The genre of fine art landscape photography is quite specific, where the artist's intent is to capture the beauty of the natural world to create art that express feelings of happiness, relaxation, excitement, or wonder.
The camera does not 'see' the same as the human eye, so the photographer uses their technical skill, experience, and knowledge of their equipment to record scenes in nature that will later result in high quality photographic prints.
So although the emotional aspect of fine art landscape photography could be defined as the artist's intention of using the camera for creative expression, whether it be a message, idea, or emotion, the other element to consider is the final, tangible print which can be an artwork unto itself.
And in this article, we will specifically examine the processes an artist undertakes to produce beautiful master photographic prints of the highest quality that stand the test of time.
The 'Art' Within Fine Art
It is generally agreed among professional photographers that creating a high quality, archival print that is rich in detail and quality is the pinnacle of the art form. Viewing a masterfully crafted fine art print communicates awe, wonder, and appreciation to the viewer.
There are several processes involved in producing a beautiful photographic art piece, especially a very large one that is full of fine details and beauty.
And being mindful that if the end result of our efforts is to produce a gallery quality print, the most important thing to understand is that it all starts in the field.
Often, the makings of a breathtaking landscape or nature photograph all start with researching your chosen location or subject. A photographer will sometimes research specific locations with the goal of capturing them during certain seasons, with specific natural lighting, or atmospheric conditions that evoke emotion and stir feelings in the viewer.
Good quality light is of utmost importance, and can be the difference between a 'nice' photo or a spectacular one. This is why arriving at the right time of day provides the best chance of success.
Early in the morning pre-sunrise, and late in the evening around sunset (known as the 'golden hours') is when the sun is lowest in the sky which will render the warm, soft, colorful light that make our subjects shine.
This is not to say that a beautiful image can only be captured in the morning or evening; far from it. It can vary greatly depending on weather conditions and subject matter. Sometimes an overcast sky acts like a giant light filter which can provide low contrast, soft lighting.
Finally, the one factor that we can never control is the weather. If the lighting or conditions at our location differ from what we anticipated, we may have to pack up and return another day. It is not uncommon to have to visit a location multiple times before the conditions are amenable to obtaining the shot that we desire.
Knowing The Gear
Most professionals will use higher quality cameras that generally have much larger image sensors, which allow a larger digital file with enough resolution to make large prints with very little loss in image quality.
High quality lenses are also very important, as their superior optics transfer into images with a high degree of sharp detail. They are the tools of the craft and help to achieve better results in the final product.
Composing a scene in the field and recording all of the details we need to fulfill our vision of the final print is critical step in the process.
If we wish to create a print that is tack sharp from foreground to background, sometimes a technique called 'focus stacking' is employed by taking multiple shots with different focus points that are combined later in post-processing.
Remember that the camera is only a tool, and does not 'see' the same as our eyes. Additionally, lens choice, proper exposure, the chosen shutter speed, and many other camera settings all have an impact on the final result, as well as our artistic vision and what we are trying to achieve.
The goal in the field is to capture all of the details needed to create the final photograph utilizing experience, knowledge, and technique to record the highest quality digital files.
File Formats - JPEG Versus RAW
Unlike the days of film photography, in the age of digital cameras it is not uncommon to arrive home from the field with hundreds or even thousands of images on memory cards, instead of a few rolls of film.
And just as film requires a masterful darkroom technique using chemicals and light exposure to create a print that fulfills the photographer's vision, digital image processing can also be very tedious; today we just use different tools.
But before we continue, it is important to pause for a moment to understand the distinction between digital file formats from a camera. Most consumer-grade cameras today, from cell phones to point-and-shoot models have very small image sensors and usually record the picture you take as a JPEG image file.
This means that after you click the shutter button, the camera makes the final image for you automatically. It adds color saturation and sharpening to the photo, then 'compresses' the file to keep it small (by deleting a large number of the pixels) to save memory space, then saves it on your device or memory card. This happens almost instantaneously inside the camera.
JPEG photos recorded this way may look nice on your cell phone or laptop screen, but if you ever try to adjust them with imaging software, you will be severely limited because the file size is so small. Even the smallest brightness or saturation adjustment can make the photo look blotchy or pixelated.
And although you can print these small JPEGs, you will be very limited on how much you can enlarge them due to the lack of resolution.
One of the big differences between entry level and professional grade cameras is the size of their image sensors, the internal image processor which records the image, and the ability to shoot in a high resolution image file format.
Although pro-grade cameras also have a JPEG setting, the majority of professionals photograph using the 'RAW format' setting in the camera, which is technically not a photograph at all.
A RAW file is a highly detailed digital file which must first be converted with special computer software to actually see it as a photograph, and then 'processed' digitally to create the final image.
Although RAW files contain all of the colors and details present in the scene when it was photographed, these files are generally very 'flat' and lacking in contrast and saturation when they are initially converted from the memory card to the computer screen.
But unlike JPEGs, the camera does not compress a RAW file, so the resolution is much higher, allowing very large print sizes with almost no loss of image quality.
Processing The Image
In order to process a digital RAW file into a finished image file, a large variety of techniques are employed using image editing software such as Adobe Photoshop®, which gives the artist very fine control over elements of the image such as color, saturation, brightness, detail, and sharpening.
The software also allows the photographer to employ the 'focus stacking' technique (which we referenced earlier), where multiple images of the same scene with different focus points can be blended into a single photo that is tack sharp from the foreground to the background. This is sometimes necessary to overcome limitations of the camera lens.
Today's processing programs are very powerful, allowing the artist to manipulate their images with almost no boundaries or limits. But this can be a slippery slope, and going overboard can quickly render an image into something that looks unnatural.
This is where the keen eye, artistic intent, experience, and processing skills of the photographer are combined to create the final master file from which the print will be made.
Color Calibration And Paper Profiles
It is critical to perform image processing on a quality computer monitor that is color calibrated. Using a 'calibration tool' in tandem with special software will adjust the color output of a monitor to internationally accepted standards that provides an even 'playing field' or baseline of color values.
Next, the large variety of photo papers and materials available today have varying properties which affect how colors will appear on the final print. So how do we know what our image will look like when printed on 'Paper A' compared to 'Paper B'?
To simplify, if a photographer wishes to print their image on 'Paper A', they first download the ICC profile for 'Paper A' from the manufacturer. The computer can then 'simulate' what the photograph will look like when it is printed on 'Paper A'. This process is called 'soft proofing'.
This allows the photographer to adjust image brightness, color saturation, shadow detail and other settings so it can be predicted with reasonable accuracy how the final image will look when printed on any given paper.
At the end of the day, the goal is to make final prints look as close as possible to the image on the monitor. Without some sort of baseline standard using calibration and paper profiles, that would be virtually impossible.
Fine Art Prints And The Viewing Experience
Most fine art photographers would agree that a fine art print should not only convey the message of the artist to the observer, but the print itself should also be produced in a high quality medium so the viewer can enjoy it to it's fullest extent as an object of beauty.
With today's technological advances, it is possible to print an image on almost any medium imaginable. Paper, canvas, metal, wood; the list goes on and on. But of course, they are not all created equal.
If the end goal of a fine art photographer is to print their images on a medium that will last for generations, and one which will provide the finest detail, depth, brilliance, and color reproduction for the best viewing experience possible, acrylic face mount prints stand above the rest.
While a paper or metal print can certainly be considered fine art, the acrylic print medium takes the viewing experience to a whole new level of appreciation.
In its most simplistic form, acrylic 'face mounting' a photograph is a process that involves printing a photograph on paper, applying a clear adhesive to the face of the image then adhering the print to a clear sheet of special acrylic. Anti-reflective acrylic is optimal, as it reduces distracting reflections and glare which inhibit the viewing experience.
When accent lighting is used on face mounted prints, it refracts or 'bounces' within the acrylic, causing a unique effect that appears to illuminate the image from within.
This captivating effect is unique to the acrylic face-mount style and is the reason they look so bright and vibrant, full of rich detail with amazing depth.
A Salute To The Pioneers
The fine art photographers of today owe a great debt of gratitude to the many early pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Edward Jean Steichen (1879 – 1973) and Edward Weston (1886-1958) who were instrumental in establishing photography as a legitimate art form.
But arguably, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is perhaps one of the most widely known and referenced fine art landscape photographers and printers of the 20th century.
"Art implies control of reality, for reality itself possesses no sense of the aesthetic. Photography becomes art when certain controls are applied."
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
- Ansel Adams
He was a true innovator with his deep understanding of recording an image, developing his negatives and using brilliant darkroom techniques like the Zone System, which he co-created, to produce his desired prints.
It is widely agreed among today's professionals that if Ansel Adams had access to the digital tools that we use today, he would have embraced them wholeheartedly. He was a strong proponent of technical darkroom methods which infused his personal artistic vision and style into his prints.
But perhaps one of his greatest contributions to the art form was the key role he played as an advisor in establishing the photography division at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1940's, a first for any major American museum.
This contribution from Adams is widely recognized as being vital in establishing fine art photography's legitimacy as a medium of visual art equal to that of painting or sculpture.
The Final Take
Although the tools and technology we use to create fine art photography will continue to evolve in the future, the real magic has always lied in the vision and creativity of the artists behind the lens.
Innovators like the late Ansel Adams helped pave the way for artists who sought legitimacy and recognition for their work, and during his lifetime, personally recognized the evolution of the photographic process.
“I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.”
No matter the evolution of fine art photography, the camera will always remain a tool of expression, as the brush to the painter or the chisel to the sculptor.
The skill, experience, and creativity of the landscape photography artist are the most important elements that combine to portray their vision and love of the natural world.
The fine art print is the pinnacle of the art form, and the object of beauty that stirs emotions of happiness, joy, and wonder that will last for generations.