Local knowledge Vs no local knowledge in landscape photography

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Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

Part 2 of 8…..There is no substitute in landscape photography for local knowledge, except of course when you have no local knowledge…..

Many of my photos would never have been taken had I planned ahead. I mean, why would I wait until midday to take a photo of a country lane?

That’s why I love turning up without prior knowledge of a place and see where my photography skills take me.

It’s a nice alternative to pre-planning months in advance to get somewhere at dawn or dusk.

In-fact, it’s a handy strategy for filling in the time between dawn and dusk.

Sunrise over Turkey
Sunrise over Turkey

Part 2 of a series of 8 articles that are non technical, that describe my own attitude to photography. My aim is to reinforce the fact that photography in all its forms and formats is fun, highly creative, enjoyable and rewarding. From HDR to smartphones to instagram to large format black and white….Find a little corner that fits your personality and lifestyle…and allow your unique creativity to flourish

I’ve heard it and read it countless times that there is no substitute in landscape photography for local knowledge.

And I agree with that. If you are familiar with a landscape, you will know exactly how the light fills all the nooks and crannies of the landscape at any time of day, at any time of year.

You will know all the vantage points that offer all the best views. And if you live locally, you can go out there time and time again until you get that perfect shot.

For other landscapes that are further from home, maybe a place you love to go hiking in once or twice a year, or maybe a big city that you work in for your day job, visiting and re-visiting these places will instil into you a local knowledge that allows you to plan ahead and work out some potentially striking compositions before you even leave your house.

This is great for pre conceived compositions, like golden-hour photography where a beach or a mountain is best depicted as a sweeping vista in beautiful, warm light.

It is true that this strategy for taking landscape photographs will help you capture great wow factor images, but there are 24 hours in a day.

So is there really only one way to take a landscape photograph?

For me, I learnt photography whilst travelling as a backpacker around the world. Much of this was (and is) as a cycletourist. That means that I am often in landscapes that are completely new to me, and I may only be there for a few minutes or hours.

The images above were all taken on cycletouring trips. All were taken spontaneously where the scene and light dictated the composition, with no pre-planning. They were composed intuitively taking light quality into account, with the purpose of creating aesthetically pleasing images.

They may not be epic wow factor sweeping vistas from the top of mountains, but they are not meant to be.

When I travel, especially by bicycle, I am outdoors experiencing the landscape from pre-dawn, until dusk. During that travelling time I am completely ignorant of the landscape immediately ahead of me, I have no control over environmental conditions, and I have to accept what nature gives to me.

I never know what I am going to see next and most of the time I am in harsh light or under featureless clouds.

So what do I do photographically? Forget it maybe? Make a mental note and come back later during dawn or dusk? Or do I compose by composition rather than by lighting conditions?

As a backpacker or cycletourist, I learnt to see compositions that suited the environment at any one time, regardless of the light ‘quality’.

A scene on a hillside at midday would require a different composition than at dawn or dusk in order to create an aesthetically pleasing image.

That ‘different’ composition was and is created by visualization or imagination, spontaneously and on the fly as it were.

I also learnt that aesthetically pleasing images were dependent on good (or correct/appropriate) composition, not ‘good light’, or dawn light, or dusk light.

And so, for my photography, not having any local knowledge whatsoever gives me an opportunity to be more creative with my compositions, and when back at my computer, to think creatively about how to process the images in order to recreate the feeling that I felt when I was there.

But it’s not about deliberately not researching a place or region, it’s more about being flexible about my photography in different situations. If it’s a weekend away, I can plan ahead and use my local knowledge, if I am on a week long cycletouring trip, I take each day, hour and minute as it comes, with a view to being spontaneous photographically.

That way, photography always remains enjoyable.

So not having any local knowledge can be a rewarding experience. Everybody sees the world differently and putting yourself in different and unique situations will help squeeze out your own unique creativity.

Compositional techniques don’t really change for different styles of photography, so photographing a landscape at midday in your lunch hour with a smartphone in order to create a pleasing image, will use the same compositional techniques as photographing a more classic scene at dawn or dusk.

Icicles hanging from an overhanging rock, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Icicles hanging from an overhanging rock, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Countrylane near Canterbury, Kent, England, UK
Countrylane near Canterbury, Kent, England, UK
Mountains in Western Serbia, Serbia,
Mountains in Western Serbia, Serbia,

Photography is about composition and the three images above have been composed specifically for the light conditions and the subject matter. The light really becomes a component of composition in the same way as any element that you want in the frame becomes an element of the composition.

So bright spots in the clouds become elements that need composing, and light and dark areas need positioning in the frame.

Again, the three images above are spontaneous photographs. I am visiting these locations for the very first time, with no pre planning and no consideration for time of day. The time of day is dictated by my cycletouring schedule, and the photography fits in with that.

From a compositional point of view the leftmost image above is about the icicles hanging from the rock. It is that, that made me stop.

Then I saw that I could position myself under the overhang and set the tripod on my camera, compose the shot and wait for some traffic.

I got lucky with the overtaking cars, but the composition is all about the icicles on the rock, with everything else providing context.

That’s why I positioned the cars so low in the frame, so that I could emphasise the icicles.

The rightmost photo is of the Serbian mountains, with a lone house in the distance. A middle of the day photo with low white clouds makes this photo about the house in the distant hills rather than colour. The fence in the foreground helps emphasises depth and distance.

The center image is closer to home for me, in Kent, and is a standard stop the bike and take a picture shot!

All the pictures in this article are taken with zero local knowledge. They have been composed using standard compositional techniques in a spontaneous way.

This method of taking photos can be employed in many situations, like when you are hit with a random moment of inspiration, or you are going for a stroll on a Sunday afternoon with no specific photographic project in mind.

My post about photographing the mundane also touches on this subject, as does landscape photography and the sweeping vista.

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  • Found you through your like on my site of tentative attempts at photography and what a great find you are. I really hope you are going to finish off the remaining 6 tips in this series as I am finding them so interesting and informative. And… I get to look at your photos too. Thank you.

  • I hadn’t really thought about it before, but this is so true. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

    • Ah, I’m now seeing the full article. I meant the part about local knowledge and how that can make a huge difference when seeing a landscape or photographing it. I also like your point about how NOT having that knowledge can make one more creative.

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