After 1845, photography began to replace painting as a way to record views of the landscape. Even though the photographs were in black and white, cameras were being taken around the world to bring back realistic views of exotic locations. It’s amazing to think the first cameras were commercially available just after 1840, yet by 1855 even the remote American West Coast was photographed extensively. That sort of quick adoption of new technology is more commonplace today, but the camera was one of the first gadgets to gain such rapid use and popularity.
Traditional realistic landscape painting during the age of Impressionism was still popular and in demand as we could see by Church and Bierstadt above. Although a typical early black and white photograph was not nearly as beautiful as a fine art painting, photography began to affect the artistic preferences and styles of the day. Therefore, at this point in history artists wished to go beyond the super accurate and detailed landscape of the masters and forge a new path.
As with any new form of art, Impressionism was not immediately accepted by serious art collectors or critics. The Salon in Paris didn’t allow ‘impressionist’ paintings until after 1870. The term ‘impressionist’ didn’t even exist until Monet painted ‘Impression – Sunrise’ in 1872. (See that painting below in the Monet section for an explanation.) Many critics said placing a few daubs of pure oil colors on a canvas was not true art. They stated that anybody could do it and that impressionism required only a small amount of talent compared to the true masters. It’s easy to see their point. Compare the previous 15 paintings above to the next 15 below. It would seem as though the skill sets required to create each of these two groupings of 15 paintings are completely different. The same thing goes today with HDR compared to more natural photo processing.
However, art is subjective and Impressionism is all about moods and feelings. Standing in front of the work of a master Impressionist is awe inspiring, but in a different sort of way compared to seeing the old masters. Some works of the impressionists are rather shocking to see because as you move away from them, they actually become nearly as super realistic as the more ‘accurate’ works of the old masters. You realize it took an incredible amount of skill to create such realism with simple daubs of paint!
Impressionism is important to modern landscape photography. Many of the best landscape photographs are Impressionistic in their nature. For example, they can go far beyond the mere recording of a view from a specific location with good light. Some critics even have terms for such basic photographs. They derisively call them ‘record shots’, ‘snapshots’, or even worse, ‘snaps.’
So, if you wish to go beyond recording snapshots, you have to record your impressions and feelings too! There are many ways to accomplish this. You can make a long exposure, which will soften the flow of water or even the wind through the trees or the clouds in the sky. You can move the camera while an exposure is being made, to create a true abstract. You can use selective focus which will soften areas outside the focal point. Other Impressionist techniques include underexposure, overexposure, colored filters, pinhole photography, unusual perspectives and compositions. The list goes on and on. The point is a good landscape photograph leaves an impression and feeling with the viewer which goes beyond what it simply looks like.
Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899) France
Alfred Sisley was a dedicated landscape painter and did almost all his painting ‘en plein air’ (in the open air.) This is difficult when you consider the best conditions for atmosphere and light often occur when the weather is bad and they often last for mere minutes. He often worked under shelters to keep dry, but it must have been cold and unpleasant, as he would work for many hours or even days on his canvases. Dedication and persistence under less than ideal conditions are good traits for a landscape photographer to have. You need to be able to get out there when you may not wish to be there. You will be rewarded with many fine images you can later enjoy on your computer or on your wall!
One can imagine Sisley out here on this street with his easel and paint working in the cold on a gray day after what was probably the first snow of the season. The leaves are still on the trees and there are many people on the street despite the cold weather.
The colors are muted and there is little fine detail, yet the chilly feeling of being on this street is quite real. The curve of the street and how it enters the town center makes the viewer wonder what lies just beyond what we can see. When photographing a landscape near a town, try to incorporate a bit of the countryside and show how it gradually turns into a city. Show the turning of the seasons and make the viewer wonder what lies beyond the edge of the visible canvas. Edges and boundaries are important elements in any visual art including landscape photography.
Sisley chose a much more pleasant environment to work in here, compared to the previous painting above. It appears to be a warm afternoon in the late summer or early fall with some humidity in the air. Once again he uses a path to guide our eyes along and into this world. It’s amazing how a few daubs of paint can convey so much information. This same technique can be accomplished in landscape photography. Sometimes a simple view is the best. Eliminate distractions and unnecessary complexity so you can tell your story as directly as possible.
This is yet another simple view without fine detail, yet the water shimmers with reflected light as the oarsmen prepare to pass by under the bridge. Sisley chose a perfect vantage point so the bridge creates a pleasing symmetry. Try going under bridges, piers, and anything else which looks interesting. Often, a long exposure can create an impressionistic look and feel to such a photograph, so try it out.
Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903) France
Camile Pissarro was an early adopter of Impressionist techniques and influenced some of the big names in the world of impressionist art. He relied on color and form instead of fine detail. Sometimes, he even used a palette knife (no brush) from beginning to end. The younger Impressionists then refined Pissarro’s ideas and techniques into the Impressionism we know today. There’s something to be said for adopting a new technique or technology in the early going. Although you risk failure if you guess wrong, the rewards of being in the right place at the right time are often worth the risk. If impressionism hadn’t become so popular, few people would have known of Camille Pissaro!
Pissarro spent the first 12 years of his life in St. Thomas, so he knew the land and the people well. This seems like a simple view but it strongly conveys a moment of time is a realistic way. We can feel the heat and the bright light on this peaceful day. Although many of the examples in this book depict dramatic light and violent nature and people, there are times when a peaceful mood is needed. When creating a landscape photograph with a quiet feel, use soft light and an even softer landscape. Notice how the hills are rounded out, the path looks easy on the feet, the sea is smooth and the sky is featureless yet warm. Look for these elements and your image will put your viewers at ease.
Pissaro knew how to create a cityscape. He chose this extra wide boulevard full of carriages and people which seems to stretch to infinity with a slight curve at the end. He also chose a nice high vantage point to see far into the distance, but not too high as to lose detail in the foreground. Also, he chose a day with dramatic fluffy cumulus clouds, which not only look good in the sky, but reflect light into every inch of the city. When creating a cityscape image, chose your composition carefully. Even little details like a car or tree that’s cut in half at the edge of the frame can cause a distraction. This can ruin the effect you are trying to convey. Move around and take your time.
Paul Cézanne (1839 –1906) France
Paul Cézanne began his artistic career creating Impressionist works and then his art evolved into more Post-Impressionist works. He inspired another new movement called Cubism, which broke up elements and reassembled them to expose symbolic meaning from a variety of physical viewpoints. Cubism led to the Surrealist movement.
Each of these steps led artists further and further away from the super realistic works which were in vogue not long before. In fact, many works in these new movements which represented the landscape didn’t look like landscapes at all. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different techniques and ideas when creating landscape images. You may strike upon something important which might lead to a new movement in photography!
This simplified landscape lacks detail but it’s pleasing to view, so detail doesn’t seem to matter. It’s more like a beautiful wall decoration designed to make an interior look good. However, Cézanne still loosely followed the classic rules of composition with a road leading the eye into the valley town past a foreground forest. Pleasing colors and composition are sometimes all you need. Perhaps in foggy but colorful conditions, you can create a pleasing soft landscape. Or, you can use a soft-focus to achieve the same effect.
This painting is even more abstract than the previous one with everything reduced to the bare essentials. Yet it works because of the pleasant color and the reflections deep in the lake. A bold and well-lit tree on the left gives the painting plenty of depth. A landscape photograph doesn’t have to be complex to work well. Sometime keeping it simple is the way to go.
Cézanne continues what seems to be a regression into an almost child-like level of detail in his 60’s. However he is pushing the limits on what can be achieved in the fewest number of strokes. This is no accident. If you step back from this image, you’ll see a rather startling level of realism which doesn’t seem possible upon first inspection. When you are out with the camera in the landscape, see how far you can push the limits of detail, yet still convey your subject. There are lots of creative things to be done with simplicity.
Claude Monet (1840 – 1926)
Claude Monet was the quintessential Impressionist painter and is considered to be one of its founders. He had talent at a young age but didn’t enjoy traditional art schools. When the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 became too dangerous, Monet went to England and studied the works of Constable and Turner. The way those two artists used color and impressions of the landscape influenced Monet to experiment with how to improve techniques which could make a painting convey an impression. He eventually returned to France via the Netherlands in 1871 and contributed to the birth of the Impressionist style.
Six years before the official first ‘Impressionist’ painting, Monet and some of his friends were already moving in that direction. This painting has elements of realism in the accurate lines and forms, along with elements of Impressionism via the daubs of brightly colored paint. The viewer can imagine the warm breeze blowing the flags on a summer day. We can also imagine that perhaps this is an introduction, based on how the man and woman are sitting next to each other with the two people standing having left their chairs on the opposite side of the group of four chairs. Perhaps they didn’t know each other since they were sitting so far apart? Whatever the story, Monet knew how to tell a good one in a single image. Again, telling a story is one of the most important things you can do in a landscape painting. Never forget that fact!
This is the painting which started the impressionist movement, though at the time it’s doubtful Monet considered it to be anything but an enjoyable experiment. At the time, Monet entered paintings into a show for newer artists painting in a new style which hadn’t been named. He hadn’t even named this painting, but when asked for a title for the show, he couldn’t say ‘A view of Le Havre’ because it wasn’t an accurate view. So Monet decided to call it ‘Impressions – Sunrise’ for lack of a better thing to call it. An art critic, who thought that common wallpaper was better than this painting, used the phrase ‘impressions,’ in a derogatory way and the word stuck!
The critic was right in a way even though this painting would sell for many tens of millions of dollars today and is well loved. It’s a basic painting, but the impression it has left started a revolution in the art world. One can can just imagine the frustration in the mind of the critic as this revolution took hold, leaving many ‘fine art’ paintings from skilled artists unsold! As a landscape photographer, you have to go with what you love. You can’t pretend to be something you aren’t. Monet could have attempted to follow the standard line and paint super-realistic works, but he followed his heart. The results speak for themselves!
Monet chose a perfect vantage point for the best view of the festival. It’s alive with color and movement. The vanishing point makes the canvas appear three dimensional with almost infinite depth. Even though there isn’t much detail, it’s difficult to imagine a painting or even a photograph of this genre having more impact on the viewer. As a photographer, it’s possible to get these sorts of effects by experimenting with long exposures ranging from 1-second to possibly 1 minute. This can be done with dark circular neutral-density filters. These filters don’t affect the color, but the darkness of them requires a longer exposure. They range from 1-stop of darkening power up to 10-stops. The 10-stop filters are so dark you can barely see through the viewfinder, but you can do a 1-minute exposure in the middle of the day. That creates an impression of the scene compared to a normal shorter exposure. Lee Filters is has a square 10-stop glass filter called ‘The Big Stopper’ you can slide into a filter holder like a graduated filter. It’s entirely dark so it will work like a circular filter only you can put it on much more quickly.
So head out to a festival with a dark filter and see what you can do!
Monet chose a difficult time of day, with the sun to the right and behind the canvas as opposed to a more classic time of day with the sun over the water to the left with the cliff directly illuminated. Yet it looks great because of the reflections of the sea stack in the water. The lesson here is not all photographs have to have a golden sunset in the frame to be beautiful. So try something different. For example, if you are on a west facing coast known for sunsets, try getting there at sunrise and pointing away from the sun for a completely different look to your photograph.
This painting is part of a huge series Monet did over a long period of time. He painted these haystacks at every conceivable time of year and lighting condition. As a result, this series is one of the most recognizable set of paintings in history. If Monet had just done one, people may have liked it but when viewed as part of a series it takes on more significance. Earlier in this book, we have seen other series by great artists. This one is different because it isn’t merely a 4-season study. It’s an intense examination of a subject under numerous conditions. Monet also did this with his cathedral and water lily paintings.
So, try a big series for yourself. It can be especially effective to choose an iconic place close to where you live or work. It doesn’t have a be a world-famous place, but rather something which stands out and looks quite different depending on the time or the weather.
In what is probably his most famous series, Monet interprets his Lilies in every conceivable way. There’s often no horizon, but only the pond and Lilies. Although most landscape photographs are rather wide views of the land, sea and sky, there are times where a closer inspection is quite effective.
Ansel Adams called them not abstracts but ‘extracts,’ or portions of a landscape. In a photograph, these small portions can be made into their own separate works of art. This is a popular thing to do these days because a photographer or painter can create a more decorative piece for a wall. This is because the picture may consist of only one main color or shade, with strong patterns and lines, and that may closely fit with the theme of a room. A wide angle landscape may have many often conflicting colors and shapes.
Another nice thing about creating extracts is you don’t need a perfect sky, only even perfect light. Sometimes a cloudy day can be best since the light will be softer and less blue. So, although you may be chasing around ideas for a grand landscape at sunset, you can use the rest of the day looking for smaller patterns which can be a complete work of art. And the smaller the portion of the landscape you capture, the more creative you can become.
Here is yet another example of Monet eliminating almost all detail and replacing it with mood and light. It almost looks like some of Turner’s works from 80 years earlier. To get an effect like this in a photograph, a long exposure might be worth a try with a very dark neutral density filter. Trees and other plants swaying in the wind can paint your photographic canvas for you if you give them enough light and time. Composition is still important, but light and movement are also important!
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Pierre Renoir was primarily known for his incredible portraits which seem at close inspection to be daubs of paint. However, as you back away they become so real it seems like the subject is ready to climb right out of the canvas! Although early on he could barely afford paint, he became one of the leaders of the Impressionist movement and perhaps the finest painter of the group. If you enjoy photographing people, Renoir has a lot he can teach you!
Renoir also painted the landscape, and the results are equally as stunning. However there are few photographs of these works in the public domain. He along with Monet were among the first to observe that an object in shadows doesn’t have the same color as the same object in sunlight. The object in the shadows shows reflected light from the sky. This is known as diffuse reflection. Newton may have discovered this first.
So on a day with a blue sky, the shadows will appear to have a blue tint, rather than the color you would normally think the object should have. This is especially important after sunset, when an entire photograph can appear to turn blue since the landscape is in the shadow of the Earth! The best way to solve this problem is to photograph with lots of clouds in the sky. Clouds reflect the entire spectrum of light and make shadows look more evenly lit.
Monet was a lucky guy to have Renoir paint his portrait! The entire scene is full of vibrant color and the artist is in a classic pose, ready to paint. The lesson for photographers here is to get a good self-portrait of yourself when you are out shooting the landscape. This sort of photograph is perfect for your website or just for fun. And if you can get a famous photographer to do it, all the better!
This painting is so vibrant, it almost seems like the people, light and shadows are moving before our eyes. This is the beauty of impressionism at its best. Notice how everyone is lit with alternating bits of shadows and dappled light? That’s what creates the feeling of movement.
Try to capture movement in your landscape photographs by whatever means possible. The sea and land are dynamic things. That energy should come across in your photographs. You can use long exposures, filters, camera movement, transitions of light and mist and numerous other techniques to achieve a dynamic look. Experiment with your mind and your camera!
Modern Landscape Painters (1900-Present)
Although modern painting has mostly turned away from traditional landscapes in favor of other genres, there are still numerous modern painters who are great painters of the landscape. Since an artist must be deceased for at least 75 years in many countries before his/her works go into the public domain, they aren’t included in this work. So spend some time and explore the modern masters of all genres of landscape painting.
Salvador Dalí (1904 –1989)
Every landscape photographer should explore the works of Salvador Dali. Although he preferred to paint surreal landscapes and focused on the human psyche, he had the talent and skill of draftsmanship to rival the old masters. It’s good to have him in mind when you try to create surreal landscapes using long exposures and unusual perspectives.
The End, for now…