In the late 1700s in Europe and a few years later in America, numerous advances in the sciences led to new ideas about how the Earth was formed and about the position of humanity in relation to the universe and our own world. Forward looking people began to realize the Earth is an ancient place. A new fascination arose regarding the natural world. Also, as people migrated to the larger cities, people wanted to be reminded of the beautiful countryside, far from muddy city streets full of horse droppings, running sewage, and air full of coal soot and smog. Most of today’s modern cities are clean and livable in comparison. Innovation created new wealth, and these people wished to adorn their walls with objects of beauty including landscape paintings. This new outlook created the perfect conditions for landscape art to assume the highest position in the minds of the wealthy art collectors. Religious themes assumed a less important role as a result.
A new generation of landscape painters arose not only to meet the demand, but also to create landscape art for its own sake. During the first half of the 1800s, landscape art became more realistic, even reaching levels of hyperrealism as artists strove to bring back dramatic vistas from every corner of the world. In the second half of the century, photography began to have an impact on landscape painting and changed it forever.
The first movement of this century in landscape painting was Romanticism. The irony is Romanticism was a reaction against the stark realism of modern science during a period of scientific advancement! It emphasized emotions such as awe and rapture. So the move into nature that occurred because of scientific discoveries led to a deeper probing into human emotion regarding our natural surroundings.
The second movement of the century in landscape painting was Realism. This happened at the same time as Romanticism but usually with different artists in different places. While some painters were seeking romance in the landscape, others were precise students of the form and function of the natural world. Today’s photographers also fall into similar categories at times. The realists strove to faithfully record the landscape, plants and animals for posterity. Even the Realists would embellish their works by combining the best things from different locations into a single canvas. But accuracy in the details was important. The ironic twist of fate is that during this latter part of this period, photography inspired a new drive to produce realistic works of art because painters could take photos to serve as replacements for sketches. Then, photography replaced much of the market for realistic paintings as time went on.
The third movement of the century was Impressionism. Impressionism became a new way to create an emotional reaction in the mind of the viewer. It was a reaction to the stark realism that some people felt lacked emotional impact. To them, a landscape meant nothing. This later led to Cubism and Surrealism and other modern art forms as people stretched their imaginations further and further.
Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) Germany
Friedrich is considered to be the most important painter of the German Romantic Movement. He emphasized dramatic sublime moments in his works and also the contemplative moments as well. He often did this by placing human figures admiring the view into the painting so the viewer could take the place of the figure and experience the moment as well. His popularity had its ups and downs both in his life and afterwords. He died penniless, because his style of painting went out of favor in his later years and he was considered out of touch with more ‘modern’ styles of art. After that, his work fell into obscurity but was rediscovered by a new generation of surrealist and other artists. Then, the Nazis, used his art for their own purposes and after World War II, his work fell out of favor once again. Currently, there’s a resurgence of interest for his impressive works as people remove the baggage surrounding his art and see it for the astounding work which it is.
Chalk Cliffs on Ruugen, Caspar Friedrich (1818)
This unusual composition was possibly done to commemorate the artist’s honeymoon, with his brother tagging along on the right side of the canvas. Friedrich seems to be looking over the edge either to admire the view or to retrieve something which had fallen. His posture increases the feeling of being on the edge of a tall cliff, which is further enhanced by the brilliantly lit and jagged cliffs themselves. This scene is almost like something you might see in a computer generated landscape, or a scene from a movie on an alien world. When you see an extraordinary view like this, photograph it! Always make sure you take your camera wherever you go because you never know what will happen.
Evening Painting, Caspar Friedrich (Year unknown)
Friedrich used the light to probe the normally dense forest in a way which could only be done at this time of day. Imagine photographing this scene at mid-day with the sun high in the sky. The forest would be dark while the light would be on the outside of the scene and only in the tops of the trees. Use the light to your advantage by positioning yourself at the best place where the light can show the structure and form.
The Abbey in the Oakwood, Caspar Friedrich (1808)
Could this look any more modern? It was not popular in his time, but today we can feel the dark and eerie heaviness which can send chills down the spine. Not all landscapes have to be pretty to be effective. Friedrich painted many such scenes, especially as he got older. In landscape photography, we can capture such scenes when it’s dark and foggy, or even at night. The weather should be ‘bad’ and the light should be low. The best photos are often created when you would least like to be outside!
The wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar Friedrich (1818)
In what’s possibly his most famous work, we see the wanderer (hiker) in a contemplative moment. Much has been written about this painting, but it seems to be about reaching the pinnacle, looking out and gazing at the grandeur of it all. It’s a metaphor for any accomplishment. He uses almost every element that a landscape can have. Today, this hiker might be the photographer, perhaps getting to the best spot, ready to get out the camera and begin working. Put on a ten second delay and photograph yourself in a similar circumstance!
Perhaps he hiked through a dark and hopeless fog before sunrise to reach this spot in the hopes of finding this sublime light and atmosphere. Half of the fun of doing landscape photography is seeing beyond the obvious. In this case, a thick fog halfway up a mountain might make most people turn around and go back to the warmth of the campfire or hotel room. But a great photographer will press on in the hopes of seeing the sublime!
The Sea of Ice (The Wreck of Hope), Caspar Friedrich (1818)
This painting was inspired by the famous expedition by William Edward Parry from 1819 to 1820 in search of the Northwest Passage. Due to the prevailing artistic tastes of the time, this painting went unsold until after his death in 1840. Today it’s recognized as a masterpiece. The lesson to be learned here is when you show someone or a group of people your photography and they don’t approve, don’t despair because tastes change. If you like it, that’s what counts!
The Stages of Life, Caspar Friedrich (1835)
Here we see children, parents and a grandmother enjoying an afternoon out. We also see small boats and larger seagoing vessels. One good theme in landscape photography is showing different phases of the lives of plants, animals or even geologic evolution. This could be younger and older plants or trees. It could also be young sharp mountains in contrast to older weathered hills. Juxtaposing the young and the old is a great way to show realism and inspire thought in the viewer of your work.
The Giant Mountains, Caspar Friedrich (1835)
This classic view is a textbook example of how to show distance in a painting. The foreground is full of contrast and color, while in the background; color and contrast fade away. This atmospheric effect gives the impression of ever-increasing distance. Hazy and humid days are perfect for creating depth in a landscape photograph. Be on the lookout for it, but you must first plan out your composition. Since many of the best views require a long hike, you may want to scout out your locations ahead of time when the light and conditions aren’t right. Use Google Earth and other software. In this way, you will be prepared to capture the best moments.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851)
Turner was England’s leading romantic painter at the same time Caspar Friedrich was popular in Germany. Unlike Friedrich however, Turner evolved with the times and became increasingly impressionistic as the years went by. Turner was also renowned for his fantastic watercolor paintings when he was young. He was known as “The Painter of Light.” Even back then, this phrase had been overused but it certainly applied to Turner. His paintings not only used light in dramatic ways, but they evolved to become only about the light. Some art critics call him the greatest landscape painter of all time. Of course everyone can have an opinion but he was certainly one of the best at what he did. In the eyes of the public, he put landscape painting into a position of being the highest form of painting. This completes the evolution of landscape painting from being just used as a background, to being the entire reason for creating a painting! Art for art’s sake.
Transept of Ewenny Priory, Glamorganshire, Joseph Turner (1797) watercolor
This isn’t a landscape and not an oil painting unlike most of the other examples in this book. However, it’s a perfect example of a classic use of lighting effects which can be used to photograph cityscapes or deep canyons. The light and smoky mist casts an atmospheric glow from right to left while a second light source enters the frame from the left side. This creates the feeling of an enormous and cavernous place. Mist and fog are nearly essential when it comes to the construction of a photograph featuring architecture or cityscapes. It’s good to call a composition, a construction because the photographer is constructing the image from nothing. If you wish to create a good image, you should have as many tools available as possible. And this includes mist and fog.
Buttermere Lake, with Park of Cromackwater, Cumberland, a Shower, Joseph Turner (1798)
Many of Turner’s paintings were rough and lacking in detail, but done in such a way that the viewer is left with an internal feeling and impression of the place. The best photos of this lake convey the same sense of grandeur which you see here. Over the next 100 years, landscape painters studied Turner and went on to become even more Impressionistic and later, Surrealistic. When creating a landscape photograph, don’t be afraid to try new things, even if people don’t like them. Your vision is as valid as anybody else’s. Perhaps someone will see something in your work which will inspire them to reach to new heights. Why not be the giant whose shoulders someone will stand on?
Lake Lucerne, Joseph Turner (1802)
This is a classic use of atmosphere and mist, which makes the viewer feel like the distant mountains are far off in the distance. It looks a little like the classic older paintings and sketches from China and Japan shown earlier in this book. Turner was a great student of the masters. You can easily see people in the foreground, which also enhances the feeling of depth since only the biggest features can be seen in the background. The steam boat and the arc of reflection in the lake are also important elements of this painting. When photographing the landscape from a high vantage point, it’s still important to move around to find the best composition. If you were photographing this scene, moving to the left would allow the foreground to block the reflection in the lake. Moving to the right would eliminate the foreground entirely! So this composition is a good compromise. that’s why this scene is so well composed.
Hannibal and his Men crossing the Alps, Joseph Turner 1811
This rough view is also all about mood. We can see the men in their perilous march across the Alps. This feeling comes from the overwhelming black storm clouds which nearly block the light completely. Sometimes the best landscape photographs are created when the weather is at its worst. So resist the urge to stay inside when the action is outside! However, since storms can last for a long time and have no good light at all, you have to time your outings for when the storm is just beginning or just ending. Usually, the best conditions are at the end of a storm. In this way, you have bad weather, mist, rain, and possibly sun or moonlight all in the same photograph. More drama often leads to better photographs.
Dido Building Carthage aka The Rise of the Carthaginian Empire,, Joseph Turner (1815)
The photo of this painting is overexposed, but you get the point. This scene may look somewhat familiar to a few paintings earlier in this book. In fact, Turner was a big admirer of Claude Lorrain. Turner supposedly once cried as he looked at a Claude painting. He announced that he will “never be able to create a painting like that.”
Turner wanted to be buried after being wrapped in this painting! Thankfully, his estate fought to not allow this to happen and they succeeded. Turner sure came close to Claude Lorrain in this work. It shows that although Turner was known for his rough painting style, it was only a style. He was capable of incredible detail and realism. In landscape photography, the same thing can happen. You may become excellent at creating realistic landscapes and yet move on to long exposures, selective focus, HDR, Photoshop manipulation, or other styles of landscape. And that’s fine!
Also, don’t be afraid to imitate the style of a photographer or painter you admire as you are learning photography. Nobody owns a particular style, view or composition. And the simple act of imitation will often lead you to learn quickly and move on to new forms using your own newly-found vision. If Turner can do it, so can you!
Crossing the Brook, Joseph Turner (1815)
Supposedly, Turner used his daughters as models for this Claude Lorrain inspired painting. No model release required! Don’t hesitate to use willing family members in your photography. And again, don’t hesitate to imitate the masters.
Eruption of Vesuvius, Joseph Turner (1817)
Once again, Turner almost splashes the paint onto the canvas in a violent way, which is perfect for translating the violence of Vesuvius onto the canvas. It seems like the world is ending. And for those people in AD 79, it was! If you are confronted with harsh conditions, don’t be afraid for the photograph to end up looking harsh too. Not all landscapes are ‘pretty’ or subtle. Let your image tell the story of how it felt out there.
The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, Joseph Turner (1835)
Can a disaster look beautiful? Turner makes this conflagration into a beautiful work of art for sure. He includes the firelight reflecting off of the Thames and the bridge. And the light also helps to silhouette the people watching it all unfold. The lesson for the landscape photographer here is to always have your camera with you, so you can capture the unexpected. Technically, Turner didn’t have to personally witness this event. Many other artists did renditions of this fire and most didn’t witness it. They can either paint from memory or even from imagination. But in landscape photography, it’s assumed you were there and the camera recorded the event as it happened. So be ready for anything. It doesn’t have to be a disaster, but possibly a great sunset, or a tornado. You just never know what will happen.
Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, Joseph Turner (1844)
Despite the small amount of detail in this painting, it still stands today as one of the most memorable landscape paintings in history in the minds of many. At the time however, many art critics were quite harsh in their opinions. This was a new form of art. It was not a landscape in the traditional sense, but rather an impression of the feeling of the speed of the new technological innovation of the steam powered locomotive. Over the next 20 years or so, more artists began to paint in an impressionistic sort of way, but not until after 1870 in Paris did impressionism become a critically accepted form of art.
The most striking elements in this painting aren’t only the train approaching through the mist, but the light under the arch of the bridge and the feel of technological innovation. You can apply this lesson to the cityscapes of today as major cities grow increasingly vertical. Why not show them off in the most dramatic way possible? So wait for a foggy or misty day with the sun breaking through the mist, and head to the city to make some dramatic cityscapes!
John Constable (1776 – 1837) England
John Constable is today regarded perhaps as England’s best-known landscape painter, though he was not financially successful during his lifetime. He wished to paint pure landscapes, which were still not as economically popular as portraits and older themes. Today, even the best landscape photographs don’t get the attention of a revealing portrait or other more human oriented artistic genre. Visit a fine art photography gallery selling expensive works. You’ll rarely see beautiful landscapes. So perhaps times haven’t changed as much as we would like to think! Still, landscape art and photography is a much beloved form of expression.
Constable specialized in local scenery because not only did he know it best, but he could also be there to witness the best light. He said, “painting is but another word for feeling.” This is a common and important theme in landscape photography too. The best-loved photographs convey the feeling of what it’s like to be there.
He believed in painting directly from nature instead of from memory or from composite sketches and studies. This went against the prevailing fashion trend of the time, which inspired artists to create art from imagination. As a result, he had to be there at the scene to witness the light before he could paint it. An important lesson which landscape photographers can learn from John Constable is, the best photographs can be made locally, right where you live and work. This is simply a matter of odds. If superb light occurs on only one day per month, chances are you won’t see it during a two-week vacation or even a serious photo expedition. However, you can be ready for good light on every day of the year in the place where you live!
Dedham Vale, John Constable 1802
This is a classic view of the landscape of central England which can still be seen today in some of the less developed rural areas. It implies a warm summer’s day which might be spent on a picnic with friends and family. Although Constable painted accurate scenes, they still inspire the imagination to come up with ideas such as a picnic in the open air. That same imagination can be inspired when viewing a landscape photograph. Therefore, choose an idyllic location for your photo with an open view into the distance as we see here.
Lock and mill in Dedham, John Constable (1820)
This view contains a nice mixture of the natural landscape with the human element of industry. The mill grinds the grain, which is harvested in the more natural fields beyond. It’s still possible today to capture such a scene photographically whenever you visit a small agricultural town. Try to include bits of the natural and the human world in a harmonious way.
The Hay Wain, John Constable (1821)
This classic view seems to have it all, from the glorious sky all the way down to the dog watching it all happen. It seems idyllic yet you can see the difficulty of living the simple life. Today, this painting inspires nostalgia for a simpler time, but back then, it was just life. Constable adeptly showed an open view of the fields where the hay was grown, and the cart, which will transport it to market. Then, when you consider the cottage with the people and dog, this painting shows the entire life cycle of the time. In landscape photography as well as fine art painting, showing the entire cycle of something is a common and successful theme. So, try to find cycles of things. It could be the water cycle as we see several times in this book, or any other cycle.
Study of an Elm Tree, John Constable (1821)
This is an absolutely stunning work in its clarity and near photographic realism! Yet, it’s just a simple tree trunk with a forest behind. Few people would mind this painting being on their wall because it brings nature indoors. A good landscape photograph doesn’t have to be complex to be good. When you are looking for something to photograph, try to visualize it on your wall. Does it work for you?
Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Grounds, John Constable (c. 1825)
This painting shows a lot of planning and forethought. The composition is pleasing because of the way the trees naturally frame the cathedral, and by the way the people and animals are interacting with the environment. The couple on the left is enjoying the view, while the animals are living off the land. And all of this is set under a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds which reflect light across the canvas.
As a photographer, it might be easy to walk right past this view in search of something even more grand. However, a few steps to the left or right would render the view chaotic and not as pleasing.
Yet, with your camera (or Constable’s eye and canvas) in this exact spot, the results are perfect. Composition can never be underestimated. You could be on a workshop with 20 people, and when the photos are reviewed later, you will find that no two people took the same shot even if they were just a few feet apart. The lesson here is even a few inches can matter, so try to be conscious of your composition. Every detail counts.
Johan Christian Claussen Dahl (1788 – 1857) Norway
Dahl is regarded as the father of Norwegian landscape painting because he brought the classic techniques of the old masters back to Norway from Germany. It was essential for aspiring painters from across the world painting in all genres, to make the pilgrimage to places like France, Italy, Holland, England and Germany. There, they studied the great works and developed their own vision. Fortunately today we can all do this via the internet! Then, after studying, we can go immediately to the field to work on our photographic technique.
Avaldsnes Church, Johan Dahl (1820)
In addition to the open composition and view, what first catches the eye is how this captures that brief moment when the sun is just below the horizon, yet the last rays are catching the clouds and even the top of the Church. As always, the light plays a big role here, yet it’s a unique role because light is always different from season to season and moment to moment. In landscape photography, the last or first moment of sun provides an almost unique opportunity, but only for a moment. So be ready!
Outbreak of the Vesuvius, Johan Dahl (1826)
Nearly every serious landscape painter during this time period had his or her version of an erupting Vesuvius. This one is different in that the viewpoint is from the backside of the mountain. Most paintings show the view from the harbor in the middle right of the frame. When you are doing landscape photography, don’t shy away from the icons. Nobody owns these views, so just try to do something new with them. The difference could be the perspective, the composition, the light, or any number of elements.
Lyshornet in Bergen, Johan Dahl (1836)
It’s unknown whether Dahl painted this view ‘en plein air’, or from sketches or memory. He would have to climb thousands of feet with his gear in rugged terrain to reach this spot. And then the weather would have to cooperate. Regardless of how he did it, it’s an excellent view that was well worth the effort. Little details like the goats in front of mist, and the lakes bring this view alive. Take your camera along on your hikes because you never know when you may witness something special. It’s rare to see a good landscape photograph from such an inconvenient place, though travel is easier now than back when this painting was done. There may even be a tourist pullout on this spot today!
Frogner Manor, Frogner, Oslo, Johan Dahl (1842)
It’s almost as though the manor is intentionally tucked into the trees on top of the hill, but this was a choice of composition. Dahl placed the manor there by moving around to get the viewer’s eyes focused on it so we can then look down the brightly lit hillside and across the lake to the bridge. When planning your photo, take command of the situation and guide the eyes of your viewers to the most interesting places.
Fjord at Holme Beach, Johan Dahl (1843)
Once again, Dahl is capturing the sun right on the horizon but there’s still enough light to reflect across the water. It’s a perfect moment of serenity. If you wish to capture a scene like this, it’s best to plan it out ahead of time. The sun is only like this for about 30 seconds, so get there ahead of time and compose your view. Then you will be ready to press the shutter release at just the right moment. If you have to rush, all might be lost.
Copenhagen Harbor by Moonlight, Johan Dahl (1846)
As we have seen in earlier examples, moonlight presents unique opportunities to add drama to a scene. Here, Dahl shows how the accustomed eye can see a moonlit landscape almost as well as during the day. Light reflects off the building to the right, which frames the scene. Even with the technology of today, we would need a long exposure of more than a few seconds to capture enough light. And then, the people would be gone or appear as apparitions. Still, we can use moonlight to our advantage in landscape photography. Learning night photography is a matter of trial and error. You must experiment to learn the subtle techniques of nighttime photography. And you must go out often to get enough practice. This is one area where landscape painters still have an edge over photographers. New advances in high ISO imagery will eventually allow us to make a short-exposure photograph at night which looks like this.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, (1796-1875) France
Corot was a late bloomer, only taking up painting after the age of 20. This is unusual for such a well-known master painter. However, once he took up painting he did little else for the rest of his life. He enjoyed painting in a realistic manner, faithfully reproducing what he saw before him. He was also one of the first artists to take up photography, which led him to use an almost monochromatic palette. He didn’t enjoy bright and shocking colors, which were becoming popular with the impressionists later in his life. He liked accuracy, composition, form and tone more than anything. Eventually after many years of not being recognized, he became well known and wealthy from his art. For a landscape photographer, the lesson from Corot’s life is you can start at any age and that you don’t have to crank up the saturation to produce fine works of art!
Venice, La Piazzetta, Jean-Baptiste Corot (1835)
This view of the much-photographed plaza in Venice almost appears as a photograph created in the late afternoon sun. The light and composition do all of the work since the colors are muted. In cityscape photography, the angle and quality of light are important even if not much of the sky is shown because of the tall buildings. Also, the position of each building is important. One thing many people may notice in this painting is how much this area has sunk in the 175 years since this painting was made! It commonly floods now. Photographs are also an excellent way to preserve and record the past. If you see something that’s changing, like a glacier or a growing city, create a landscape which will remind you of how it used to be.
Memory of Marissel, Jean-Baptiste Corot (1866)
Few things are more mysterious than a path through a forest leading to something half hidden in the distance. The tower makes the viewer wish to travel the path up to the front gate. In landscape photography, a path to mystery is a great way to engage the viewer.
Ville d’Avray, Jean-Baptiste Corot (1867)
Corot placed people in many of his landscapes. He was trained to do that by his teachers, whom were inspired by the likes of Claude Lorrain. Human figures are a controversial subject in today’s landscape photography discussions. Some viewers and critics like people in landscape photos because they make them feel more real and show scale. Others think people in a landscape are a distraction since there are other ways to show scale. There’s no correct answer, so make up your own mind and tell the story as you see fit. Another thing to notice here is how there’s a bit of impressionism in the form of little splashes of pure paint. This was 1867 which was when impressionism was beginning to grow in popularity. However, Corot kept realism at the center of his focus during his entire career.
Landscape Castelgandolfo, Jean-Baptiste Corot (1870)
This is also a little impressionistic, with the daubs of paint everywhere. It feels like a summer breeze is blowing. Don’t forget to use wind as your ally in a landscape photograph. Nothing has to be static. You can use a ½-second or even 1-minute exposure to let the trees and plants blow around a bit. This creates a photographic form of impressionism which lets the view imagine the blowing breeze on a summer’s day.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) United States
Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire England and moved to America with his family when he was 17. He was a romantic painter but also a realist who studied nature down to the extremely small details. He was the founder of the Hudson River School which was devoted to the showing of an idealistic view of the American landscape and beyond to the newly wealthy patrons in America. He may be the most well known American landscape painter, along with his student Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt who are included in this text below.
Expulsion – Moon and Firelight, Thomas Cole (1828)
This is an extremely unusual composition, yet the numerous light sources and intricate structures are impossible to overlook. It just grabs the eye and nearly forces the viewer to be transfixed. Don’t be afraid to create a landscape photograph which violates the rules of composition. Sometimes it’s for the best!
The Garden of Eden, Thomas Cole (1828)
Here is another example of a common theme, which Cole decided to call his own. Even though it had been done a thousand times before, he created a unique version which makes you look at the story in a new light. Instead of a Middle Eastern Garden of Eden, he went for the ‘Tropical Jungle below the Andes’ type of look and feel with the towering palms and mountain peaks framing the scene. Don’t be afraid to make your own version when you are photographing famous locations. It just may be just as good as or even better than the most famous views! Then probe deeper for more unique perspectives.
Distant View of Niagara Falls, Thomas Cole (1830)
This is the kind of scene which made Cole famous among the newly rich back in the city of New York. He traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States creating idealistic interpretations of scenes, which the city dwellers might only see once in their lifetime during a big vacation. Cole brought these exotic views and memories back to civilization. When doing landscape photography, try to visit exotic locations and bring back memories which inspire the imagination to dream. Even a local beach can be exotic if seen with excellent light. And your local locale might be considered exotic by those in far away places.
The Course of Empire – Destruction, Thomas Cole (1833-36)
This is the fourth in a series of 5 incredible paintings. Go online to see the rest. The series is a must-see. It follows the evolution of an empire from a pastoral setting to the peak and decline back to nature again. Notice the enormous statue on the right has no head! The powerful have fallen.
As a landscape photographer, a series is a great way to show change and perspective in a way no single picture can convey. You can’t help but feel strong feel emotions when you follow this series from beginning to end! All that work and effort, lost. Emotions are important in landscape photography too as we see again and again.
The Oxbow, Thomas Cole (1836)
Every grade-school child learns about erosion, where a young and turbulent river matures into a peaceful winding stream in a wide-open valley. Cole shows the entire erosion cycle all in one picture. The rain falls, which erode the hills and knock down trees, feeding an increasingly silt-laden river. He also has the canvas split into a stormy side and a sunny side, which allows the eye to explore the difference between the two extremes. A good theme in landscape photography is to show geological processes in action. It can be big waves striking a rocky shore, or a waterfall eating away at a cliff. These sorts of scenes are fascinating subjects for a photograph.
The Return, Thomas Cole (1837)
It’s difficult to witness, yet alone photograph this kind of light in real life. Painters have the luxury of not having to witness the entire grand scene. Yet on this canvas, Cole manages to render the scene so realistically that he must have witnessed similar light at various times. An example of the adept use of light is how he painted one dark horse with the feet in front of the light while a white horse is against a darker background. What a master’s touch! He does similar things with the people and everything else in the scene. This shows complete mastery of the light. Although landscape photographers have the luxury of not having to personally render every pixel, we do have to witness it all happen at once. So look for areas of contrast where you can highlight important things just as Cole does in this painting.
View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch) , Thomas Cole (1839)
A landscape painting or photograph can teach us a lot about geology, like how the water carved this notch. Cole includes some fog in the notch just to bring more detail to the area. This is a tranquil and idyllic setting which looks even better because of the mist and light. Those two things should be pursued when photographing the landscape. The best time to see a scene like this is most likely at dawn just as a storm begins to clear. If you just endured a stormy night, look out the window at first light and go out if things look promising. You never know when you will witness something special. Have locations scouted out ahead of time, since there’s little time at sunrise for experimentation and investigation.
The Voyage of Life – Manhood, Thomas Cole (1840)
This is the third in a series of four masterpieces showing our cycle of life. This series is also a must-see on the internet. Not only are these paintings dramatic as a series, but also each one stands strongly on its own. When doing a series of landscapes, make sure there isn’t a weak link in the chain. Each stage is important and a weak image will spoil the feel of the entire series.
Ivan Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) Armenian /Crimea
Ivan Aivazovsky was a financially successful landscape and seascape artist who painted more than 6,000 works during his lifetime. He was unusual in that he was prolific and each work was highly detailed and of the highest quality. His timeless seascapes and landscapes bring millions at auction today. Some artists like Picasso were also prolific, with Picasso himself referring to some paintings as ‘afternooners’, meaning he took just an afternoon to complete them. One Picasso just sold for over US $100 million! And many of Picasso’s works look like they were done with a few strokes of his brush.
The works of Aivazovsky however are so imaginative and finely polished that it’s difficult to figure out how he could have done even half of them in a single lifetime. As a landscape photographer, don’t feel like you have to produce quality and quantity like Aivazovsky. Just go at your own pace. Quality should be the first goal.
The Ninth Wave, Ivan Aivazovsky (1850)
This is the Wikimedia commons image which was chosen for the cover of this book/series. The cover shows the center section because the book cover has a portrait orientation. The potential survivors of this shipwreck probably aren’t enjoying the incredible light show because they are fighting for survival by clinging to the one remaining mast. This depicts a classic theme when thinking about the sea. It can be beautiful and deadly, often at the same time. When photographing the seascape, try to show the beauty and the beast of the sea. Time the waves for that small moment when the light pierces through the waves, as it does in this painting. It’s extremely difficult to do, but give it a try. And never turn your back to the sea!
Chumaks in Little Russia, Ivan Aivazovsky (1870-1880)
In this painting, a warm and glowing light almost hides the fact that it must be extremely cold for this long wagon train which seems to stretch back into an infinite horizon. The angle of light is perfect for showing the detail of the cottage and illuminating the people standing in front of the darker shadows. In painting and in landscape photography, the beginning or end of a journey is a successfully time-tested theme. It doesn’t have to be a journey like we see here, but a journey of anything from water in a river to the mysterious rocks on the Racetrack of Death Valley, California.
The Black Sea, Ivan Aivazovsky (1881)
The endless sea is a fascinating and self-contained topic. It shows us how small we are compared to the immensity and power of nature. There’s no need for a foreground rock or a background focal point. This is all about something timeless. Try doing this yourself from a bridge or other high vantage point. To make a successful seascape photograph which looks like this, you will need some extra good light on the sea and a superb cloudscape above. Big waves and wind can help too, as well as a place to shelter the camera. Without anything solid as a reference point, these other elements need to be extra strong to draw the viewer’s attention and hold it on your photograph.
Ship in the Stormy Sea, Ivan Aivazovsky (1887)
This painting has all of the elements of a dramatic seascape. The storm is whipping up dangerous waves which are beautiful yet deadly at the same time. The people are abandoning ship, yielding to the power of nature in the hopes of surviving to see the next day. The ropes are frayed and snapping. The seagulls are better adapted to a life at sea than humanity, so they are doing just fine. Perhaps they are waiting for the cargo to spill out so they can have a good meal. Or perhaps they are just riding the roller coaster of turbulence created by each wave. In the foreground is a mast, perhaps the last remnant of a previous shipwreck at this same location.
It would be nearly impossible to capture a scene like this with a camera. The salty spray would cover the lens in a second and the rain and wind would drive water into the camera and shake it so violently that no sharp image would be possible. It would seem as though no sane photographer would dare volunteer to go shooting in these conditions. However, there are some insane photographers who might give this a try! A waterproof housing might help here. The most difficult conditions sometimes yield the most dramatic images. So taking at least some moderate risk is something to consider.
One good way to deal with salty spray is to bring a clear plastic bag to cover the camera and lens. While the bag is still over the camera, you can get your settings correct for a good exposure. Then, remove the bag only briefly when the moment is right for an exposure. In this way, you don’t have to clean off your lens and filters as often. And it’s nice to clean them off while still under the bag and be ready for the next shot.
Frederic Edwin Church 1826-1900 United States
Frederic Church was born in Connecticut and became a young student of Thomas Cole. He became successful at a young age. That success attracted a benefactor who financed a trip to South America so Church could produce art which attracted more investors to the benefactors’ business ventures. Church returned to America and began to produce huge and finely detailed paintings of exotic locations which astonished viewers and brought him financial success. That success led to more travels and more painting. One thing led to another.
Many of Church’s paintings are so impressive it’s difficult to believe a human being could produce such works. They have the fine detail of a 10-inch wide painting created with a fine detail brush, combined with the dramatic impact which can only be seen from 10 feet back or more.
Church once placed a painting in a window frame with curtains and special lighting so viewers could sit on a bench and imagine looking out a window to the Andes Mountains. This was the closest thing that people had in those days to modern movies and other high visual impact activities. He sold that painting for US $ 10,000, which was the highest price of an American painting to that date. You could buy a big house in a wealthy neighborhood for that amount of money back then.
Storm in the Mountains, Frederic Church (1847)
This painting almost has a photographic perspective to it. It’s the kind of view which couldn’t be imagined in a studio but must have been seen in person. We can imagine the sturdy looking tree snapping in hurricane force winds during an intense storm. Then the storm clears and a peaceful mist is illuminated in the valley below. Many great landscape photographs also tell stories of dramatic weather, so when a storm strikes, be prepared to head out as soon as it clears. Find the damage and evidence. There are opportunities out there just waiting for you.
The Cordilleras, Sunrise, Frederic Church (1854)
To someone living in the American Northeast or in Europe, this must have been an exotic vision. Church makes the fruiting palm tree a bold focal point, made even more dramatic by the fact that many northern viewers had never even seen a palm tree out of doors. The pathways and the water allow the viewers to navigate this landscape in their minds, transporting them to this faraway place. These days, it’s difficult for a landscape photographer to impress viewers by an exotic location. Millions of camera carrying tourists scour the planet on their vacations and upload these views to the internet for all to see. So, an exotic location isn’t all it takes impress people these days. You need the location and a sublime moment. The soft light and the pleasant composition in this view are still impressive to this day.
Tequendama Falls, Near Bogota, New Granada, Frederic Church (1854)
Waterfalls are a popular topic for classic paintings as well as contemporary photographs. This view even looks like a photograph. Notice how Church has the mist in the sunlight with only reflected light in the foreground? This enhances the drama of the falls to the point where it almost seems to be moving. When attempting a photograph like this, the foreground may often be almost completely black because the camera can’t capture the dynamic range in brightness between the brightest and darkest parts of a view. So only attempt this when there are a lot of clouds in the sky, reflecting light into the darker areas. Experiment with different exposure times too.
Niagara Falls, Frederic Church (1857)
Church chose a high vantage point looking away from the sun to show the entire falls and include a bit of rainbow and light striking the falls in the background. This is carefully composed to allow the viewer to get a sense of the grandeur of this place. When photographing a waterfall, you may have to scout around the entire thing before finding a good composition with a good angle of light. Or you must wait for the right time of day. The extra effort will be worth it. Don’t just settle for the standard views with all of the other tourists! But don’t ignore the standard views either. There might be a good reason why an X lies on the ground ordering you to make the photo on this spot!
Also, the panoramic orientation was a good choice for this painting.
The Heart of the Andes, Frederic Church (1859)
This is the first in a long series of enormous, yet finely detailed canvases Church executed depicting an exotic location which must have stirred the imagination of every viewer. Church shows the entire water cycle, originating in the snow-capped Andes and flowing down the valley to the tropical lowland waterfall. Can’t you almost smell the humidity?
A grand landscape often includes wide-ranging elements which tie together into a single unified package. When creating a landscape photograph, you can accomplish this by using a wide-angle lens and consciously moving around to make sure you have everything within the frame. Could you imagine if Church had only painted the right half of the distant snow-capped mountain peak, cutting off the left side? Make sure to not cut in half any important elements! It’s easier to do than you think when you are in the excitement of the moment.
Twilight Wilderness, Frederic Church (1860)
This is another photo-realistic painting that’s both subtle in color, yet dramatic in its grandeur. Church waited for the sun to set on the land but still illuminate the high clouds, which reflect into the water. High clouds are best for that dramatic last splash of red. Lower and middle clouds don’t have the same effect. Remember this when waiting for a sunset. If you have lower to middle clouds, don’t expect a dramatic red sunset unless high clouds are above them. The best light with those lower types of clouds is more like ½ hour before sunset. The thicker the cloud cover, the more likely the best light will be with the sun higher in the sky. Also, the light is affected by what lies beyond the horizon. If there’s a high cloud in front of the sun just below the horizon and out of view, it will shade out the clouds which you can see, rendering them dark. Here, Church shows the best conditions for a red sunset, a clear open sky to the west allowing the sun to illuminate the underside of high clouds.
The Icebergs, Frederic Church (1861)
This was another extremely exotic subject to paint during this period of time. Even here, Church includes lots of extra interest above and beyond mere icebergs in perfect light. Notice the arch in the lower right with the light coming through it? See the reflected light on the ice on the left side and what looks to be the mast of a shipwreck in the foreground? These are extra details Church added to go above and beyond what was required in a standard fine-art painting. When searching the landscape for a good view, go above and beyond simply recording the view. Include extra elements which will surprise your viewers and make them point and say to a friend, ‘Hey, look over here!’
Cotopaxi, Frederic Church (1862)
Church didn’t visit Vesuvius in Italy, but there are a few nice volcanoes in the new world such as Cotopaxi in the Andes of Ecuador. He left out all signs of human habitation in favor of a view of nature in its most raw and powerful state. It looks so accurate that he must have seen this volcano (or one like it) erupt in person. The composition flows nicely both up from the peak and down to the falls with some nice symmetry between the plume of ash and the cliffs to the right. Symmetries work well in landscape photography. They can be from reflections or from more hidden relationships such as the ash and cliffs here which seem to frame the sun and its reflection. Sometimes they aren’t obvious, so you have to search them out. Sometimes they are so subtle you don’t recognize them until you get home and review your photographs. It may have just felt ‘right’ at the time and only later do you realize why.
Chimborazo, Frederic Church (1862-66)
This original painting is over 7 feet long, yet when you look at it from 1 foot away; you can see things inside of the hut and even individual blades of grass behind it! At first when you look at this, you don’t even notice the subtle but immense snow capped peak in the distance. Then once you notice, you can’t ignore it. Church used the technique of lowering the contrast on distant objects to imply a sense of depth. Landscape photographers can do this on a hazy, foggy or misty day. This depth makes you realize the mountain must be enormous to appear so large from such a long distance away.
Church became extremely analytical at this stage of his life and this painting is the result of extensive studies of this mountain and the jungle in oil paint, pencil and also notebook from numerous angles, times of day, and weather conditions. He wanted realism and not just a pretty picture, though this painting is a composite of his studies. All of that effort surely paid off. When you see this painting, which is at the Huntington near Pasadena in LA, it’s easy to appreciate the workmanship.
Extra effort can pay off for the landscape photographer too. Don’t hesitate to return to a spot over and over under a wide variety of conditions to study a place and obtain the best view possible from that location. Of course, the best view isn’t always practically possible, but it’s enjoyable to try.
Aurora Borealis, Frederic Church (1865)
With Frederic Church, every time you think he could never paint a more exotic painting, he proves you wrong! The aurora almost glows with a radiant light, which seems to help this ship navigate through the ice clogged waters. If you ever travel to near the North Pole or the South Pole, don’t hesitate to get outside at night, even if it’s cold. You may have to do a long exposure with noise reduction turned on to avoid extra blobs of noise. Even if it’s uncomfortable, give it a try! You may have to try several times before you get it right, and that effort may take an hour or two, so dress warmly. Also, don’t forget to find an interesting view to go along with the sky. If it’s too dark at night, you may want to find a good composition while it’s still light outside.
Rainy Season in the Tropics, Frederic Church (1866)
If you wish to photograph a rainbow, many things need to happen simultaneously. First, the sun should be behind you of course, but the rain needs to be in front of you. This often means you need to get wet first before the sun comes out to illuminate the raindrops. And it’s often still raining when the rainbow comes out. So bring an umbrella and something to cover the camera. A clear plastic bag works wonders because you can set a proper exposure time while it’s still raining because the light comes through the bag. A wide-angle lens allows you to capture the entire rainbow rather than just a portion of it. A full rainbow is usually more dramatic than a partial one.
Also, you should scout out a good view and composition in advance, so you aren’t fiddling around during the few seconds when the rainbow is at its strongest. Be careful with polarizing filters. Sometimes if they aren’t turned correctly, the rainbow disappears or they look too strong and unnatural. It’s best to not use a polarizer so the photograph looks natural. That’s good advice in general unless you want to see detail under the surface of water.
Of course, there’s a lot more to this painting than the rainbow. The view contained within the rainbow is perfectly lit by the mist and sun working together. The brightest spot appears to be a large waterfall, which is a great way to show the water cycle and how it happens. The brightest spot in the photo of this painting is overexposed. In the actual painting in San Francisco, there’s plenty of detail in the bright areas. This shows how limited the dynamic range is in modern cameras!
El Rio de Luz, Frederic Church (1877)
Can you feel the humidity and mist rising into the fragrant tropical air? Can you even hear the monkeys and birds? Part of what makes a photograph resonate with people is what they can imagine. Notice the open view to the distance lining up with the Moon? That conjures up the need for a canoe and oars to go see what’s beyond the opening. Create a sense of mystery in your photos and you will want to look at them over and over even though you created them yourself!
Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902) United States
Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany and moved to the United States with his parents when he was just three years old. He later studied painting in Germany and then with the Hudson River School painters in New York.
While Frederik Church was on his adventures in Central America and the arctic North after 1850, Bierstadt headed west to paint the vast American West. At this point, the west was just opening up due to the California gold rush. He was one of the first painters to expose viewers back east to the wondrous landscape of the west. And he did it in a big way, creating enormous paintings with extreme detail and accuracy while using artistic license to add some dramatic elements.
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt (1865)
One big advantage to the accuracy of Bierstadt’s work is you can go back to the same spots today and see how things have changed. He accurately shows El Capitan and the Cathedral Rock spires, but what’s striking is the lack of tall pine trees and the wide open view. When this painting was done, Indians inhabited this area and they used to burn the fields, keeping down the growth of pine trees. Also, natural fires would burn unchecked all summer during the dry season. They wouldn’t die down until the cool rains of the winter season. Today, such a view isn’t possible because the US national Park Service stops fires as soon as possible, so the sparse trees have grown into dense forests. Sometimes that leads to intense and unnatural fires due to a buildup of unburned dry wood over the decades.
The striking part of this painting is the realistic and dramatic use of sunlight filtering into the valley and how it strikes the cliffs and landscape below. Even the water is reflecting the light. When people back east first saw Bierstadt’s work, they must have been in awe, thinking it to be a case of artistic license gone awry! Today, people speak the same way about the use of Photoshop. Sometimes a photo is so good people won’t believe the camera actually captured it in the way presented. So, when processing your photos, try to keep things as natural as possible. Keep the drama isolated to what you can capture in the camera.
If you do decide to create a fantastic artificial world, let people know about what you did. There’s nothing wrong with doing anything you want in Photoshop. However, you must be honest with yourself and others. Many people enjoy seeing a surreal and high quality manipulated image, as well as the work of a surrealist painter like Salvador Dali.
Looking up Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt (1865)
This is a view looking back towards the spot where the previous painting was conceived. When creating landscape photographs, move around and show landmarks from different angles and perspectives. Make them into a series. Show them at different times of year as well.
Again, the open view shown here with a few scattered oaks is completely closed off now by a tall forest of pines. You can see a few pines in front of the bottom of the falls. From this spot today, the pines have grown much larger and nearly obscure the falls completely. By 2040, you won’t be able to see the falls at all! You can still see El Capitan and the last bit of falls from the shore of the Merced River This view must have been visualized in the late morning judging from the angle of light. If you want to see an open view today, you need to go right up to the river in the middle distance. See below for what the ‘closer to the river’ view looked like in 2009.
Valley View #1, Patrick Smith (May, 2009)
Today, a road and a dense forest exist directly behind this spot, so this is currently the best open view. The camera here is in the middle foreground of the previous painting. Bierstadt did make the cliffs and falls look taller, though he was standing further back and higher in elevation, which resulted in a more compressed perspective than the super wide-angle view shown here. The middle half of this photo represents the view in Bierstadt’s painting above this. Still, you can see how much the trees have grown. Amazingly, the river seems to be in the exact same spot as it was 150 years ago. Notice the field of grass just beyond the river? Look at it above and in Bierstadt’s painting. You can see the same slight slope of the river versus the flat field of grass behind it. Again, unchanged in 150 years!
Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie, Albert Bierstadt (1866)
It seems as though Bierstadt intentionally hiked up to an open vantage point (at least in his mind) to get this view. Then he carefully composed the painting so the light coming through the parting clouds to the lake silhouetted those trees in front of the lake. If you wish to accomplish this photographically in the real world, you will have to do a lot of planning ahead of time. You would need to climb up to a point where you hope you would get a good open view of the light and then have the composition ready when the light finally is right. This is easier said than done since you often don’t know where the light will open up. You could wait all day!
Or is this supposition entirely correct? Actually, there are places which seem to collect clouds and other places where if there’s even a small opening in the clouds, a big gap will appear. This is because some mountains can literally block the clouds, allowing for openings to appear in the same spots again and again. If you study the patterns of cloud formation around mountains, you may be able to anticipate where to go and be there at the right time. The trick is to arrive early and study the sky for a while. Watch for patterns and the direction of the clouds. After a while you might be able to anticipate how the light will behave. Become a student of the weather and you will be surprised at how ‘lucky’ you can become!
Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Albert Bierstadt (1868)
In this view, Bierstadt gets right down to lake level, which makes the reflected light on the lake an important element in the entire painting. Then when the light comes streaming through the clouds, he is ready to capture the light from above and below. These days, lake reflections are a popular theme in landscape photography. If you wish to make your photograph special, make sure to give the foreground some interest near the water. Arrange rocks and grasses along the shoreline by moving into a good spot. Also compose your view to get the trees to appear lit from behind. It’s possible to take charge of random elements and make them your own with some extra effort.
Seals on the Rocks, Farallon Islands, California, Albert Bierstadt (1872-3)
In this painting Bierstadt takes some artistic license to add drama to this scene. The Farallon Islands are about 17 miles west of the Golden Gate and they do have sea lions, seals, steep cliffs and big waves. So one can suppose this sort of a scene is possible, but to have it happen all at once and be able to paint it is close to impossible. He probably created this painting from studies or memory. However, this is a good example of how important it’s to get close to the action and show a wide view when creating a landscape photograph. The sea lions in front look like you could almost touch them. The wave looks huge, which make the gulls and cliffs look far away. Good luck trying to capture light through a wave. It’s difficult, but give it a try. Get ready to shoot and run!
California Spring, Albert Bierstadt (1875)
This seems to be a view of the Central Valley of California from the start of the Sierra Nevada foothills, where gold was discovered 26 years earlier. This sort of grand light is rare in California and only occurs just after a storm in the winter or early spring when the ‘after-storm’ showers begin. The light can appear suddenly and disappear within a minute or so and might spotlight small groups of cattle or trees for perhaps a few seconds. With split second requirements like this, you must be ready. And you must be willing to stand in the exact place of your ideal composition for possibly hours just for those few special moments. It’s up to you to decide whether all that time is worth it. After all, you may wait for hours and never see good light! However, if you don’t try, you will never succeed.
The Golden Gate, Albert Bierstadt (1900)
This view must be from Baker Beach, on the Pacific Ocean side just south and west of where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands. It was built 35 years after this painting was completed. Bierstadt has taken some significant artistic license to pull this off. But the results are dramatic and awe inspiring. It’s accurate in that there are still sea lions on this beach, and the waves can be huge here. The Marin County Headlands in the distance can look like this at sunrise, and there are cliffs to the right leading to the location of the bridge where the light appears to originate. However, this is an impressionistic interpretation compared to reality or compared to his earlier hyper realistic works. The lesson here is you must allow yourself to evolve and change. Take risks with your photography and unexpected things may happen.
Church and Bierstadt, represent the end of of an era of classical and realistic landscape painting, replaced by Impressionism and more modern forms. Lately, there is a resurgence of this form of landscape art.