Landscape Photography: Use Your Mind’s Eye

A photograph is a facsimile of reality and our experience. Sometimes it represents the moment quite accurately; at other times, quite poorly. Landscape photography can be more like the latter. This article is about how to photographically communicate the drama and the magic of the landscape, and the emotion that you feel.

You arrive in the morning at this rare oak savanna, prepared to photograph the hot white glow of June grass reflecting the new day sun.

Photo A is what you see as you look ahead into the distance.

A view into the distance of this black oak savanna, as streaks of morning light filter in to illuminate feathery plumes of June grass.

PHOTO A: A view into the distance of this black oak savanna, as streaks of morning light
filter in to illuminate feathery white plumes of June grass.

Glancing downward towards your feet (Photo B) reveals a larger, more intimate, world of radiating grasses and forbs.

PHOTO B: Now, glance down to see new details that connect you more closely with the individuals that make up the dramatic scene.

PHOTO B: Glancing down reveals new details that connect you more closely
with the individuals that make up the dramatic scene.

Compared to Photo A, the view of June grass in Photo B is significantly more immersive. Yet, viewed through the “optical eye” of the camera or the human, these plants still appear quite small, compared to the mental picture that we form in our “mind’s eye,” where grasses loom much larger and dramatic. Even small subjects that take up an insignificant portion of our optical field of view can be perceived as enormous by our mind’s eye.

Imagine. You’re hiking on a solo backpacking trip through Rocky Mountain National Park and, suddenly, you spot a cougar lurking amidst distant boulders upon the mountainside. It’s possible that you are being stalked and that it will kill you when you go to sleep in your tent. Far off, the predator appears as a tawny dot. Yet, burned into your brain, the mountain lion fills the frame. Your mental viewfinder contains no sign of the fragrant field of flowers that surround you or the deep blue sky and towering mountains, under which you are immersed, just the information contained within that tiny, dangerous dot.

A picture of “a dot in the distance” isn’t going to convey the urgency of the moment. But you can, if you emulate the image burned into your mind’s eye: a tightly-composed shot, using a long lens, of the lion with its piercing eyes. We perceive the world with both our optical eye and our mind’s eye. The optical eye scans for important data. Then, the mind’s eye produces an image comprised of a potent condensation of optical, sensory, and emotional data, undiluted by distractions. It is this tight, concentrated image created by our mind’s eye that we’d like to photographically imitate with our camera’s optical eye.

Combining Photo A and Photo B gives us Photo C, exactly what our optical eye sees from standing position.

PHOTO C: The oak savanna as viewed by the camera's optical eye.

PHOTO C: The black oak savanna as viewed from standing position
with the camera’s optical eye.

Yet, moving in close and low with the camera revealed what was in my mind’s eye (Photo D): a landscape photograph that represented my experience and a magic that still conjures the same emotion as when I was there.

PHOTO D: This photograph accurately reflected what I saw in my mind's eye. And each time I view it, it conjures the same emotion that I felt when I was there. All it took was a close and intimate perspective.[/

PHOTO D: This photograph accurately reflected what I saw in my mind’s eye. Each time I view it, the image conjures up the same emotion that I felt when I was there. All it took was a close and intimate perspective.

What we see with our own two eyes is full of trivia and distractions. No matter what kind of photography you do, trust your mind’s eye and emulate that image to convey the drama, the magic, and the emotion.

Learn about these techniques and more by taking my landscape photography workshops called Light & The Landscape and Art of Landscape Photography, which are held every summer.

© 2014 – 2017, Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

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