Chasing the Intricate Landscape
People succeed by finding a niche that no one else has found, then making it beautiful. A lot of people can come up with unique ideas, including for photography, but very few try to invent their own genre. It certainly feels like it's all been done, but we know that isn't true.
What's my genre, then? I like to call it the Intricate Landscape.
First off, I hate clichés. A lot of fine-art photography is nothing more than high-contrast minimalism, which gets old fast. This isn't the only gimmick in landscape photography, though. On the other end of the spectrum is the wild saturation of overdone HDR photography, with total information overload in every photo. Eye candy, but one with a bad aftertaste.
Another gimmick that I avoid is the ultra-wide lens. Some of my favorite photos from other photographers were actually taken at extremely wide angles (14mm or so), but I have seen far more cliché ultra-wide shots than winners. If I notice instantly that a photo was taken with an ultra-wide, then, in my book, the lens was used incorrectly. I don't believe that any photo should draw attention to its focal length, or its aspect ratio, or any of its behind-the-scenes technical properties.
Almost exclusively, the landscape images on this site were taken at a focal length equivalent to 35mm, a very "normal" angle of view. It's certainly not an ultra-wide, and, by some definitions, it is much closer to a standard focal length. However, it is a very natural perspective; it is somewhat wide, but not to the point where it becomes noticeable in photos.
This leads to another key quality of Intricate Landscapes: they have a lot of information, but they are simple at the same time. This usually means that they are the type of photo which prints extremely well; they look one way as a small image, but, up close, they reveal a surprising amount of interesting detail. A normal-feeling angle of view makes the photo inherently more simple than a distorted, wide-angle view. Look at the photo below:
It is a simple photo, without any distracting elements, but it is also truly intricate. The three main trees in the image are somehow surviving on the most precipitous of footholds. One is in the middle of a river, and two are on the side of a cliff. The cracks in the rock and the smooth ripples in the water help contribute to the image, and the trees at the top seem to flow into the waterfall. There is a light fog in the air, perhaps a light rain. Every inch of the photo, almost, has a detail which adds to the frame.
An important part about the waterfall photo above is that it has a buffer without much interest along the edges of the photo. None of the important elements is cut off by the frame; in fact, no element is even close to the edge. The rest of the photo, though, has so much stuff. And yet, it is so simple.
Is that a contradiction? Yeah, probably. But I am trying to embrace this contradiction in my landscapes, because it is beautiful. To make a complex scene simple is my goal. I won't reach this goal by eliminating as many elements as possible in my composition, but by including as many as possible. This is where an ultra-wide lens becomes tempting, but it solves no problem.
My goal is not to cram everything possible into my landscapes, but to include as many beautiful objects as possible, arranged in a balanced way. Typically, scenes have the potential to be Intricate Landscapes if they have three, perhaps four beautiful objects in them. This is why an ultra-wide wouldn't usually be more helpful than a wide standard like 35mm; the wide standard will usually be able to fit all of these objects in the frame just as easily as an ultra-wide, either by stepping back or creating a panorama. This way, too, the objects look more natural in the frame.
The below photo is not technically a landscape by genre, but it is an Intricate Landscape because of its composition. I could have singled-out many different parts of this scene, but I chose to include everything.
To be honest, the idea of the Intricate Landscape does not work well at all, except in the most amazing locations. I simply cannot create the type of photo that I want in most places. Any scene that is beautiful is not good enough; it needs to be beautiful in a specific way. I can't describe the specific beauty that I need, but I know it when it's in front of me. Sometimes, it has to do with the weather: foggy, generally. Other times, it has to do with the visual poetry of the scene I see, something which just clicks and is all but inexplicable.
The Intricate Landscape relies on me, as a photographer. I need to trust myself rather than compositions I have seen from others, because I rarely see someone else's photo which fits with my personal interpretation of an Intricate Landscape. More importantly, I need to trust that, in an outstanding location, I have the ability to take a photo which is perfect, for my style. Often times, I fail to make an Intricate Landscape out of a beautiful scene. A few times, I have succeeded.