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I Was Wrong About Landscape Photography

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
3 min read

I made the argument in the A Lesser Photographer book, and here in this blog, that photographers should chase what's scarce if they want to capture something with longevity in meaning. At the top of the list of examples, I'd include photojournalism and people-centric photography. These types of photography capture moments, people, and events who will change over time, thus making the photographs more valued over time.

Landscape photography always struck me as something perfected by the zone system masters from Ansel Adams up through John Sexton and Clyde Butcher. When digital photography democratized technical capabilities, old school mastery seemed to matter less and there doesn't seem to be a place on earth where an ordinary person can't travel with a perfectly capable camera.

This is more true every year. Soon, technique may not matter at all. The camera will do it all for you. Only location will matter in landscape photography. And there are fewer places every year not covered by humans with cameras.

Landscapes take a VERY long time to change significantly. There's no scarcity in capability or location anymore, so there's little value.

This revelation hit me in the 1990s when I saw the first real consumer digital camera. It discouraged me from pursuing my obsession with landscape photography.

Judging from two decades of email I've received, it probably discouraged millions of others as well. At least once a week I get an email about how a reader still loves photography, but hasn't done much with their own since the "death" of film.

I think our problem is not with the death of film or the death of mastery of the landscape, however. We've improperly framed the problem as one of our hobby not mattering to the world anymore. We need to re-frame the issue around how it matters to ourselves.

I just read the following in one of my favorite email newsletters, Further:

George MacKerron, an economist, wanted to find out what made people happy. He studied 20,000 people in the UK, mapping their locations over time with their reported emotions. He found:

"On average, study participants are significantly and substantially happier in outdoors in all green or natural habitats than they are in urban environments."

This is not a new idea. Psychologists have known for ages that getting back to nature is helpful for easing depression and anxiety. It may also help with physical ailments that either stem from mental ailments or cause them.

Among the many reasons I love landscape photography is that it gives me a great excuse to visit beautiful landscapes. It gives me a reason to slow down and appreciate the landscape from angles I would never otherwise consider. Capturing them with film gives me even more of an excuse to slow down.

When I shot with a 4x5 camera, I was forced to slow down and wait until the landscape gave me exactly the light I was looking to capture. Reloading can be tricky and the film is expensive, so you have to get it right the first time. You really have to know your craft and you have to see differently.

Clyde Butcher has been known to wait all day with his 8x10 camera for a single exposure. If he doesn't see exactly the light he wants, he comes back the next day and waits all over again.

This is the form of meditation I was enjoying in the 1990s that I've missed so much since. This is what's scarce. This is what's valuable. I didn't realize it was meditation at the time. It just felt like fun.

Caring about the myth of legacy or the value photographs may hold for others held me back for two decades from my passion (yes, I used the "p" word - deal with it - it just means an obsession with positive side effects).

Landscape photography is healthy. You hike miles. You look at gorgeous things. It feels good. It makes others looking at the results feel good too. Few things create such positive results for all involved.

I need to start thinking of landscape photography more like I think of fishing. Sure, there are professional fishermen. But, that doesn't stop millions from taking to the water every day to fish for fun, even if they sit all day on a pond and catch nothing. It's not about the fish. I need to stop making it about the fish.