Acclaimed British photographer Charlie Waite has travelled the world, from Dorset to Namibia, Glencoe to Myanmar, producing evocative photos that capture the feel of a place. Our writer Graeme Green catches up with him to find out what it really takes to capture the perfect landscape photo. Here are his expert tips on how to improve your landscape photography:
1. Get the perfect take, like the Beatles
I love to produce a photograph that evokes how I felt when I took it. With a photo, you should try to convey what you felt and what you saw, and express your human response to the world around you. I think that’s what everybody´s trying to do with a beautiful piece of music, and they should do with a photograph, too.
You know in a heartbeat when you look at your photo if it is there or not. I always think of The Beatles’ song She Loves You. They must have got to the end of recording that and just said, “Yes, we really got that.” I call it the ‘final signal’, where you think “Yes, that’s it, there’s nothing more to do. My pre-visualization, my expectations and my hope all materialized in the way that I thought it would”, and that feels brilliant.
Valensole, France © Charlie Waite
2. Make good friends with your camera
You shouldn’t get a camera because it’s a really flash thing. The key thing is to have something that when you pick it up you think “I’m taking the best instrument that I could possibly take to give me the best chance of getting the best image I possibly can.”
You have to get to the point where you feel your camera is a really good friend and there is not one bit of it that you don’t understand. You have to understand how it works well enough that, when you see something you want to photograph, you’re able to do what you want, and don’t get stuck messing around with the dials or switches. That kind of frustration is a real killer.
Chateau Sully, France © Charlie Waite
3. Go somewhere without a map
Going somewhere without a map is a good thing. It can be a bit scary but you can go to an area of the countryside that you like, somewhere local, and just think, “I only ever go from Point A to Point B here. I’ve never actually turned right, left, or taken any of those little lanes, so where does that go?”
Part of the joy of photography is exploring and discovery and surprise, and you could well find something within three miles of where you live that you ‘ve never been to, where you think “Oh my God, you get a lovely view across these rolling hills. Wow, I’ve never done that."
The Manger, Berkshire © Charlie Waite
4. Wait for what you want
A lot of people accept the prevailing sky that’s there on arrival. But the sky is traditionally a third of the canvas, so it definitely needs to be attended to. No painter would just say, “Oh, any old sky would do.”
Trying to establish a sky that can have a relationship with the land underneath is good, and you usually only get that by thinking “I’ll have a look around and see what’s coming.” The sky might be changing for the better or the wind might be moving in the right direction, and finally a far superior sky arrives. That’s really exciting.
Islay Loch Indaal, Scotland © Charlie Waite
5. Learn from your mistakes
What I’ve learned over the years is a consequence of multiple errors. With painting, you learn that you can’t dilute your paint because it drips and makes a mess, so you think “Ah, I wont do that again.” I’ve learnt through multiple disappointing images over many, many years, so now I’m able to pre-visualize a photo and to say if something simply won’t work.
It’s not just about technical elements. You have to think about whether a photo will carry with it that sense of the place. You learn from your mistakes to get better at doing that, so there’s less trial and error.
West Wales © Charlie Waite
6. Don’t rely on post-production
Don’t rely on Photoshop too much. The human eye is pretty discerning and the moment you distrust an image, something breaks.
People still like photos as seen through the camera. I meet a lot of people who say “I haven’t done anything to it", or “No filter’ with a photo that is exactly what they saw.
Some people would say that editing is an extension of your artistic interpretation. They want to change this and that, to improve the image with something imported in from another shot, or they’ve just ramped up the saturation.
I want to see an image produced that was actually acutely seen. I don’t want to do it all on the computer.
Inle Lake, Myanmar © Charlie Waite
7. Get outside of your comfort zone
It’s dangerous to become formulaic. The lonely tree in the middle of nowhere, for example, is lovely; that’s what I do and I love it, and lots of people do the lonely element, like Michael Kenna. Rocks, seas and trees are definitely what most people like, and valleys, beautiful skies, the big open landscape… It’s hard to turn my back on them, and I wouldn’t.
But I’ve also decided to be open to other things that previously I’ve censored. I might have subconsciously said, “That looks nice but it’s not what I do”, and I’ve been nervous about changing my style.
What I’m doing now is going ahead and trusting my judgment. I’ve done several photos that are quite different, such as one with red chimneys in it. Everyone is a photographer. To try to be original within those thousands of people is really difficult. But the key thing is that I trust my judgment.
Andalucía, Spain © Charlie Waite
8. Orchestrate every element of a picture
No composer of any piece of music would say “Well, I really don’t know about those notes being there, or that violin being there.” The meticulous orchestration of a landscape photograph is similar to putting a piece of music together. You have to look at all the component parts and decide which ones you want to include and which ones you want to exclude. Everything in a photo should be wanted or accepted to be there. It’s a case of not having anything in that image that doesn’t help the image.
As photographers, it’s all about perception; you cannot admit to not having noticed something. That means smacked wrists.
Cantabria, Spain © Charlie Waite
Landscape photographer Charlie Waite is the founder of Light & Land who run photography holidays and workshops in the UK and around the world, including Kenya, New York, Vietnam, Venice, Albania, Miami and Uzbekistan.
The company is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018 with an exhibition, Evolving Landscapes, at the OXO Gallery on London’s Southbank from July 18–22, featuring photos by Charlie Waite and other Light & Land photographers including Joe Cornish, Antony Spencer, Valda Bailey, Phil Malpas and more.