Put photographers in front of a gorgeous landscape and we’re happy campers. We’ll drink in the beauty of the grand vista and make an artful composition. And we’re so taken with the beauty of that great, big, majestic scene that we just might miss the other photographic possibilities at our feet, or off to the right. So, after you’ve shot the grand view of the Yosemite Valley, take a few minutes to look around for some more intimate compositions. You won’t be sorry!
An “intimate landscape” is one in which you’re picking out and isolating one small part of the scene around you. Eliot Porter is generally credited with coining the term as it was the title of a 1979 exhibit of his photos at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The firsts time I heard the term intimate landscape was at the 2017 Improve Photography Retreat, in a presentation by Australian photographer Dale Rogers of Photo Rangers.
Note: The Improve Photography Retreat is a great opportunity to hear a variety of excellent photographers talk about composition, processing, equipment and the business of photography; to shoot on location and in studios to practice what you’ve learned; and to spend time learning and socializing with the nicest bunch of photographers (amateur and professional) you’d ever want to meet. The 2018 Retreat is in Charleston, SC, in March.
An intimate landscape might be a smaller part of a grand landscape. It might also be a small composition that focuses on shapes, lines, colors, textures or patterns. It’s similar to but distinctly different from macro photography. In macro, you’re magnifying the small things and making visible things we typically can’t see with just our eyes—an extreme close up. An intimate landscape puts a frame around a small part of the world around us and, thereby draws our attention to something we might not otherwise notice.
While shooting on a rainy day in Acadia National Park, I was focused on the colors and patterns of leaves on the surface of Upper Hadlock Pond when I noticed there were frogs there, too. With reds and greens, complementary colors, I had myself an intimate landscape.
In some ways, intimate landscapes are easier to photograph than a grand scenic. You’re typically not dealing with extreme dynamic range–bright skies and dark foregrounds. Instead, you’ll usually find fairly even light on your subject. No need for split or grad ND filters, though polarizers might still come in handy. You can often shoot during the middle of the day. And it’s easier to find order in chaos when you’re dealing with a limited area and number of objects. However, making a compelling composition that tells a story can be much harder with an intimate landscape than it is with a grand scenic or macro photo. A moonrise over Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite instantly grabs the viewer’s attention. How do you pull a viewer into and lead their eyes through an intimate composition?
And, you still have to pay attention to the techniques and “rules” you'd follow when composing a grand landscape: leading lines, rule of thirds, etc.
My Top 10 Tips for Intimate Landscapes
1) Start Small and Start Local.
One of the benefits of intimate landscapes is that you don’t have to travel to a National Park to find them. They’re all around us, in our back yards, in nearby parks, along the neighborhood stream or the local woods. Take your camera with you on a walk any time of day and you’re sure to find some intimate landscapes. I live near and often visit Bookside Gradens in Maryland. One day, walking through the gardens, I noticed the shadows of a branch on a backlit tropical leaf. In this photo, I was able to combine several tips: patterns, line, color, abstract, scale. You'll find that intimate landscapes often lend themselves to multiple techniques.
2) Get Closer
Whatever lens you start with, go longer or move yourself (zoom with your feet) to get closer to your original subject.
Say you’re shooting a landscape with a mountain and a foreground using your 24-70 mm lens. Zoom in to the longest focal length (70mm), or switch to your 70-200 mm lens, or step several paces forward and start looking for compositions. That’ll help train your eye to see in smaller sections.
I found this vine trailing down a shaded wall when I was strolling through town in the middle of the afternoon. Walking closer, I was able to isolate just a small section of the vine.
It doesn’t have to be a tiny plot only a few inches square to be intimate. The telephoto can also isolate a section of a much larger landscape, as in this view from Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. From the viewpoint, you see a series of soft, rolling hills and canyons. I wanted to isolate the trail from Golden Canyon and the lone hiker. That gives the scene a more intimate and human scale and feel.
3) Work inside a box
I know, normally we tell people to think outside the box. For an intimate landscape, imagine a box ten or 15 feet square and you and your camera are right in the center. What compositions can you find within that box? Keep looking until you’ve found at least two or three shots.
At Going-to-the-Sun Point in Glacier National Park a few years ago, the sunset was mediocre, so I started looking around for something else to shoot. Just a few feet away, on the side of a rock formation, was some colorful lichen that made a much more interesting photo than a bland sunset would have.
While at Zion National Park in the fall of 2016, I was shooting a narrow slot canyon.
Looking down and around, I found this rock with a fallen leaf on it. The shape of the rock wasn’t particularly interesting but the texture was, so I came in close and shot the image you see below.
4) Find the Frame within the Frame
As landscape photographers, we often face the temptation to go big and go wide, trying to fit everything into the frame. Yet, many times a larger, all-encompassing photo wont’ be as interesting as isolating a small part of that grand view. As you start to frame up a shot, ask yourself if there’s a better image to be had by zeroing in on a small part of what you see.
While walking through the village of Burano, Italy, known for its brightly colored houses, the natural urge is to photograph rows of those vibrant houses. Yet this smaller composition is more interesting (to me) and more intimate. The open window provides its own frame within the frame and invites the viewer to imagine what’s going on inside.
You will also find that a small selection of an otherwise perfectly obvious larger object becomes a mystery when it is singled out and loses the context of the whole. Next time you’re at a waterfall, take off your wide-angle lens and put on a telephoto. Zoom in to a small part of a waterfall and you might be rewarded with an interesting and unusual image, like this one from the Middle Falls at Letchworth State Park in New York.
5) Work the scene with multiple shots
Think about using intimate landscapes to help tell a more complete story about the location where you are shooting. At Mormon Row outside Jackson Hole, WY, the Moulton Barn in front of the Grand Tetons is a popular shot. There are also several abandoned houses nearby, one of which was open. Looking inside the door, I saw a variety of items left by the occupants that told a story of abandonment and decay. Combined with the barn and other shots, it helped tell a richer story than a photo of the barn alone.
6) Highlight the focal point.
Maybe you see a nice focal point to anchor the foreground of a landscape composition, for example an interesting rock at the opening of a canyon. After you’ve shot that composition, see what you can do with focal point as its own composition. In the Canadian Rockies, our workshop was shooting around Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park. Emerald Peak reflected in the lake was the natural landscape shot. I was trying to get some grasses in the foreground to anchor the composition when I realized that the grass, by itself, was a pleasing subject and the water reflected the sky, adding subtle additional interest to the photo.
7) Look for Patterns, Textures, Shapes and Lines
A composition that features lines, shapes, textures or patterns can make for a lovely image. Each of these adds interest and helps guide the eye through grand landscapes, so why not try to use them in intimate landscape photos?
In Phoenix, at the 2017 Improve Photography Retreat, the glass walls of an office building across from our hotel were reflecting the unusual windows of a neighboring building. As there was minimal color in the reflections, I converted the image file to black and white to further emphasize the pattern. The result was an interesting pattern that defies easy understanding.
While hiking out to Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, I was struck by the S-curve along the edge of a puddle of glacial meltwater. This is a shot also plays with scale, our next tip.
8) Play with Scale
With an intimate landscape, there’s often no point of reference by which the viewer can gauge scale. The focus of your image may be small or large but the viewer can’t tell. The lack of a human figure, a tree, or something of a recognizable size can make the photo more interesting.
At Coal Mine Canyon in northeastern Arizona, it’s hard to pull out clear, simple, interesting compositions with all the spires and hoodoos. But there are hundreds of smaller details. I saw the sunrise highlighting these tooth-like formations across the canyon and zoomed in to isolate just the “teeth” against a dark background. How big are they? I don’t really know. One hundred feet tall? Maybe. Does it matter?
9) Find Abstract Compositions
Intimate landscapes offer many opportunities for abstracts. During Autumn, when the leaves are bright and colorful you’ll have no trouble seeing their reflections in the still waters of a lake. When the water is moving, like in a creek or river, the reflections are harder to spot, but they’re there and they can make a really interesting photo. Walking along Rock Creek in Washington, DC, one fall day I took a bunch of shots or foliage reflections in the lazy waters of the creek.
10) Intimate Photos Don’t Always Have to Be Landscapes
There are tons of intimate compositions that won’t fit the typical definition of landscape photography. You can find them in architectural and real estate photography, in portrait and fashion photography, in street photography and more. Keep your eyes open for vignettes of people and objects and you’re sure to find them everywhere you look! I was at the mission ruins in Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona when the dark line of a rain downspout on the side of the adobe wall caught my eye. Turning the camera to an angle, I have an intimate shot that features line, pattern and a bit of abstraction.
While in Florence, Italy, I was passing through a street market and saw this display of belts. The combination of lines, patterns and colors really struck my eye. And getting closer, isolating a small portion of the scene, makes the viewer work to interpret the image.
Tile roofs are common in the American Southwest, Mexico and Spain, among other places. Seeing the pattern of the tiles interrupted by an exhaust chimney reminded me that some of the most effective pattern photos are when the pattern is interrupted by a single object.
Remember to Have Fun!
Intimate landscapes can be enjoyable. There are tons of opportunities, some serious and some whimsical. While you’re scouting those serious and arty shots, keep your eyes open for some fun ones, too.