Well, this should be an entertaining ramble! I had the good fortune to meet up with top landscaper David Speight last weekend for a tour of the quite breath-taking Limestone pavements across North Yorkshire. During the day the subject of “weather shots” came up but the whole subject got right under my skin…
At this point I haven’t really drawn a full conclusion on this topic, but the entire subject niggled me in a way I wasn’t expecting because I’ve genuinely never really thought too much about it before. In fact, all it did was set my mind racing on what turns out to be a pretty long list of questions:
- How many of my photographs could actually be defined as ‘weather shots’?
- Are many actually ‘landscapes’ at all?
- Do images of the weather diminish me as a landscape photographer and I’m kidding myself about what they actually represent?
- Would anyone look at half of my photographs without the ‘weather’ they contained?
- Is all of the atmosphere of something like mist more of a curtain hiding poor composition and thought processes?
- Are my images diminished or enhanced because of weather?
- What about light – does say storm light just make an average composition interesting and actually the scene wasn’t really worth shooting?
- Who’s out there shooting weather all the time and ‘getting away’ with being called a landscape photographer?
- What’s the difference between turning up in interesting weather and bearing witness to it, compared to an image crafted out of the landscape?
- How much do I care about any of this?
Blimey. This is worth thinking about though because if shooting the weather is what I’m focussing on, then this is probably the wrong path.
Have I fallen into a lazy reliance on ‘drama’ handed on a plate to me by the forces of nature and forgotten the foundations of what landscape photography is really about?
After much thought, the only thing I’ve really discounted is pure light in this process. And what I mean by that is using light at different points in a day is clearly part of the magical formula to photography, a pursuit which is after all almost entirely founded and born out of light. However, this gets blurred where the image is of say a sunrise/sunset where it becomes the over-riding factor in an otherwise poorly composed image. Is that then a ‘weather shot’? Probably. Is it worthy? Possibly. Maybe. But after genuine reflection this explains why so many images of lets say ‘weather events’ often lack real or significant artistic impact. Before this slightly controversial piece loses focus with too many words, perhaps moving to some specific examples might be useful. I’ve no intention of using other people’s photography for this process of course, but I’m happy to rip apart some of my own recent images taken over the last few months where there might be some interesting judgements, or not…
Now certainly at least part of my intention along the way is to take photographs of things which can be anonymous, steering away from well known landmarks a lot of the time in an attempt to disconnect the viewer from a place they may be familiar with in order that they may slightly more attention to the image than anything they’ve seen before. As part of that formula I don’t include lots of skies though as soon as there is one that I consider to be ‘worthy’ then I would definitely include it in the frame. The question is to what extent it defines or overpowers the image. Another Place above is an interesting starting point for this analysis. As an infrared image, having a strong sky can certainly add a lot to a photograph and the transitional nature of the sky here added interest to my mind. The image was unquestionably about the two trees, the play of light across the grasses but the sky helped to place it in Another Place. Hence the title. Would I qualify this as a weather shot? No. 1-0 to Landscape Photography.
This is probably where it all starts to fall apart. Brow is a photograph I took this last weekend with David early in the morning. I admit that the thing that really caught my eye was the line of light in the sky, rather than the line defining the brow of the hill. In may respects it’s an image probably many would not have even taken, and as much as I regard this a collision of components between land and sky, which in some respects almost seem to be in touching distance of each other, I think we could regard this as a ‘weather shot’. Now this definitely does not stop my enjoyment of the scene for a moment, the Infrared once again working well in my view to carve out that moment of utopia which I’ve described before in other blog posts. Without the light, and particularly without the cloud, this shot is nothing. I have to therefore bow to the fact it’s probably Landscape 1-1 Weather however.
This particular image really does have very little in it. This was a multiple exposure off my D500 – there are three frames here but I love the final result of diffused ethereal light, the soft waves and toning. There isn’t a great deal of ‘weather’ in the frame though the sky certainly helped to provide a natural soft box for what would have been fairly harsh light. Is it a landscape? I’m voting yes. It’s undefined by the weather in my view, this is an example of direct light playing its part rather than weather helping to really make the image. Landscape 2-1 Weather.
I’ll put some colour photography in here shortly, but here’s another very recent infrared example from last weekend. There were epic skies on the Saturday no question, so you take this into account don’t you when you’re out? In this case the photograph is intended to be all about the relationship between the tree at the end of the lane and the hole in cloud just above which to my eye mimicked each other. Obviously this is a classic situation of a chance composition where the sky helps to define the image, but is the photograph ALL about the sky? I don’t think it is, and I took other photographs of this scene before this opportunity presented itself. I would have posted one of those instead had this relationship between cloud and tree not been there, but without the sky this image would have been titled something else. This is a tough one to call but overall is probably a weather shot. Landscape 2-2 Weather.
So this is an example of where if there had been more cloud to help define the sunrise I might have included a greater proportion of the sky in the frame, instead I’ve tried to make best use of the pre-dawn light to bring out the best of the landscape. If there had been an ‘epic’ sunrise then this scene might have created more of a debate but there is no way I’d consider an image like this to be a weather shot. Landscape 3-2 Weather.
You might think this is a silly one to include given there is no real ‘weather’ in this one at all, but without the gorgeous sunrise that I was basking in (and still recall) actually this image would have been a dead loss (you might already think it is!). The angle of light is very low here and had I not been out at 05.30 then this image would have been quite different. So yes, the light unquestionably helps to define it, only possible because of the weather maybe, but I’d never qualify such an images as a weather shot. Landscape 4-2 Weather.
Hmmm. This is where it perhaps gets a little tricky again. Any photograph where the ‘weather’ is present starts to ask questions. The back light and mist clearly make an otherwise ordinary photograph of a tree into something which in my view has much greater appeal. Other opinions apply. I know the misty tree has become an incredible cliche for many, and while I try not to make it my first objective when setting out, often it does create a pretty magical overall end result. The mist here helps to shape the light, rather than define the image, though without either no one would be looking at it. I’m going to award this one to Landscape though, perhaps if it were a much wider view of the landscape with mist all over it then it becomes a ‘weather shot’ in that instance. Landscape 5-2 Weather.
I think I might lose this one. This is one of my favourite images from a long weekend in the Lakes during last autumn. Is this a shot of the weather though? Well we weren’t there to take photographs of the clouds, but once you’re up 2000ft or so then it starts to become more inevitable. The light was breath-taking, Wastwater reflecting the sky back on itself and the cloud pretty dramatic. I’m going to have to concede on this one though because I suppose the features of the landscape lose out to the explosion of light above. Landscape 5-3 Weather.
Now although this scene has quite a hard frost in it, I wonder how I would have felt if it was covered in snow. Clearly the conditions of the weather dramatically alter images but in this case it’s the angle of light, there’s obviously no distraction from the sky, but this is all about the colours in the trees, the golden highlights at the back and the reflections and low-lying mist at the front. This is what the Lakes is all about to me so I’d never give this image up as a ‘weather shot’. Landscape 6-3 Weather. One more…
An interesting one to finish on – this has had over 100,000 views on Flickr alone. There is no question in my mind why I took this, it’s an obviously minimalistic landscape, soft shapes, pre-dawn soft light, but clearly defined by the mist. Now to my mind you can’t really take a photograph of the mist per se, though this is about as close as it comes. I got the effect I was after in the final result and had driven passed this point hundreds of times previously without take an image so I guess it’s difficult to argue it’s not a weather shot. Landscape 6-4 Weather. Landscape wins overall but it’s not exactly a runaway result just picking these. An interesting exercise to conduct too.
I threw the question out on Twitter a few days ago and some interesting replies and challenges came back…
I’ll try and keep this short so as not to send anyone to sleep, but the context of mine and Russ’s conversation was important. I think competitions were mentioned at one point, which given the timing of our meeting is unsurprising, but the main underlying theme was one of personal satisfaction and development, and I think Russ got that. I’d mentioned that I considered some of my own images to be ‘Weather shots’. By weather shots, I mean the light and conditions were very good or in some way unusual, and with a bit of planning I was lucky enough to find myself somewhere fairly interesting or dramatic at the same time. The resulting images were then not too much of a challenge at all to create. The thing is, I can’t help looking at images I’ve taken like those and thinking, how much of myself or my input is actually visible in the final result? The types of images that stand out to me personally, and remain in my memory are those where the actual part that the photographer played in creating the image, or the composition, is the first and strongest element that jumps out at you. Obviously the weather conditions, the light, filter effects and processing are all important and play a big part, but those elements (for me anyway) are complimentary and secondary, rather than overpowering, and I do think that takes a great deal of skill. Having said all that, what I personally strive to do, and what I actually achieve are two totally separate things! However, I don’t think it’s a bad benchmark to aim for. (David Speight)
I think this is why the sky is absent from so many of my images. Maybe (or maybe not) subconsciously I find skies a distraction more often than not. They create additional challenges with an exposure too and add the temptation to create colours that simply weren’t present. Much of my photography focuses away from the sky in my attempt perhaps to bring the viewer closer to what I really saw. I know a fair few photographers that do this too. I’ve never been a big fan of vista and panoramas because they lack focus, often bring the sky into play and for me the point of the image is often all but lost. It’s a similar concept: “here’s a massive view I tripped over, isn’t it marvellous?” Where’s the photographic skill in that? Ooooo too controversial again?
I think these sort of ideas are detrimental to people enjoying photography in their own way. The question itself implies judgement. Many images are totally reliant on lighting even if the composition holds together without it (Alex Nail)
You’re probably right Alex, though I think this has made me a lot more thoughtful about what and why I shoot it. How much is talent, how much is luck, how much is just standing in front of things. If we’re to grow as a photographer I think it’s important to think and deconstruct what you produce…
I’m not interested in challenging myself. I am a reactive photographer and I ‘m happiest just photographing what interests me on the day. (Mark Littlejohn)
I’m not sure I believe all of that statement Mark! The second part may well be correct, but you didn’t get to where you were without wanting to improve and thinking about what you did along the way. You’ve probably reached a mantle which you’re personally happy with or perhaps feel like you don’t need to think about ‘improvement’ any more but I think all photographers should probably try and continue to challenge themselves.
Great/appropriate weather and a crap comp more often than not equals a mediocre shot and vice versa. In other words I think that a great photo is often dependant on the two working together. (Lee Acaster)
I think the first part of your statement here is exactly the point. My final image above being potentially a prime example – is it an otherwise crap composition, defined by the weather. 600 or so people marked it as a fave, but over 100,000 have looked at it. Flickr’s an interesting barometer for defining of what the masses like the look of and in this case it’s a very low percentage of people who faved it. I’m not surprised, it’s not up to much and supports the argument that weather shots are really not all that exciting or enticing for most people.
Well the weather dictates when I go out so it is what it is, I suppose. (Stu Meech)
Perhaps this is indeed part of the problem. I made a point of shooting every time it rained and I had some time this summer in order to try and get myself away from only being out in certain weather and light. I think it paid dividends but in all truth I’m not sure it entirely changed my approach.
I’d reject the premise behind the term ‘merely’ that weather is something inferior. Surely weather is an integral part of landscape? (Anthony Worsdell)
I’m not sure weather is part of the landscape, but certainly it’s connected. There is no doubt that areas like the Lake District and Snowdonia create their own weather and maybe the term ‘merely’ underplays it’s significance in landscape photography. But if all you do is shoot epic clouds all day then this surely doesn’t really count as landscape photography any more?
I’m not convinced that weather/landscape are separable in the first place. Geomorphology maybe but the landscape is defined by the weather. (Mike Prince)
I still think this is a contentious position to adopt. Water and erosion may well play its part but I would not say that the landscape is defined by the weather. Ultimately that’s part and parcel of this piece – if our Landscape Photography is defined by the weather then it becomes a lot less about the landscape and more about skies and conditions. I’m not at all convinced that landscape photographers are entirely focussing on the right things and they are being fed on a cheap social media mass market appeal and hunger for ‘likes’. People like epic skies, so photographers produce more and take their eye off the ball…
Well Landscape ‘won’ 6-4 for me on some of my images but the jury is still out on whether I entirely care too much about this, but I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t pricked my conscience and made me more thoughtful about my approach. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all but I’m not going to stop shooting strips of light in Infrared when they appear in the sky over my scene. Perhaps we should all be thinking a little more holistically about our approach especially as autumn gathers pace and once again photographers everywhere will turn their attention fully onto trees, woodland and mist… I’ll leave you with another favourite of mine, weather shot or not, you decide, I’m happy with it regardless: