Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

My Creative Process for Landscape Photography

I live in San Diego and making local landscape images has been my focus for the past several years. When I started, other photographers told me that it would be an uphill battle, that everything has already been shot before, and it’s going to be next to impossible to standout. I was told that I would struggle to find my own unique pictures.

At first I was discouraged and I found it hard to argue with this viewpoint. If you go to Google you can find thousands if not millions of images for any given landmark:

  • scripps pier — 1.6M results
  • lily pond in balboa park — 236k results
  • point loma lighthouse — 3.9M results
  • san diego skyline — 114M results
  • coronado bridge sunrise — 2.85M results

Despite the warnings, I went ahead and decided to photograph local subjects anyway. After several years, I realized that the general sentiment isn’t true at all. The vast majority of the existing photos are from the same tripod holes leaving lots of opportunities for new creative work. I found that it was not only possible, but also not that difficult to come up with unique images of even the most popular landmarks.

I’d like to think that I’m a creative photographer (isn’t that the conceit of every photographer?). But I don’t think I have more natural aptitude for creativity than anybody else. What I do have is some processes and brainstorming methods that I follow and will share with you here.

Process #1 - Scouting and Exploration

First, I think scouting and exploring is the cornerstone of landscape photography. It’s an essential skill and has helped me come up with more new compositions than anything else I’ve learned. I probably spend more time on this than actually photographing. While I do some research online, I do the majority of my scouting by walking around and somehow the act of moving my feet fires the connections in my brain.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Make trips just to explore a spot without even taking your camera. It’s great use of midday time when the light isn’t that great for photography.
  • Take copious notes about the area including potential compositions, the date flowers bloom, how to access the area, where to park, etc. I also record information such as the compass direction of various foreground features such as rock formations. The direction will be helpful if you want to align the foreground with the sun, moon, milky way core, etc. Record tide levels if you are at the coast.
  • Along with the notes, take reference photos and store them in a catalog. I use Lightroom and I tag the photos with relevant metadata so that you can quickly find a spot by environmental condition, for example, all photos with a tide level of 2’ or photos taken in the fog.
  • When you go on a photography outing and get to your location, don’t go to straight to the classic view and instead spend at least 30 minutes walking around and checking out different angles.

I use every chance I can to scout. Whenever I’m going somewhere, whether it be walking, running, driving, or riding the trolley, I’m always looking around for new subjects and compositions. Sometimes I don’t have time to stop and explore so I just make a note that the area is promising and I should return at a later time.

For example, I discovered this nook while wandering around the beaches in La Jolla. Quiet Place

I discovered this scene by accident when I was walking around Balboa Park and noticed the sun nicely complemented the banyan trees. I returned several times during the next month in order to get the perfect sun position. Radiance

Process #2 - Random Association

The second technique I use is random association. I look at the components or features of my images and ask myself what do I get if I randomly change things up and combine different parts? For example, I would normally only do star trail images in dark sky areas (in San Diego that means driving inland at least an hour or two) but what happens if I try and combine star trails with a cityscape? Asking that question led to this picture:

Time Warp

As another example, people are often photographing the sunset alignment at Scripps Pier (the sun sets between the support pylons and can be seen from underneath the pier). I’ve never attempted to photograph this and probably never will because of the crowds. However, I asked myself what happens if you swap out the sun for another astronomical body like the moon?

Moonhenge

As far as I know, I’m the first person to capture the moon aligned with opening. Because this was a largely unknown composition at the time, there was nobody else here and I was able to photograph the pier alone. However, I expect I’ll have company at the next moon alignment.

As an alternative to starting with an existing image, you can randomly select words out of a grab bag of features. For example,

  • foreground subject: building, rock formation, tree, flowers, water
  • background subject: sun, moon, mountains, skyline, piers
  • sky: blue skies, partly cloudly, overcast, foggy, raining, snowing
  • emotions: happy, sad, moody, upbeat, peaceful, dramatic
  • time of day: sunrise, morning, midday, afternoon , sunset, twilight, night

randomly pick a few terms. Say you get blue skies, tree, and peaceful. Now the challenge is to find a composition where this you can combine these elements together which may involve some scouting (see process #1). It took me several months, but I finally achieved that with this picture:

Simple Pleasures

Process #3 - Forced Limitations

“The enemy of art is the abscence of limitations” -Orson Welles

The third technique I use is to put limitations on myself in order to kickstart the creative process. Taking away some of the choices available, especially the obvious ones, forces us to get creative and explore other solutions to get the shot.

Here are some limitations I have put on myself at different times:

  • I may refuse to shoot the classic compositions of a well-known landmark.
  • I may limit myself to a specific lens. Since I shoot mostly wide angle images, I’ll force myself to use a normal or telephoto lens.
  • I go out and shoot in weather outside of the stereotypical colorful sunrise/sunset conditions we see in most landscape photos. I noticed that I was falling into a rut and many of my images started to look the same with an overwhelming red/orange/magenta palette from sunset colors. Now I force myself to go out in the fog or overcast days.
  • I may decide ahead of time to use a specific color palette. Perhaps I want predominantly blues and whites. I then have to find a composition where I can achieve that color scheme and the colors make sense for what I want to convey.
  • I try to limit myself to horizontal compositions. I noticed that I have a strong tendency to shoot vertical images with a near far composition, to the point where it was dominating my portfolio. So now when I go out to photograph I always try to find a horizontal composition first.

This following image was taken in Balboa Park at the lily pond and it is probably one of the most photographed landmarks in the city. The day I came here I had two limitations: (1) I told myself that I would not take the standard shot, and (2) there was ugly scaffolding on the buildings around the pond that covered too much too clone out. I actually walked around the pond several times trying to think of a composition, gave up and started to go home even though the sunset was looking very promising. As I started to walk back, I realized that I could shoot through the balusters on the bridge, which would satisfy my need for a new composition and hide the scaffolding. I rushed back and made one of my favorite shots of all time.

Enchanted

Here is the more typical composition of the lily pond. Standard Shot

Process #4 - Taking Inspiration from Others

Starry Night

Sometimes I’ll see a work of art that resonates with me and then inspires me to come up with my own version. I don’t mean making a literal copy, but rather creating a photograph that has your own twists even though there might be some basic similarities. For example, I love Van Gogh’s Starry Night and started thinking about how I could make my own version of the image. I realized that the tree in foreground could be represented by the California Tower in Balboa Park. I then went about experimenting and taking a variety of shots with star trails, the moon, and clouds. Here’s what I came up with:

Moonlight Triumph

Now obviously this shot is nothing like Van Gogh’s painting other than it’s a night scene with the moon. But for me, it evokes the same feelings and mood.

As a second example, I’ve always loved Moonrise, Hernandez by Ansel Adams. I thought about how I could make a similar version and realized that the buildings in downtown San Diego could stand in for the town of Hernandez. The temptation with a moonrise shot is to pull out a giant telephoto lens and make the moon as large as possible (there’s no shortage of these images). But as with Adam’s photograph, I wanted a smaller moon to show the environment.

Moonrise, San Diego

Final tips

Keep good notes of your ideas. Once you start brainstorming on new images to make, you’ll quickly find that you have many more ideas than you can easily remember and more than you can photograph in a reasonable amount of time. To keep track of these ideas, I record my notes in a text file on my computer – right now there are about two or three hundred different ideas.

When I’m struggling to think of what I should photograph, I’ll skim through my text file and work on the ones that ones that strike a cord with me and that are feasible given current weather conditions

Let your ideas sit and stew. Sometimes I’ll have an idea for shot, try it out and not be satisified. Something didn’t quite work out right, maybe the composition was off. I’ll let it sit and marinate in my brain and then come back to it maybe in a few months or even after a year. Usually when I return to rephotograph the scene, I’ll have more clarity about what needs to be changed.

Don’t follow other photographers in your same niche on social media. Some people take inspiration from others who shoot the same subject matter, but I find it stiffles my creativity. I become too fixated on what somebody else has shot. So I purposely try to limit my exposure to other photographers that are doing similar work.

Obviously my response is subjective — I know that other people may have the exact opposite reaction and be invigorated by the work of others.

Take risks and allow yourself to fail. If you’re trying to be creative, you’re going to attempt shots that you haven’t done before. Chances are you are not going to succeed on the first try, so you have to allow yourself the freedom to fail. Otherwise you’ll never do anything that pushes your comfort zone.

Keep true to your voice. I’ve listed several methods for coming up with new ideas for photographs. However, not all of the ideas you develop will fit with your voice and personal style. Don’t force yourself to create an image just because it’s unique — filter or modify the ideas so that they align with the message you want to convey.