Professional landscape photography guide

There are many ways photographers have captured the world’s breathtaking beauty and mind bending complexities through contributions to the genre of landscape photography. Landscape photography itself is vast and rich with opportunities for storytelling. From the surprisingly contentious history of landscape photography movements (pictorialism vs straight photography, what?), to the ways social commentary and documentary reportage can enter landscape photography, learn about how we define landscape photography, its history, and various sub-genres. Perhaps an aspect of its history will inspire you to learn more, or one if its unique sub-types will spark ideas in your own practice. Read on for more about landscape photography.

What is landscape photography? 

You may still wonder, what is landscape photography? It is the photographic style of capturing spaces and aspects of landscapes. Often but not always, that of the natural world–focusing, for instance, on the natural beauty of a landscape, the wildlife within it, the natural light on a particular space, and even disturbances in weather. Other times it captures the effect humans have had on a landscape, from an industrial area, or a massive structure, or shows the effects of climate change taking place.

History of landscape photography 

We know people have been fascinated by landscapes long before landscape photography existed. Just think of how many stunning landscape paintings you’ve seen in museums or art classes. Landscape photography was likely popular when cameras were first invented due to their static nature – handy during a long exposure window. In the early days of photography, exposure times were minutes or hours long so having a static subject was ideal when exploring this new artistic media. Through various movements and advances in technologies, landscape photography grew in breadth and history. 

Early landscape photography 

Landscapes were likely good subjects for early photography, due to the technical constraints at the time. The first known landscape photograph was taken by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1826. The photo was of an urban landscape and the exposure took an exhaustive eight hours! Good thing landscapes stand relatively still. 

Advances in the field were made a decade or so later when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who worked and corresponded with Niépce, invented the daguerreotype (named after its inventor, #humblebrag). Daguerreotypes needed a mere 20 minutes exposure time, and Daguerre’s first successful daguerreotype in 1839 documented a cityscape in Paris, the Boulevard Du Temple. Look closely and you can even see a person on the street getting their shoes shined. Further advances in photography made the medium more accessible and led to new art movements in landscape photography such as pictorialism and straight photography.


Pictorialism was a photographic style that flourished from approximately 1885 – 1915, it was a style that looked to make a photograph more ‘painterly.’ Pictorialism involved the photographer adding a manipulation to the photograph, such as softening the focus of an image, adding color, or other creative additions determined by the image creator. The soft focus sought after in pictorialism referenced Impressionist paintings. The style and its prominent advocates at the time argued that, like painting, photography was an art form. The style was popular up until the 1920s and 30s, when a new style of photography came into style in lockstep with the Modernist movement, straight photography. The two styles seemed to rebuke one another for their different viewpoints and aesthetics, but we can now appreciate them for their contributions and distinct styles.

Straight photography 

Straight photography, also known as pure photography, is a photographic style that, unlike pictorialism, encourages detail and focus, relying on the natural forms and other contents of an image to stand on their own. The style is all about depicting the scene as the camera itself sees it, and in a sense is about recognizing and embracing the device’s own abilities. Ansel Adams, a landscape photographer famous for capturing mountain ranges said it himself: “The photographer…achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique – aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.” While the style can be contrasted with pictorialism, straight photography didn’t mean a lack of manipulation. Some photographers who practiced straight photography would use the darkroom to enhance the tone, contrast, or focus of their images.

Humanist photography 

Simply put, humanist photography is a photographic movement concerned with capturing humans. It is a reportage style of photography concerned with documenting people in their everyday life. The movement developed in Europe, largely in response to the destruction of the World Wars. Advances in technology made the humanist style of photography even more popular at the time, as photographers could roam more easily with their cameras, able to shoot a street scene. Brassaï and Henri Cartier-Bresson were two prominent photographers known for this style. Humanism as an idea also had a moral thread–the idea being that by capturing others we can understand and feel unified with one another more easily. Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother (1936) is a famous example of a humanist photo and a symbol of the depression in America. While the style has declined in popularity from its height in the mid-century, it still sees prominence, in particular when certain cultures or values may need to be preserved or celebrated.

Contemporary landscape photography

After many advents in the history of photography, from the invention of the daguerreotype to competing and complementary movements in landscape photography, new interventions and tactics continue to emerge. Contemporary landscape photography is known to experiment with new concepts, as well as new (or old) techniques. It usually has a point of view, whether that be, for example, the human footprint, conservation, or environmental justice. Some contemporary photographers examine ideas or meanings of landscapes by bringing in different media to the image, such as collage or painting, or experiment with different ways of digitally manipulating their image. Unless we consider remote destinations, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary landscape untouched by humans. Maybe this is why much of contemporary landscape photography concerns itself most with those areas that have been encumbered by the human footprint, whether that be a place of gathering, social change, or the built environment’s imposition onto the natural environment. 

Types of landscape photography 

There are many different types of landscape photography, from those that encapsulate capturing the natural world, to those focusing on the human impacts on a landscape. Some styles lend themselves to manipulation, others rely on depicting the scene as true to life as possible. All landscape styles rely on what the photographer brings as their unique point of view, which can transform or create altogether new ways of looking at various types of landscape photography.

Nature landscape photography 

Despite the built environment showing up more and more in landscape photography, nature is arguably the subject most commonly associated with landscape photography. From earth to sky, desert to the Milky Way, the sky really is the limit when considering the natural scene you want to capture, and nature photography absolutely can be considered a foundational type of landscape photography. 

Urban landscape photography 

Urban landscape photography captures aspects of the landscape that have been urbanized, or put more simply, are the result of human intervention. A photographer capturing structures such as buildings, roads, sculptures, or aspects of architecture interacting within the landscape can be examples of urban landscape photography. Urban landscapes can also be photos that depict cityscapes (city landscape photography).

Fine art landscape photography 

Fire art landscape photography brings the photographer’s point of view, artistic sense, and technical ability to the forefront. The photo usually compels the viewer to feel something. Take, for instance, Stephen Shore. He is known for pioneering color in landscape photography, experimenting with photographing the banal and the everyday during cross-country road trips through the United States.

Minimalist landscape photography 

Minimalist landscape photography takes the principles of minimalism and applies it to landscape photography, think: “less is more.” The art movement is all about simplifying or removing visual clutter. Some minimalist landscape photography will isolate a single structure or feature, others will use techniques such as repetition or leading lines, working with negative space or simple shapes to achieve a minimalist feel.

Social landscape photography 

Social landscape photography utilizes elements of documentary-style, humanist and straight photography to capture the interaction of the environment with everyday people. It can tell a story of society, the interaction between people, or the interaction between people and their environment at a particular moment in time. Lee Friedlander is a photographer well known for his social landscape photography.

Representational landscape photography 

Representational landscape photography is the truest to a realist style of landscape photography. Similar to straight landscape photography, representation landscape photography intends to document a scene as it looks through the camera, while still paying attention to light, composition, and framing. 

Intimate landscape photography 

Intimate landscape photography parses out a scene from a larger landscape to allow the viewer to examine that smaller, more intimate, and detailed scene. The subject of this type of landscape photography is usually the natural world, for example, isolating a single tree from a forest, or a section of shoreline from a vast ocean.

Abstract landscape photography 

Abstract landscape photography isolates, or looks more closely at, a particular aspect of the landscape, emphasizing a specific characteristic of the subject, such as shape, pattern, or color. This abstraction gives the viewer something different to feel or ponder, rather than viewing the entire landscape. It can also involve manipulating the scene either with lens and camera techniques or by intervening in the image in post-production. The abstraction removes the image from something representational into a realm where the viewer has more power to interpret for themselves what the image is, or what it means.

Impressionistic landscape photography 

If representational landscape photography is on one end of a spectrum, impressionistic landscape photography (and abstract landscape photography) may be on the other. This type of photography pays tribute to the Impressionist movement and is concerned with recreating atmosphere and visual effects, rather than the representational details of an image, giving the viewer an impression or feeling, rather than a true representation.

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