Landscape Photography Life Lessons by Shannon Kalahan

Landscape Photography Life Lessons by Shannon Kalahan

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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 100This close-up of foliage was an exercise in creativity. The day was overcast, with on-and-off rain. I was out exploring the forest looking at foliage shots, so I spent a lot of time looking up at the tree branches. As I stepped down the path, however, I glanced down to avoid some mud and noticed this puddle to the side of the trail. I loved the way the soft light enriched the colors of the fallen leaves and began looking for compositions. - 50mm, 1/160 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.

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.

To Be Continued...

Shannon Kalahan is based out of the New England region of the United States. Her photographic journey began in 2002 while volunteering for an animal rescue. She has since built a successful business as a landscape, wedding and newspaper photographer, author and educator.