I don’t consider landscapes to be my strong suit when it comes to photography. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting up before dawn to trek to a cool spot where you expect a sunrise to provide you with great photo opportunities, and occasionally I’ve been able to produce such glorious shots, but I don’t think I’ve got an instinct for landscape. Although I’m well aware of the road that lies ahead of me in the exploration of photography, I think I’ve come to have a good instinct for concert shots (you’d hope so, with the number of concerts I’ve been attending…), and from there for portraits. I’m starting to find my marks with street photos and still lives as well. But when it comes to landscapes, I feel like the good shots I’ve gotten were more due to chance than to skill or design. So when Craft & Vision released David duChemin’s Portraits of Earth I purchased it in the hope of finding not only tips but something to reflect on and maybe help in establishing some form of mental process towards getting better landscape shots.
I’ve reviewed Dodge & Burn a few weeks ago. Portraits of Earth is a very different kind of book. The former was very technical and process oriented, the latter is much looser and tips oriented. In any case, duChemin doesn’t particularly feel like a process kind of guy (although you’d have to be very special to get to where he is in photography and business without at least some method.) He certainly doesn’t want to come accross as a systematic photographer and repeats again and again in the body of the text that rules are at best designed to be broken, if not completely useless. I worried as I read the first few pages that that approach would leave me frustrated, but ultimately I’ve gotten some good stuff out of the book, although I still have to find my own approach to landscapes. Mind you, I can’t ask a book to provide that for me anyway. Food for thought is the best I could expect, and I got that in spades.
The book starts with duChemin detailing gear choices for landscape photography. That’s over 15 pages in a 64 page book, but it’s not too much. Landscape photography, because it uses a tripod, has specific gear requirements and also opens up opportunities that can make various tools useful. duChemin examines choices in Optics, Tripods and Filters. It’s all very clearly written, concise without lacking detail and to the point. The filter section in particular is very good and one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read on the subject. I had a couple of a-ha moments reading that as duChemin described some of the issues with screw-on filters that affect the look of the final picture.
The next chunky section of the book examines lighting, probably the single most important topic besides the subject when doing landscape photography. David duChemin details the different kinds of light you can get (soft, dramatic, reflected, back, side, warm and cool), how they affect a scene and the different opportunities they present. duChemin then goes into some detail on introducing artificial lighting in landscape and exposure blending, techniques that are widely used in professional landscape photography even though it’s rarely perceived by viewers. There’s also a couple of pages on fog and how to use it to great effect.
Then the book looks at composition in a section called « Lines ». In all fairness, it’s not a composition treatise and while a good read, it’s not going to blow your mind. I should stress that my bedside photography book is Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye which talks of nothing else than composition for 300+ pages, so it’s not really surprising that section of Portraits of Earth doesn’t bring me much. Still, one thing I expected that I found lacking was some conceptual notion of what makes a good subject for landscape photography. I don’t believe that a good photographer can make a photography with just any landscape, and I suspect that part of my issue with landscape photos is I don’t see the shot ahead of time. I would have liked to read a little about that: when do you decide you’ve found your spot?
The next 4 sections are tips and considerations for shooting land, water, snow and details in landscapes. These are all excellent tips, quite a few of which I had never heard or thought of before and sparked some ideas. The book is, of course, richly illustrated with duChemin’s own photography. These range from great to excellent with a few stunners thrown in for good measure. This guy clearly knows his stuff, and knows how to shoot it. The choice of photos is well thought out as well, illustrating different aspects of the text.
In conclusion, Portraits of Earth is a really good book on landscape photography, and when you factor in that it only costs $5, it’s excellent value for money. I was a little frustrated that the topic of choosing one’s subject wasn’t given a bit more airtime, but that’s a very mild dissapointment considering all else I got from this book. I guess you’ll have to check this place over the next few months to see if duChemin’s advice had helped me progress in this particular field!