Expectations and Creativity in Landscape Photography

We’ll explore how expectations can limit creativity in landscape photography, using a personal experience at Lake Minnewanka to illustrate this point. By shedding preconceived notions, the photographer can discover overlooked details and emotional narratives within the landscape, capturing intimate, emotionally resonant images that transcend traditional compositions and connect with viewers on a deeper, more profound level.

If you’re the kind of person who learns best via video, I’ve talked through some of these concepts in the YouTube video below, just hit the play button. Or, if you’d prefer to jump into the article, then just scroll right by.

Expectations can kill creativity in landscape photography. When we arrive at a location with expectations of what we want nature to be, we blind ourselves to seeing the complete photographic potential of that location. Worse, we damage the experience as frustration builds and we potentially miss out on what otherwise might have been an enjoyable experience in nature. 

An intimate landcape photograph of burnt trees in the Canadian Rockies

Take the above photograph as an example. The only reason I was able to capture it, was because I managed to shed my expectations of a particular location. Coincidentally, it is also a personal favourite from my winter trip to the Canadian Rockies this past January. On the second day of that trip, I had planned to head to Lake Minnewanka for some sunset photography with a particular landscape photograph in mind. I wanted to shoot wide and get a photo of the mountain with some beautiful colour in the sky. I expected conditions that would help me create something like the photo below that I captured later in my trip. 

Upon arriving at the lake, I knew immediately that those conditions would not be present. The snow had covered the bubbles and cracks in the ice, save for a small patch of open ice at the base of the mountain. Unfortunately, it was too near the peak to include the ice with the dominant mountain in a single photograph. Foot tracks from hordes of tour groups covered potential compositions along the shoreline, and there was flat, boring light from heavy cloud cover. But my expectations of what I wanted the landscape to be, were entrenched in my mind. So, instead of fighting those expectations, I searched for wide-angle compositions that resembled what others had succeeded in composing at this location. I only succeeded in becoming increasingly frustrated with my experience. After forty-five minutes of exploring, I found nothing to photograph. My expectations had left me blind to the photographic potential of Lake Minnewanka. I knew that I failed creatively.

What We Can Do To Remove Expectations

Before we can begin to take more creative landscape photographs, we need to remove our expectations. But practically, what can you do to assist in this mental process? Here are a few things that have helped me get over, or avoid expectations, as I visit locations:

  • Leave behind a lens that would force you into a specific photo. 
  • Leave your camera bag in the car when you arrive on location, spending some initial time wandering. As you wander, take inventory of things that you are enjoying. Pack a small notepad or use your cellphone to take notes about what is speaking to you. Try and distill a scene down to very specific elements that you appreciate.
  • Before a landscape photography outing, limit your exposure to professionally finished photos to ensure your mind remains free from what others have accomplished at a specific location.

Ultimately though, if we are unable to remove or avoid expectations, we can’t be as creative as we can be. Expectations will always cause us to be blind to parts of the landscape. If conditions don’t work in our favour, frustration can set in. Even if conditions are perfect and we get the photograph we wanted, we still miss out on the opportunity to connect with that location as a whole. If I had succeeded in capturing what I expected to at Lake Minnewanka, I would have missed out on a scene that was much more personal and meaningful. 

My unfulfilled expectations caused a great deal of frustration for me that evening, almost causing me to leave. But, as I toyed with the idea of just giving up, I decided instead to make the best of the conditions that I had been given. So, I decided to head to the car and left my wide-angle lens behind. This forced me into a state of no expectations. The wide-angle photograph I desperately wanted wouldn’t be possible anymore. Instead, I was forced to look only at details using my telephoto lens to take advantage of the light that I had.

As soon as I stepped back on the frozen lake, I saw the landscape in a brand new way. I saw potential in the open ice that was too close to the mountain. There were possible compositions that included the aspen trees along the lake edge with the darker forest behind. And, there was photographic potential in the scattered thriving trees among the burnt forest on the mountainside. Before, I was blind to these things. Now I saw and enjoyed them because I had connected with what I had been given. I was bringing my story, my preferences, my emotions, and an open mind to the landscape, which allowed me to see more creatively. Also, I was able to take a photograph that succeeded in telling a story about Lake Minnewanka in a way that a wide-angle photo of the mountain with beautiful light would ever be able to do.

Coincidentally, these types of photos go beyond just adding to the story of a particular location, they also can connect with a viewer on an emotional level beyond the superficial physical beauty of a photograph. Once we shed our expectations and are open to what we uniquely notice about the landscape, we can create photos that connect with a part of our own and our viewer’s story. We give ourselves and our viewers the ability to connect emotionally to an idea or an emotion.

An intimate landcape photograph of burnt trees in the Canadian Rockies

The Stories Images Tell

For example, the above photo tells a story of solitude, perseverance, stubbornness, and steadfastness. The photograph below (taken just after) of an aspen tree with conifer forest behind speaks of uniqueness, connection, and diversity. These are all part of the human experience. So, besides the fact that these intimate landscape photographs may spark the imagination of the viewer as they are more “incomplete” than a typical wide-angle scene. And to some, they also might succeed in being visually attractive. But, this type of landscape photography can tell a story and potentially connect with a viewer in a very emotional way.

aspen tree alone in front of conifer trees in Alberta

This is not a sweeping indictment of all wide-angle landscape photography. It is merely one approach of many that we can take as landscape photographers as we try to connect emotionally with those who view our work. When we remove expectations and celebrate what we emotionally connect within the landscape, what we get excited about, we can create more personal, creative imagery. Images that certainly mean much more to us and can tell a very unique story. 

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