Intimate Landscapes

Detail of stream flowing through colorful brush

The term Intimate Landscape was coined by Eliot Porter. It was the title of the first one-person color photography show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, back in 1979. By convention it refers to isolating one small part of a scene rather than the entire vista. Even though it is called “Intimate Landscape” the technique can be used for almost any type of subject.

Details rather than sweeping whole

Landscapes can generally be approached at 3 levels: whole scene, micro/macro view of extreme details, and “in between”. This “in between” area is what we will be discussing. Some consider it the Goldilocks region – not too big, not too small.

It is easy to pull up to a beautiful, vast landscape view and immediately want to pull out your widest angle lens and capture the whole sweeping scene. That’s great. It will probably be a beautiful image. I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with that. But unless there is something really magical going on, it tends to look like every other visitor’s picture of the same place.

I am also going to ignore the macro end of the spectrum for now. This is the domain of the crazies with specialized gear and their own language, who will set up a strange looking rig with focus stages, wind blocks, multiple flashes, and run a 200 image focus stack set. You know who you are 🙂 – I’ve been there too.

To me the distinguishing characteristic of intimate landscapes is the focus on details rather than the whole.

Describe the whole by a part

In formal logic intimate landscapes are related to the process of inductive reasoning. That’s just for free, there is no real reason you need to memorize that. Inductive reasoning is making broad generalizations from specific observations. In logic this can be dangerous – Harold is a grandfather; Harold is bald; therefore all grandfathers are bald. This is a non-sequitur. The conclusion does not follow from the facts.

But we are not talking about formal logic, we are discussing art. Art is what we feel and perceive. Using parts to give insight on the whole is a valid and very useful technique.

For instance, let’s say I am looking at a beautiful mountain scene in Colorado, because I hang out there a lot. If I shoot the whole scene it may be very beautiful, but it is a very specific location. You may have been there and seen the same thing. You expect to be able to go to a map and pinpoint the exact spot and be able to go there and see it.

But what are the features and details I am drawn to? I find that when I focus on these details it helps me to interpret the whole. The details become much more general. They are views of things we all have seen and relate to rather than just a particular place. They are vignettes, glimpses into the grand scene. The detailed scenes represent the concept or essence of the place without pinning it down to a specific location. To me this is more powerful and easier for us to relate to. The part really can represent the whole.

Telephoto eyes

Jay Maisel was the first I can remember to express the concept of having “telephoto eyes”. He is not the only one. What he is saying is that he has a natural tendency to zoom in on details in a scene. I discovered that this is my natural inclination, too.

For many years I shot almost exclusively with a moderate telephoto lens. Recently I have made myself use a wider angle much of the time. This is more to train myself to be able to see other options than because I switched my perspective. And because the Nikon Z 24-70 f/2.8 I am using is a really sweet lens.

But my instinct to to isolate details. It is the way I perceive scenes. I have to interpret it by deconstructing it into component parts. It requires some patience. To look beneath the obvious beauty of the whole and find the parts that make it up. To me, the parts represent and describe the essence of the scene. And they transcend a particular location and bring out what is interesting about places like this.

An intimate scene, to me, focuses our attention on nuggets of significance. Guy Tal has a book entitled “More Than a Rock“. He describes that a picture of a scene can take on significance greater than the obvious object. That is the way I feel about intimate landscapes. If I isolate a cascade in a larger scene, it can become more than just a particular place. It says something about mountain cascades in general.

Opportunity for interpretation

This generalization process is very attractive to me. I can stop just making pretty pictures of particular places. Now I can respond to the parts individually and emotionally. I can interpret the details in their own right. It is my reaction to and view of cascades or trees or rocks, regardless of the specific location. They take on a life and meaning of their own.

The process involves deliberately paring away everything that is not adding to my interpretation of a particular detail. The details become independent of any certain location. Without the context of the whole scene they represent the things that catch my attention and that I want to share with viewers. For example, the image in this article of a brook meandering through willow bushes is very representative of many typical locations in the part of the world I hang out in a lot. It is very characteristic of the area, not of the specific location.

So for me, I view it as a process of breaking a wide scene down to the individual components that make it interesting to me, interpreting the parts, and from that coming to a greater appreciation of the whole scene. I don’t claim this is a conscious process I do methodically or deliberately for every scene. I’m just thinking through how I seem to react to views and trying to understand why.

We all should seek to understand what we do and why. Even if we are not entirely successful we might learn something about ourselves.

Intimate landscape

Maybe it’s quirky and peculiar. Maybe me and Jay Maisel and Eliott Porter and Guy Tal and a few thousand other photographers are the exception. I tend to see the world in details, in bits and pieces. These details come together for me to paint a picture of the whole.

Sometimes the whole scene is necessary. But more often I find the details help me take it apart and decide what is important to me.

Anyway, that’s the way I perceive things. I’m glad for the concept of intimate landscapes. It makes me feel a little sane. If you approach the world differently, that is fine, as long as it works for you.


Experimental image

I can’t speak for your goals or interests or learning style, but I know that my creativity is enhanced by actively experimenting some of the time. It is a conscious decision to try something completely different than what I normally do.

Break the rules

If you have read this blog much you have picked up on a love-hate relationship to photographic rules. Rules have a place but also a time when they should be abandoned.

Learn, study, internalize the normal rules of composition. Get excellent at the techniques necessary to create well executed images. These things prevent you from embarrassing yourself by releasing well meaning garbage to your viewers.

Sorry to be so blunt, but not bothering to learn the accepted conventions established over the years for good images is just arrogance and immaturity. Learn the conventions and follow them until they are deeply ingrained in your subconscious. Follow them until they become uncomfortable. and confining You will eventually understand when that is.


At some point you will find yourself saying “yes, but…”. Then the rules are no longer enough for where you are creatively. They are restraining you to do the same kinds of images everyone else is doing. Something inside is compelling you to do it differently.

It is very important then to realize you have permission to change your norm. You don’t have to ask anyone or apply to some authority for permission to do this. Just follow where your now trained instincts lead you.

Now you will begin a period of experimentation and uncertainty. The old foundations you trusted are beginning to crumble. Will you trust your instincts to carry you to a new place?

To be honest, you will probably start doing a lot of bad work. At least, work that is very different from your norm but far short of the vision you have for where you want to go. That’s OK. Push through it. Keep on trying and modifying until you get closer.

At this point you probably better be content to get criticism. The people who enjoyed your old work will not be happy and you haven’t really gotten to a stage where you could develop a new audience to support you. Honestly, if you have to support yourself from your art you may have to continue doing the old style work and confine this experimentation to personal projects and off times alone. For a while.

But you have to really ask yourself why you are changing and experimenting. Isn’t it because your vision is changing and you are no longer content with what you used to do? You will need to decide at some point if you want to be true to your vision or keep in the safe zone of doing what worked in the past.

Do things that can’t possibly work

Let me challenge you to regularly set aside time to experiment with wild ideas. Come up with crazy ideas that can’t possibly work – and try them. Can’t work might just mean no one has tried it like you are approaching it. Or it really can’t work. Either way you learn something.

History is full of failed experiments that led to whole new ways of doing things or looking at problems. Did you know that Post-It Notes came from a failed adhesive experiment? What would anyone want with an adhesive that didn’t stick? Until somebody needed a bookmark that didn’t fall out of the book. They got together and things sparked.

And those things you are trying that don’t seem useful? You are building a catalog of possibilities. A base of knowledge and ideas that will find surprising applications in the future. And you are accepting that not every image has to be “successful” in the conventional sense. Success in expanding your vision and your abilities may be more important long term.

A special snowflake

Please pardon the cynicism, but everybody is told they are unique snowflakes and many of us believe it. But do you act it? Or do you spend your energy trying to make the same pictures everyone else does.?

Most photography tutorials are “how to create the same image I made”. Most workshops take students to locations where they can take the same iconic images everyone else does. Aren’t most online comments praise for safe, conventional images that are just like the norm?

Everybody has the possibility of being truly unique, but you have to develop that uniqueness. You have to reach deep inside and bring a vision that is truly you. You have to be able to express that vision is a tangible way that others can see.

Experimenting with ideas you have never seen before is one good exercise for that.

And now for something completely different…

All right, so I’m old enough to have been a Monty Python fan.

I have preached the faith of experimenting but I haven’t shared any examples I have done. The image with this blog post is a deliberate experiment I did recently that violates virtually all rules I know of. It is long exposure, hand held, taken from a moving vehicle. There is nothing sharp in the entire image. It doesn’t fit normal composition rules. I certify that this is a single original frame with no double exposure or compositing.

What has it got, in my opinion? Intrigue, interest, great flow, visual interest, ambiguity, questions, a staying power that makes me want to put is on the wall and look at it for a long time. Those things give me joy. And hope. I’m very glad I experimented.

It keeps you fresh

Training yourself to have a habit of experimentation will help keep you fresh. Always ask “what if?”. You lose the fear of trying something new and maybe failing. You gain the benefit of letting your vision expand and bloom in new ways.

Do you look at your work and see the same subjects, the same treatment, the same composition over and over? Experimenting and taking on “strange” personal projects outside your norm and with no intent of commercial success will keep you from getting stagnant. You need it to keep your creative energy flowing.

And when your experiments lead to results you are proud of, be confident to incorporate the technique into your mainstream work. You are a dynamic, living being who changes with time. Your work should reflect that. Don’t be afraid.

Seeing Better

Impression of ship passing in the night

Beginning a new year might be a good time to think about seeing better. Many of us have been mostly looking at the interior walls of our homes for a long time. If anything, this leads us to see worse. Seeing better is not just our visual acuity, I refer to our ability to perceive, to notice, to be aware of what is around us.


When we think of seeing better we naturally think about the sharpness of our vision. Technically, this is called acuity. When we go to the optometrist and read the letters on the wall we will hear some number pair, like, say 20/30. This means we can see at 20 feet what most people can see at 30 feet. We would like, of course, to hear that we have 20/20 (normal) or even 20/10 (extra sharp) vision.

The doctor will be glad to prescribe corrective lenses or contacts to bring our acuity up to par. There are also other visual conditions like glaucoma or astigmatism that need attention. It is good to visit a vision specialist regularly.

The ability to see well is very important, as an artist and a viewer and to lead a rewarding life. My art is a visual medium. If I cannot see to make it or appreciate it I am greatly handicapped.


But it is not simply a matter of getting good glasses. Most people see, but don’t see. That is, they are able to image the world around them very well, but they do not think about or perceive what they see. This is head skill, not a visual ability.

I hope I am being too critical. I hope you do not have this problem and you really pay attention to the world around you. If you are a regular reader of this blog perhaps this is so. What I observe of the people around me tells me I am not wrong, though.

Put away your phone for a few minutes – I’ve tried it; a few minutes without it is not fatal – observe people around you. Are they glued to their mobile device? Are they in a daze, oblivious to what is around them? How many people do you see with their heads swiveling, really observing the people and sights around them? What about you?

Before you can perceive, you have to see. Seeing is not perceiving, but it is a necessary step. To actually see you have to detach from the attention grabbing time wasters that have mastery of us. When we get to the point of taking the time to intentionally see, we can start to learn to perceive.

Perceiving is an attitude. It is a skill we develop with time and discipline.

Observation skills

Have you watched a good Sherlock Holmes? I recommend the most recent series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. IMHO it is the best version ever done.

Anyway, what sets Holmes apart from other people, other than being a self-described “high functioning sociopath”? It is his observation skill. He can take a quick glance at someone and describe their story in detail. He picks up on the clues and tiny details that everyone else overlooks.

Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a fictional character. But he serves to show a contrast to the way most of us go through the world. Most of us do not take the time and effort to look closely and really see things. To pick up on the details, the story.

A large part of perception is attitude and training. It is a mental skill. I believe any of us can learn to perceive more of the world around us if we work at it. It takes conscious effort and awareness. Some people are more naturally attuned to it than others, but it is not impossible for anyone.

See from inside

Unless you just want to take “pretty pictures”, you cannot make a very interesting image unless you have something to say. I’m not dismissing beauty, I’m just saying even a beautiful scene doesn’t have much staying power unless we can see through the artist’s eyes. Unless he can make us see what he felt about it.

We have to find something inside of us to connect to so we can interpret it and express our feelings to the viewer. To connect to something, we have to truly see the subject. Not just forming the image on our retina but really taking it in and letting it affect us. This is perception. Jonathan Swift said “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. It may be lonely and nobody else may “get it”, but an artist is compelled to share his vision.

Good or bad, beautiful or ugly, grand or tiny, we have to be able to have an emotional reaction to the subject to give our reaction to the viewer. Any worthwhile image is not just a record of what was there. It is our interpretation of it. You can’t really interpret unless you have taken it in, processed it, examined it, contemplated it, thought about it. All enough to be able to give it meaning.

I’m not saying you have to develop a deep relationship with the subject, or write an essay about your feelings, or spend weeks visiting it. Any of these things might help, but none are necessary. An artist should build a broad base of experience and interests. That allows a quicker perception and reaction to encountered subjects.

I find some excellent images driving down the road. It is probably something I can react to quickly because I have thought about the type of subject a lot. Also, I give myself permission to stop and get out and examine it. To set up and frame it give my best interpretation of it. Do you ever stop when you are driving and just look at things?


Beethoven? I mention him because he is an inspiration and example to me. Toward the end of his life he became deaf, yet he created what some consider his greatest masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. He never heard a note of it, except in his mind. What he was able to perceive in the silence of his mind was greater than what anyone else could hear.

That, to me, is true perception. He could hear without hearing. We should learn to see without seeing. It is in our minds, our experiences, our feelings. We can create experience at a deeper level than just pixels. But first, we have to be able to operate on that deeper level. That takes time and self-discipline. We have to train ourselves to perceive.

Seeing better is a responsibility of the artist. If we do not perceive and feel, how can we bring something meaningful to our viewers? They want more than just a record of something. We have to see better so we can bring more to them.


Flowing green shapes and lines

For many people, one of the fundamentals of the craft of photography has been pre-visualization. This simply means that before exposing the image you have worked out the exposure and what mood and effect you want to capture and how you plan to process it.

I’m going to push back on this idea. My premise is that pre-visualization is no longer as important as it was in film days.

Ansel did

Yes, Ansel Adams was a big proponent of pre-visualization. He said “the term [pre]visualization refers to the entire emotional-mental process of creating a photograph, and as such, is one of the most important concepts in photography”.

I think he got a little carried away here. He is veering into mystical/religious experience. The reality is that, because of the technology of the time, he had to pre-visualize carefully to get good results.

Think about it, he was shooting film – no immediate preview. He was shooting black & white – he used strong filters to change the tonal arrangement, and he had to anticipate the result mostly based on experience. Negatives had to be developed and this introduced ranges of contrast choices that couldn’t be seen until after the fact. And then there was reciprocity failure that required compensation for long exposures – something those of us shooting digital don’t even know about. His negatives had to be fairly low contrast to try to capture as much information as possible so he could spend hours in the darkroom creating a final print. He generally exposed pretty conservatively to make sure he got something to work with.

All this made it critical to him to plan out exposures and filter sets and contrast ranges as much as possible without actually being able to see the result. Everything had to be carefully done to capture a decent negative for processing back in the darkroom. Hence, a strong need for “pre-visualization”.

Ansel and some of his associates even developed the famous “zone system” as part of pre-visualization. It divided the world into an 11 stop range from black to white. In normal practice, they pre-planned where the significant tones would end up after development and printing. This was part of the process of trying to make a useful negative at capture time.

Fast forward

We live is a very different world. Shooting digital, we can see a preview image and its histogram immediately. We know what we captured.

And our modern digital sensors are incredible pieces of technology. Despite what Moose Peterson famously says in some of his videos, we can capture a dynamic range of about 14 stops, with a “useful” range of around 8 stops. That is a game changer. And if that is not enough it has never been easier to use high dynamic range (HDR) to capture about as much as you could want.

For those of us still doing black & white – I love b&w and do it a lot – it is the best time in history to practice this. Very few people actually shoot in b&w, e.g. have their cameras physically modified to remove the Bayer color filter. Instead we capture full color images and use the fantastic post processing capabilities we have on our computers to do the conversion and tone mapping. But we don’t have to pre-visualize the tone effects we will get because we can non-destructively play with a wide range of effects to work out what we like. And we see in real time what we are getting. Ansel would have killed for this.

Post pre-visualization

John Paul Caponigro has said “Digital allows us to get away from pre-visualization and get back to visualization.” What does it mean? How can it be?

My take on this is that we are much freer now to let our creativity run wild. Unlike previous generations of photographers we have immediate viewing of our images and non-destructive editing for post-processing. Every frame can be a different ISO speed. It doesn’t cost much or usually take much time to shoot a bracket of images to make sure we get a good original.

And now, instead of huddling in the dark smelling strong chemicals, we can sit at our computer with a nice glass of wine and interpret an image however we want. The range of options is staggering. There are far fewer limits now. It’s a good time to be a photographer!

This plays directly to the imaging style I love. In the field I can be in the moment. As long as I am making good captures I don’t have to have worked out in detail exactly what I am going to do with each image. I am free to treat the processing as an almost completely separate creative act. The raw image can be modified in ways Ansel never dreamed of.

If you can get to the Luminous Landscape web site Alain Briot has a good discussion of this topic.

Getting a good capture

Pre-visualization is much less important now as long as we capture as much data as possible. Get a well formed histogram. Expose to the right where possible to avoid noise. Use appropriate technique for sharpness and detail.

Capturing good images is still an art form. It is just my personal values, but pointing your camera at a scene and saying you will crop a good image out of it later and “Photoshop out” clutter is sloppy thinking and lazy. I believe I should decide what the subject is and create the best composition when I am taking the picture.

Being an artist includes being a good craftsman.

Wonders of post processing tools

Pre-visualization is not as important because of the wonders that can be done now in post. I do not agree with the philosophy that “if it doesn’t work in color make it black & white”. But it is true that the decision does not have to be make up front. That is the point. I can make an artistic decision later when I determine the look I want for the image. I did not have to put a red filter on the lens or carefully place the tones on a zone scale. That can all be done in post processing. It’s great!

Darkroom work was sort of the dirty little secret of photographers way back. They would labor for many hours to coerce a good print out of a negative. We might still spend hours post processing, but we are probably playing with alternate looks and having a lot of fun with the image.

Free your spirit

I am telling you my interpretation and what works for me. I believe we have been liberated from the detailed planning that was necessary in the film days. Now imaging is a more fluid and artistic medium. Pixels are data. Data can be processed many ways and to different degrees.

It is not uncommon for me to see something completely different in an image at post than I felt in the field. This is one of the joys of being an artist today. I am free, creativity can flow, I am not tightly constrained by what I planned at capture time.

I encourage you to not be burdened by a literal concept of pre-visualization. Do your best creative and technical work when you are capturing images and then feel free to decide how you really feel when you process them. Give yourself permission to follow your instincts and take each image where you want to go.