still have to pay attention to the techniques and “rules” you’d follow when composing a grand landscape: leading lines, rule of thirds, etc.
My Top 10 Tips for Intimate Landscapes
1) Start Small and Start Local.
One of the benefits of intimate landscapes is that you don’t have to travel to a National Park to find them. They’re all around us, in our back yards, in nearby parks, along the neighborhood stream or the local woods. Take your camera with you on a walk any time of day and you’re sure to find some intimate landscapes. I live near and often visit Bookside Gradens in Maryland. One day, walking through the gardens, I noticed the shadows of a branch on a backlit tropical leaf. In this photo, I was able to combine several tips: patterns, line, color, abstract, scale. You’ll find that intimate landscapes often lend themselves to multiple techniques.
Shadows on a leaf.
2) Get Closer
Whatever lens you start with, go longer or move yourself (zoom with your feet) to get closer to your original subject.
Say you’re shooting a landscape with a mountain and a foreground using your 24-70 mm lens. Zoom in to the longest focal length (70mm), or switch to your 70-200 mm lens, or step several paces forward and start looking for compositions. That’ll help train your eye to see in smaller sections.
I found this vine trailing down a shaded wall when I was strolling through town in the middle of the afternoon. Walking closer, I was able to isolate just a small section of the vine.
Red vine on shaded wall (left) an trail to Golden Canyon from Zabriskie Point (right).
It doesn’t have to be a tiny plot only a few inches square to be intimate. The telephoto can also isolate a section of a much larger landscape, as in this view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. From the viewpoint, you see a series of soft, rolling hills and canyons. I wanted to isolate the trail from Golden Canyon and the lone hiker. That gives the scene a more intimate and human scale and feel.