My name is John Been and I am a fine art photographer with a passion for Dutch landscape photography. In our twenties, my wife and I loved to visit countries such as Iceland, Norway and Sweden for their dramatic landscapes and coastlines that were lacking in our own country of the Netherlands. We felt at home in these landscapes, in which we enjoyed hiking as well as just sitting on a rock for a while to visually breath the landscape and be part of it. As a result of a terrible accident in 2000, my wife was confronted with a nerve and muscle disease. She has been tied to her bed ever since. Due to her severe disability, we were not able to visit these beloved places anymore and were bound to settle for “less”.
The Challenge of Dutch Landscape Photography
As a passionate landscape photographer faced with no longer being able to shoot foreign landscape photography locations, I was forced to find my muse in our own country. From a natural perspective, Holland has a relatively simple landscape with not much to offer. Unfortunately, we are not blessed with a ‘backyard’ of mountains, valleys, waterfalls and wild streams. The landscape is flat. Only in the south is there any elevation. Our highest peak is a mighty 323 meters above sea level, but most of the land is at sea level or even below. Hoorn, the little city I live in, is even lower than the surface of the IJsselmeer (Lake Ĳssel) it lays next to. So we need dikes to protect us from flooding.
With every photograph I make, I try to be distinctive. My photographic approach is not journalistic. I do not take pictures of things but aim to craft my photographs. But the lack of significant natural features in the Netherlands landscape gives me a real challenge to fulfill my creative vision. Faced with the obvious limitations of our landscape and its lack of any real intrinsic beauty, I think it is much harder to create spectacular Dutch landscape photography than to create a special photo of an already visually appealing landscape that is spectacular in itself. Fantastic areas like the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion and the Norwegian Fjords have so much potential that it seems almost impossible to make a bad picture.
The limitations of Dutch landscape photography forced me to find natural beauty in often small, undervalued areas of the Netherlands, often overlooked by others. Therefore, my photographic goal shifted towards making visually grand landscape photos from small, seemingly uninteresting landscapes. When showing people how beautiful Dutch landscape photography can be, I encourage them to connect with the natural surroundings close to home. In this post, I want to share my photographic vision and the way I cope with the challenges of Dutch landscape photography.
The Characteristics of the Dutch Landscape
To understand the way I adjust to the landscape that is available to me, I want to share some characteristics of that landscape. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of being a landscape photographer is having in-depth knowledge of the landscape and the effect the light has on it in different seasons at different moments of the day. Getting familiar with both the qualities as well as the limitations is a valuable starting point. There are some important limitations that define Dutch landscape photography for which solutions must be found:
- There is no real wilderness anymore. Every spot has been touched and impacted by man.
- Almost everywhere you look there is something on the horizon that has been made by man.
- Lack of boulders in the landscape.
- Lack of jagged coastlines.
- There are no mountains and the simple hills in the south are inhabited or used as farmland.
- Due to the lack of elevation, we do not have waterfalls or fast flowing rivers.
How to Handle The Limitations of Dutch Landscape Photography
The fact that I am tied to the Netherlands seemed at first a limitation in my photographic journey. But along the way, I learned it is not a disadvantage at all and maybe even an opportunity since it forces me to specialize in the little that is available to me. Sometimes less is indeed more. I do not have to divide my attention between several countries or places that I probably would visit just the once, with the most likely outcome being mediocre photos at best. Now that my ability to travel is restricted, I am forced to return to the same spots over and over again and have the opportunity to really understand the landscape. This gives me the opportunity to get to know these places in depth and find the hidden beauty overlooked by others. In the end, I hope my in-depth knowledge of a location provides better and more balanced photographs.
Lack of Wilderness
It is difficult to find a spot in the Netherlands landscape that isn’t touched by people. Even the forests are not authentic since they are planted by hand as a replacement for past deforestation. All the young new trees were placed in neat rows so in a lot of our forests these perfect but (from an artist’s point of view) unwanted parallel lines are still visible after years of cleaning up dead wood and removing trees that are in the way. But we are learning. Lately, it has been decided that there will be less intervention for some of these places, allowing nature to do her job which will result in a more chaotic yet natural-looking landscape. Luckily, one of these places is only an hour drive from my home, so it is relatively easy to visit on a regular basis to experience the landscape.
As mentioned earlier, I live a five-minute walk from Holland’s largest lake. Each time I go there, which is often more than once a week, I never fail to enjoy the wide vista. But one of the problems in this landscape is that on the horizon there are many objects visible such as buildings and electricity pylons. Naturally, I don’t like those in my photographs. Of course, Photoshop is perfect for getting rid of such objects but, at the same time, I don’t want to remove objects that are actually part of the landscape. I want my photographs to represent the landscape as it really is. Therefore, my approach is to use an extreme wide-angle lens, which has the effect of enlarging objects in the foreground whilst minimizing those on the horizon. The end result is that these objects are still visible but not as disruptive as when seen with the naked eye.
Lack of Boulders
We do not have a dramatic coastline in Holland. It has no inlets or cliffs and lacks boulders of any kind. Because I miss this kind of coastal spectacle, I am even more driven to capture a Dutch coastal landscape with natural-looking rock formations. Luckily for me, the little city I live in lies a couple of meters below the surface of that same lake five minutes from my home. To prevent it from flooding, the whole lake is surrounded by a rocky dike. Although man made, the years have weathered these coastline, giving it an almost natural look over time. These are the hidden gems often missed by others that I try to find in order to distinguish my work from others and show how beautiful our landscape can actually be.
One of these locations is only a couple of meters tall and wide. When looking in both directions there are a lot of disruptive elements. When I show people the photograph below they can’t believe it is actually right next to a soccer field. I try to give the impression through my compositions that the places I choose to photograph are actually part of a larger, more spectacular landscape. In this specific spot, I always choose a vertical approach with my extreme wide-angle lens from a low point of view. The result of shooting in portrait orientation is that I get rid of the unwanted elements on both sides of the composition. The wide-angle lens reduces the elements on the horizon and enlarges the foreground elements, which helps in sharing the physicality of nature. And by utilising foreground interest, I lead the viewer through the composition the way I want and try to compensate for the vertical narrowing effect.
No Jagged Coastline
Holland has a lot of beaches. I love the North Sea and her tides but I miss the jagged coastlines of, for example, the Norwegian fjords or the Icelandic coast. In my compositions, I always look for foreground interest, leading lines or s-shapes. Without these elements, the Dutch beaches seem of no interest for my style of photography. Although elusive, these elements can be found with some serious scouting. In the image above you see a construction of rocks that once was being created to preserve and protect the coastline from strong waves. There are not many elements to play with because outside the composition there is actually nothing of interest there. But by intensively searching for the right angle, the right height, the right light and by using a long exposure to mimic the effect of moving waves, it can deliver unexpected, natural-looking images with the impression of being in the middle of a visually more dramatic rocky coastline. One of the things that stupefies and disappoints me is that, a few months after I made this picture, the local government decided that these rocks were no longer needed and removed them. Again one less nice place to come back to.
Lack of Elevation
Elevation in a landscape, when used right, can be a strong compositional element. Unfortunately, Holland shows little variation in height. So I am eager to look for alternatives with almost the same quality and visual impact. What we do have a lot of in Holland are clouds. Thick fluffy clouds, thin long clouds, multilayer formations. You name it, we have them! And most of the time, with the right light, these are very diverse, beautiful and rapidly changing compositional elements. So the landscape is different with every visit. For me, the clouds are, with some help of the correct graduated neutral density filters for optimal balance, one of the most important ingredients in my compositions. I never go out for a photography trip if we have blue sky. Blue skies are boring. The clouds don’t have to be spectacular as long as they deliver a perfect compositional balance against the placement of the foreground focal point.
No Fast Moving Water
As a side effect of the lack of elevation, we don’t have waterfalls or fast-moving streams. But I love the effect of silky smooth water tumbling down, photographed with long shutter speeds. So how to achieve that effect without the required elements? I must admit this is one of the most difficult challenges of Dutch landscape photography. Of course, I achieved the smooth water effect by using long shutter speeds at the beach, but I really wanted to scout for a more compressed and intimate location, such as a dynamic stream surrounded by trees. After years of research and scouting, I found a place nearby my home. This is a small forest situated right next to the aforementioned lake with the root base a couple of meters below the surface. With a system of concrete pipes and narrow canals, the water is routed through the forest. By accurately determining the composition and excluding unwanted objects (like those concrete pipes) from the photograph, I was able to give the impression of a natural fast flowing forest stream.
General Lack of Interest
One additional significant limitation that isn’t directly landscape related, is the lack of interest in the Netherlands for landscape photography as an art form. Portrait, wedding and journalistic photography get a lot of attention in the media, the magazines, contests and the news. But there is minimal interest in fine art landscape photography. While I see a lot of interest for landscape photographers and their work in the rest of the world, here in the Netherlands it is painfully absent. So it is very difficult to get some exposure locally. Of course, I primarily make photographs for my own pleasure, but I love to share them with the world as well. Luckily, thanks to modern technology, I am not bound by the Dutch borders in my pursuit of recognition or, more importantly, qualified feedback. Websites such 500px and Flicker and, of course, internationally available magazines like Light & Landscape, are perfect platforms to share our creations on a global level.
I started this article with the opinion that my challenge to make a distinctive photograph in Holland must be much harder than that of a landscape photographer living in a visually more appealing country or region. In those places, just point your lens somewhere and you always have a nice result…or not? While writing and reflecting on different aspects of my own photographic journey I learned that I was being somewhat shortsighted and was probably being negatively influenced by my own struggle. My opinion has really changed and I realize that fine art landscape photographers in the rest of the world deserve a lot more of my appreciation. And here is why.
A growing number of people are getting interested in photography. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the positive side, I see that the technology helps people to go out and connect with nature again. On the other hand, because of advancing within-camera technology it is simple to make a technically good photo. This is in my experience, increasingly often being confused with a skilled photograph. For example here in Holland, but I believe this is a commonly occurring phenomenon in the rest of the world as well, painful examples can be seen in wedding and portrait photography. The perception is that nowadays everyone can make a good photograph, so professionals and artists are struggling against uncle Joe with his happy snapper. So they need to work harder than ever before to stand out of the crowd in demonstrating their distinctive value.
For us landscape photographers, taking just a nice or technically correct photo, or just capturing the moment, is not enough. It is not about capturing what is in front of you, but about composing balanced images out of interrelated elements in the landscape. A serious landscape photographer wants to create distinctive images, not recreate postcards of iconic places that you can buy in the local store. Photographers with the luck of having a fantastic national park nearby or within reach, therefore have their own challenges to stand out against the masses. For me, it is a challenge to compete against photographs of monumental landscapes abroad with more visually appealing elements. But these photographers probably have an even bigger challenge due to the fact that there are numerous competitive colleagues and wannabes with access to those same areas having the same possibilities. So to do something different we have to work harder and go further. In the end, it doesn’t really matter where you live. Ultimately, landscape photographers from around the world all have their own challenges in working for that little something extra to stand out in the crowd.
A self-taught landscape photographer, John Been is passionate about combining the outdoors with his devotion to fine art photography. Residing in the Netherlands, a country not blessed with a “backyard” of mountains, valleys, waterfalls and wild streams, has ensured that he has become skilled in finding the natural beauty of undervalued areas, often overlooked by others. His goal is to create grand landscapes from his humble surroundings. John lives in the city of Hoorn, situated near the IJsselmeer, with his wife Tonja and their cat, Missy.
john been - www.johnbeen.nl