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Intimate Landscape Photography Guide

Intimate landscape photography is a sub-genre of nature photography consisting of images of smaller scenes extracted from the grand landscape. Understanding what it is and how to approach capturing more abstract landscape photography will help you create more emotional, creative, and personally fulfilling imagery.

Grand landscapes – landscape photography that dazzles with brilliant colour and near/far compositions – is likely why you got into landscape photography. But, we can also find great joy and fulfillment when photographing nature’s smaller scenes. Intimate landscape photography acquires its subjects after closer inspection of the elements in the landscape. In short, intimate landscapes (or abstract landscape photography) are smaller scenes extracted from the grand landscape. These can be composed of the side of a mountain, a few trees in the forest, interesting patterns created by ice and leaves, or the way the light hits a particular set of dunes

An intimate landscape photograph of an aspen forest during a Saskatchewan blizzard

Intimate landscape photography is an opportunity for the photographer to slow down and appreciate the smaller details. It’s an invitation to experience a deeper connection with the landscape around. When we photograph grand landscapes, the subjects are often obvious, leaving us (and the viewer) with a concise idea of the primary point of interest for that image. Intimate landscape photography is about better understanding our emotional connection with the landscape. We photograph the finer details that speak uniquely to us. When we employ this approach, it allows space for us, and ultimately our viewers, to glean emotional meaning from each photograph. The purpose of this article is to give you six tips for finding and composing these small scenes in nature.

SLOW DOWN

The first and most important step to a more abstract approach to landscape photography is to slow down. While I enjoy the rush that comes with chasing grand landscapes in breathtaking light, I also love slowly wandering through the forest or along the edge of a creek equally as much. Whereas sunsets and sunrises move fast, capturing intimate landscapes is more of a slow and contemplative process. It comes from stopping before taking the camera out and asking ourselves, “What do I love about this scene?”. Spending time studying the landscape with no expectations or timeline allows the time we need to slow down and begin to notice the smaller details that we relate with. When we slow down, we begin to notice details that we might have otherwise overlooked. It’s this noticing of the smaller things in the landscape that is the most important, and perhaps most difficult, step when approaching intimate landscape photography.

EXPERIMENT

When capturing intimate landscapes, it’s best to approach things with an open mind. While grand landscapes are often captured using a wide-angle lens with uncomplicated settings, smaller scenes are created using a myriad of lenses and approaches. The photos contained in this article and on this page were captured with focal lengths ranging from ultra-wide to super-telephoto and a mixed bag of shutter speeds and apertures to get the desired effects. There is no formula for capturing intimate landscapes. It’s more about experimenting with different focal lengths and settings to best capture what it is that you enjoyed most about that scene. 

But, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t exactly helpful advice if you’re beginning. It’s sometimes helpful to view a scene with a telephoto zoom lens and slowly zoom in and out on different landscape elements. We don’t naturally see at those longer focal lengths, and you may need to train your eye to see at the longer end of the telephoto range, so I find this exercise quite helpful. A second suggestion is to play around with depth of field and shutter speed. Some subjects look better with a shallow depth of field while others benefit from being tack sharp. Perhaps a slower shutter speed blurs movement in a visually pleasing way, or maybe the scene looks best with a fast shutter speed to freeze motion. And, while performing these exercises, you might be pleasantly surprised at what you see in the viewfinder.

An intimate landscape photo of a reflection of pine trees in Jasper National Park

ELIMINATE DISCTRACTIONS

It’s good practice with any landscape photography to ask yourself, “Is this an important part of the image?”. If the answer is no, then remove it. Removing elements might not be possible all of the time, but distracting elements in more abstract intimate landscapes sometimes can be removed with a small change in perspective. One element that often distracts a viewer from the point of your photograph is the sky. As much as possible, work to eliminate the sky from your composition. It is often the brightest part of your frame and will draw your viewer’s eye away from the point of your photo. By eliminating the sky, you are also removing the horizon. When we remove the horizon from your photo, you are also removing context. When we remove context from our landscape photos, we give our viewers permission to fill in the gaps using their imagination and, for them, the scene you’ve presented could conceivably go on forever.

COMPOSITIONAL APPROACHES

Just because we aren’t photographing grand landscapes, it doesn’t mean that we ignore sound compositional approaches. The same composition solutions I present in my FREE eCourse (you can sign up below), such as lines, balance, isolation, and layers, apply when practicing intimate landscape photography. We still need a subject, even if that subject is more abstract, and the elements in your small scene all need to support that subject as the primary focus of the photograph. We can do this using many different approaches. I’ll briefly detail only five here:

REPETITION

With this approach, we present a small scene that, at first glance, appears as a simple repetition of the same element. But the beauty of this approach is that, upon further inspection, the viewer can celebrate the differences that we often find in nature.

An abstract landscape photograph of gold aspen leaves covering the ground
LINES

I speak a lot more about this in my eCourse, but lines are one of the best ways to bring your viewer through a small scene. Utilizing lines that we find in nature is not strictly for grand landscapes. Even with intimate landscape photography, lines are an excellent way to reveal the primary point of interest in your image to the viewer. In this photo, the cracked ice leads the eye from one side of the frame to the other, causing it to land on the leaf encased in the ice. 

An intimate landscape photograph captured with the Tamron 15-30 f2.8 of a leaf frozen in ice
ISOLATION

This approach is clear enough, but when photographing more abstract landscapes, often isolation is not found in epic foggy conditions but rather in the variety of different textures and light. In this photo, it is the abrupt shift of texture that tells the complete story.

An intimate landscape photograph of a lone surviving tree in the middle of a burnt forest at lake Minnewanka, Alberta
DUALITY

Like balance in grand vistas, when photographing more abstract details in the landscape, we can look at different elements through the principle of this vs. that. This concept works when two seemingly opposing natural elements co-exist harmoniously in one small frame. It can be as simple as dark vs. light or complementary colours. Or it could be more complex, like this photograph that portrays the difference between reflective water ripples and transparent ones.

An abstract photo of the water on Cerulean Lake in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
PORTRAYAL

Remember growing up and trying to pick out shapes in the clouds as they floated by? This approach is the same. The goal here is to discover elements in nature that resemble something else entirely. The beauty of this approach is that it can spark the imagination of you and the viewer. At first glance, you might guess that the photograph here is a close-up of a sand dune, but upon further inspection, you begin to notice the shape of every nose you’ve ever come across.

FLAT LIGHT

Before you get confused by what these terms mean, I recommend reading my article that covers the three main types of light and how to photograph in them. Unlike the dramatic, golden light we look for in the grand landscape, intimate landscape photography can be practiced in all kinds of light. If your scene is small enough, you can even supplement or alter the existing natural light with reflectors or shades. If you shift towards intimate landscapes, you are working with light at the micro-level, so there is no longer the need for “good light”; even the flattest of light can yield spectacular images. While you can still utilize direct and reflected light in intimate landscape photography, flat light is my favourite light in which to photograph these small scenes. This kind of light minimizes shadows and highlights and allows you the freedom to shape the scene however you wish in post-processing.

An intimate landscape photograph featuring several aspen trees and fall foliage in the Qu'Apelle Valley, Saskatchewan

PRACTICE

Intimate landscape photography is not a style you will master overnight. It takes years to hone your vision until you begin to see the landscape in terms of its shapes, textures, lines, and colours. Once you do though, all of these elements are at your disposal to create compelling compositions. When you begin to develop your eye to see these shapes, textures, lines, and colours, you will begin to see them everywhere. Dunes are no longer dunes but a combination of fascinating shapes where you can explore the duality of light and dark. A tree is no longer a tree but a combination of lines that you can use to bring your viewer into the photo. When we view the landscape through this lens, the creative possibilities are truly endless.

An intimate landscape photograph white tree in soft light backs vertical trees in shade in the Saskatchewan landscape.

Intimate Landscape Photography or abstract landscape photography is a challenging but rewarding approach to take with your camera. As you’re photographing very personal scenes, your images are typically more unique, creative, and emotional. And if you’re not careful, you just might connect with your viewers in a deeper, more meaningful way than you’ve ever done before.

It would take too long to explain image composition and the basic 5 approaches in this article which is why I’ve assembled a free 6-week eCourse on image composition in landscape photography which you can sign up for here: 

Landscape Photography Composition Course on iPad screen

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I hope you found this tutorial helpful. More information on these topics can be found in the videos at the bottom of the page. If you have any questions that you think I can answer, drop me a line! If you want to share these tips with your friends then use the share links right here.

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