Landscape Photography Inspiration

What is Landscape Photography?

Landscape photographer Shannon Kalahan gives her very personal and introspective answer to the following philosophical question: What is Landscape Photography?

More Than Just a Hobby

For many of us, landscape photography isn’t just a hobby or activity. We scrimp and save for gear, we plan our vacations around potential photos, and we get immense joy from capturing beautiful light. It’s part of how we define ourselves. When you think about how much you get for your investment of time and energy though, our reverence for this particular art form makes complete sense. Landscape photography is a motivator and catalyst, a way to contribute something beautiful to this world, a way to communicate and socialize, all while teaching us important life lessons.

It’s About the Journey – Not the Destination

Landscape photography is something that one never truly masters. Cameras and editing tools are constantly evolving, and with it, new techniques are created. Some are to overcome the limitations of our equipment, such as using filters or exposure blending, while others are a direct result of improved technology, such as in-camera focus stacking. As long as humans continue to grow, learn, and use their creativity to improve the world around them, then it is safe to assume that photography will also evolve.

If one thinks of landscape photography in those terms, then it is obvious that by choosing to call ourselves photographers, we are really choosing to embrace the journey. If one can never fully master a craft, then each goal is really just the stepping stone to another. A goal will never be the destination. If you’re motivated to keep improving, before long you’ll reach for the next step.

Personally, that is part of what makes landscape photography so appealing to me. I dream up the places I want to travel, the lenses I want to try, the light I want to capture, and then I work toward whatever plan I put in place. Having this sort of mentality has done two things for me. First, and most obviously, I’ve had some incredible experiences simply have chosen to be a photographer. More importantly, the journey has taught me perseverance, patience, gratitude and appreciation.

Landscape photography can be frustrating and difficult. So much of what we contend with is out of our control. We are reliant on weather and lighting, time of day or year, and responsible access to a location (ie, using caution about where we walk, how we interact with both flora and fauna, etc).

We need to overcome time and budget limitations, as well as physical discomfort – traipsing long distances, dealing with extreme heat or cold, and wading through swarms of bugs, and so on. Despite that, our dreams of an epic image rarely come to fruition. Instead, we are left to make the best of the conditions we are handed for the time we are in a location.

When I find myself in a frustrating situation, I try to remind myself that I cannot control much in life, but I can control how I react to it. Challenges just enrich my personal journey and make successes that much sweeter.

Opportunity is All Around Us

When solving problems, it’s normal to survey your situation and evaluate your options. Landscape photography is no different. Will I use my wide-angle lens to capture a foreground to mid-ground to background shot? Will I use a telephoto lens to isolate something in the distance or compress a scene? Will I use a macro lens for some close-up nature images?

Will I choose to do something creative, like “intentional camera movement”, to give my shot a painterly feel? Landscape photography has taught me that, in general, we are only limited by our resources and ourselves. Therefore, I’ve made it a goal to practice as many landscape photography techniques as possible. That gives me more options to use when difficult light, weather, or compositional choices crop up.

For me, practice comes about in a few ways. The first exercise is straightforward. I’ll find a new technique that interests me, and I will go out into the field with the specific goal of learning it. The second way I hone my skills is to write a list of a few different techniques, then look for opportunities to try them. For example, I have seen some inspiring star trail images, and some 35-50mm night sky shots lately.

Upon seeing those images, I was reminded that I’ve been in the habit of only shooting Milky Way images with my wide-angle lens for quite some time now. I made a mental note to mix things up on my next few trips out. That decision led to some fun star trail images and a lot of practice with the 50mm.

My last practice exercise builds both on my existing skills and challenges my creativity. The game is simple. I’ll go to a location and rather than have a set image in mind, I’ll have a set number. I need to come up with ‘X’ amount of unique images. They will not all be winners, but it forces me to dig deep to come up with new compositions and play with seldom-used tactics.

Ultimately, landscape photography has shown me that with the right mindset and a willingness to build your skill-sets, you can overcome or work around most challenges. What used to be speedbumps are really just opportunities waiting to be discovered.

The Cliffs of Moher, Ireland by Shannon Kalahan.

The Cliffs of Moher are a spectacular location that is being loved to death by tourists. It’s one of the things that we, as landscape photographers, have a responsibility to talk about. Education goes a long way toward how a place is treated – if visitors understand concepts like Leave No Trace, or how long it takes fragile plant life to grow back, or how dangerous wildlife can be, then there is a chance they will improve their behavior. That in turn will help preserve fragile locations. This particular image was posted on Earth Day, and I talked about our responsibility to the planet and about what being a good steward was all about. – 20mm, 1/100 sec, f/5, ISO 100.

A black and white photo of a river in Colorado by Shannon Kalahan, author of the article What is Landscape photography?

This shot was unplanned and unexpected. We were driving through Colorado, and I happened to see a pull-off by the river. We took the opportunity to explore, and we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. Opportunity is all around us!- 14mm, 1.3 sec, f/4, ISO 100 (focus stacked).

The Milky Way over the Continental Divide - What is Landscape Photography?

In 2018, I went out to Colorado to teach and explore. On our way back from Maroon Bells, we stopped at the Continental Divide with the intention of shooting the Milky Way. As soon as we parked, we were stopped by two other photographers. They warned us they that had time-lapses running at the overlook so that we didn’t walk up there with bright lights. We spent quite a bit of time talking to them, making sure to exchange contact information before they left. It is one of the countless instances where I’ve met interesting people all in the name of my landscape photography. – 14mm, 134-sec foreground/13-sec sky blended, f/2.8, ISO 2500.

Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest by landscape photographer Shannon Kalahan.

I visited Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States during the government shutdown of January 2019. There was a lot of anxiety attached to this trip because we had no idea of what trails would be open and accessible. We tried looking up recent private trail reports, but there were no official websites that were updated since the government controlling them was closed. In the end, there was a lot of scrambling and rearranging our plans, but we ended up exploring some parts of the Quinault Rainforest. (Our original plan was to explore the Hoh Rainforest.) It was a reminder that even the best plans fall apart sometimes, but the unexpected can be lovely if you’re open to it. – 24 mm, 0.8 sec, f/8, ISO 100.

Be The Change You Want To See In The World

For a long time, I wanted to make a positive difference in the world, but I did not have a clear idea of how to do it. I’ve never been particularly interested in being the center of attention, and grand gestures or stunts did not feel natural to me. That being said, I’ve always felt a strong sense of responsibility for our planet and my human family and no amount of ignoring it would make it go away. This left me at an impasse. How could I best contribute something meaningful to society in a way that was comfortable for me?

This question plagued me for a long time, as I tried out several scenarios to make a difference in the lives of the people around me. While I succeeded in helping others, it took a lightbulb moment to finally find a niche that felt comfortable. It took the realization that art is a means of communication. So often, people are uneasy speaking up directly against the wrongs of the world. For some, they simply cannot articulate their feelings. For others, they may be afraid of confrontation, or the limelight that comes with preaching on a soapbox. Landscape photography is a way to educate and communicate without words.

In my own journey, I’ve used my photography as a way to start conversations about difficult topics, and a way to present facts. I’ve touched on topics ranging from gender bias to environmental conservation and art therapy. In all cases, my photos were used as a catalyst to start a conversation or to support facts surrounding the topic at hand. I didn’t need to do much in the way of talking – at least not on a grand scale to large groups – because my images told the story for me. For me, my landscape photos were a way for me to be the change I wanted to see in the world, in a way that I could sustain indefinitely.

It’s Who You Know

No man (or woman) is an island unto themselves. Rather, we are social creatures who thrive in groups. Although the act of shooting is frequently a solitary venture, the resulting images are a bridge connecting us with photographers, nature lovers, art lovers, etc.

Landscape photography requires travel and exposure to new people and cultures. Social media, which is a standard marketing tool these days, requires at least some interaction with other photographers and photo enthusiasts. Given the setting for our images, social media also encourages relationships with other outdoor enthusiasts and travelers. Therefore, it’s no surprise that over the course of my landscape photography career, I’ve made countless friends in all of those camps.

Overwhelmingly, my experiences with others in the landscape photography world have been good ones. I’ve been blessed with deep, lasting friendships, mentors I admire, students I enjoy talking to, and opportunities that I would have never had otherwise. My photography has taught me that people are just as important to my experience as the landscape images themselves. In the end, who you share your journey with is a large part of what makes life meaningful. It’s a lesson in gratitude that most people eventually learn, I just happened to learn it with a camera in my hands.

Landscape photography has shaped my life in ways I never expected and has taught me lessons that have carried over to the rest of my life. It has changed my outlook on the world and the people around me and allowed me to contribute something meaningful to society. I use my images to speak from my heart and have been blessed with lasting friendships along the way. To me, it’s so much more than a career. It’s a way of life.

Sea stacks, Olympic National Park, Pacific Northwest

I visited Olympic National Park in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States during the government shutdown of January 2019. Due to a lack of funds, the national park service closed sections of their parks. Toilets, trash removal, snow plowing and downed tree removal services were all suspended and in many places that were still open, there were reports of mountains of trash and litter on trails. We made sure to bring trash bags and gloves with us, and when I posted this photo, I used it as a teachable moment, talking about that experience in my caption. 14 mm, 2 sec, f/11, ISO 100.

Coastal sunrise by Shannon Kalahan.

Sunrise and I are reluctant friends. I’m not what anyone would call “a morning person”, so imagine how difficult it was to drag myself out of bed for a dreary, overcast early AM alarm. As soon as I got in the car and looked at the cloudy sky, I assumed that sunrise would be a dud. But I had three photographer friends to hold me accountable – wonderful people I’d met over the course of my landscape photography career – and so away we went. Thankfully, my efforts were rewarded what turned out to be both a fun morning and a beautiful light show. 24 mm, 1/25 sec, f/22, ISO 100.

Lonesome Lake by landscape photographer Shannon Kalahan.

When we arrived at the top of the trail, this lake was completely socked in with fog. We could not see more than a few yards out. We figured we’d hiked up the mountain though, and we weren’t going to waste the effort. I took the trail to the right, circling around the lake in hopes that the fog would clear; our perseverance was rewarded with this brief gap in the weather, where we got a view of both Lonesome Lake and some of the mountains in the range behind it. 50mm, 1/80 sec, f/11, ISO 100.

Black and white forest landscape photo.

I went to this particular forest in search of a waterfall that I’d seen a friend post about. The hike ended up being lovely, and the waterfall was spectacular, but my favorite photo of the day ended up being of the light falling through the trees. Being open to whatever presented itself helped me be open to photos I may not have seen otherwise. 50mm, 1/500 sec, f/8, ISO 100.

Maroon Bells, Colorado, under the stars.

Maroon Bells is a very famous location in Colorado, and finding a new composition can be challenging. I spent a lot of time poking around during the day, looking for something that hadn’t been done yet. Thankfully, my time spent practicing creative exercises and unique compositions came in handy. I was able to wade through freezing cold runoff, balance on a rock, taking turns with which foot rested in the numbing water in order to capture this image. Well worth the effort, as far as I’m concerned. 14mm, 312-sec foreground/13-sec sky blended, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

Final Thoughts

Landscape photography has shaped my life in ways I never expected and has taught me lessons that have carried over to the rest of my life. It has changed my outlook on the world and the people around me and allowed me to contribute something meaningful to society. I use my images to speak from my heart and have been blessed with lasting friendships along the way. To me, it’s so much more than a career. It’s a way of life.

Landscape photographer Shannon Kalahan taking a sunset photograph from Slacker Hill.

Shannon Kalahan is a professional photographer, author, blogger, teacher and owner of Seeing Spots Photography. She is a longtime Light & Landscape contributor, well known and respected for her engaging, well-researched articles and blog posts, not to mention her outstanding landscape photography. Be sure to check out all her content throughout the website.