Traditional Landscape Photography and the sweeping vista

An exploration into landscape photography and the classic ‘sweeping vista’ composition.

Pre conceived landscape photography and the sweeping vista

A middle of the day landscape photograph.  They used to say there was no such thing

Landscape photography goes way beyond standard compositions like the ‘sweeping vista’. The sweeping vista is a fixed composition that works best with a particular view in a particular light, and that is what photographers often mean by ‘chasing the light’ or ‘waiting for the light’

So what is the ‘sweeping vista’ and is that all landscape photography is?

In this article I explore my own interpretation of landscape photography, and how life as a backpacker and cycletourist has help develop the way I see and photograph the outside world

Landscape photography goes way beyond standard compositions like the sweeping vista. The sweeping vista is a fixed composition that works best with a particular view in a particular light. That is what photographers often mean by ‘chasing the light’ or ‘waiting for the light’

The sweeping vista is a very commercial composition, and is still and always will be in great demand. It’s a great way to practice your technical skills and it is guaranteed to impress your friends with it’s ‘wow factor’. Just don’t forget the summer storm in the middle of the day.

There are a number of fixed, pre-determined compositions in landscape photography.

I use these as a safety net if the conditions are right, before moving onto something more original and spontaneous. Then I’ll use a more original composition that (in my mind) takes into account the uniqueness of the landscape that I am in at the time.

If I am in a landscape at dawn, looking down into a valley with the sun creeping up above the horizon, then I will use the sweeping vista composition. It’s the one with the foreground subject, leading into the middle distance and all the way to the horizon, where the light from the low sun is bouncing around the perfect clouds. The whole thing is drenched in beautiful dawn light and a bit of jiggery pokery in Photoshop (or Gimp) ensures lashings of ‘wow factor’. A 15 or 20mm lens with a full frame sensor will produce best results.

But if the light is dull and the clouds are that steely gray that dissolves the sunlight into that uniform gray/white that beams down from the sky, then there will still be compositions galore.

It’s just that the sweeping vista will probably not suit the dull, dank light conditions. And that is when your personal compositional skills need to take over.

In my two examples above, the top image fits the sweeping vista, although the lens was not as wide as is best for this type of composition. But I did know this location beforehand, and knew the night before that this would look good at dawn.

The bottom of the two photos was a spontaneous shot. I was cycling along at midday and noticed the dark skies to my left, and by coincidence there was also a large tree (just out of view) that provided shelter just in case it rained. And it did rain, and the tree did provide shelter!

I also got this shot just before the rain started. But this isn’t a sweeping vista composition because the landscape and light didn’t fit the formula, so I had to make something up on the spot. I stuck the horizon roughly in the middle so as to show off the contrasty footpath and wheatfield in the foreground against the dark stormy skies above.

I also placed the footpath to the right and the darker section of the sky to the left in the frame to provide balance.

If you are new to photography and you are struggling a bit then I’d recommend learning compositions like the sweeping vista because they look great, they have commercial value (if you are that way inclined), they will impress your friends, and you will learn technique.

They are also hard to create because you have to wait for the right light and search out the landscape, which takes a lot of effort and therefore concentrates the mind on improving the photography.

The sweeping vista is loved by photography magazines too, which provide a great source of information on how to perfect the technique.

Find your favourite photographers and compare yours against theirs!

Find the worlds best landscape photographers and then compare your photographs against theirs for composition and impact, colour and contrast etc etc…

And slowly, slowly you will improve your own photography. But don’t forget your own originality. You can apply a pre-determined composition to a specific set of light and landscape conditions (sweeping vista – but you have to wait for the light…and wait…and wait).

Don’t forget that you can create an original composition that exploits the very specific and unique light and land conditions that occur throughout the day, any day, come rain or shine, dawn, dusk, midday or midnight.

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