Landscape photography is obviously one of the more popular genres. There are numerous "how to" books on the subject at most any large bookstore, and many more via Amazon. They run the gamut from beginner-level nuts 'n' bolts to Photoshop-centric image-editing guides; from general overviews like John Shaw's 1994 guide to the prolific Tim Fitzharris's many books. Almost all of them talk a bit about equipment, a bit about technique, a bit about light, a bit about subjects and locations....
This is all well and good for novices. However, as Mike has pointed out before, these how-to books quickly reach a point of diminishing returns for anyone aspiring to something beyond mere competence. Taking lots of photographs, and deliberately learning from both the successes and failures, will carry you further once you know the basics.
There's also a lot to be said for close study of the work of acknowledged masters of the form, and it bears repeating that there is no substitute for viewing the actual prints. Seeing a museum or gallery exhibition in person can be a revelation. Knowing what's achievable by the best practitioners of the art permits you to set your own sights a little higher. Books are a portable "gallery" for your own home, and once you reach a nominal level of craft you'll gain more from studying a fine monograph than by reading another how-to guide.
Sometimes, though, studying the work of others or heading out with camera and tripod before sunrise aren't enough. Without getting too metaphysical about it, analyzing what you're trying to accomplish perceptually and artistically can be very worthwhile. Trying to translate the full sensory experience of a carpet of mountain wildflowers or a forest waterfall on to a two-dimensional piece of paper is a challenge, to put it mildly. So what actually makes for a compelling landscape photograph?
This is a long-winded (but I hope helpful) introduction to the work of David Ward. He's one of England's pre-eminent landscape photographers, specializing in large-format color images. To make a gross generalization, British landscape photography displays a gentler, human-scale vision compared with the typically spectacular, bombastic American idiom. Ward's work—like that of Charlie Waite, Joe Cornish, or David Noton—tends toward lyrical harmony. To me it "feels" like strings and woodwinds, rather than the bugles and trumpets of Ansel Adams or David Muench. Presumably this is driven by the softer landscape of the British Isles, shaped by human hands over thousands of years.
Landscape Beyond is David Ward's eloquent, thoughtful exploration of the aesthetic structure of landscape photographs. This is several planes higher than the customary "rule of thirds, golden hour light" type of discussion. Ward instead delves into perceptual theory, the properties of beauty, and the nature of mystery. The book is illustrated by his photographs, which are quietly breathtaking. They convey an impression of the contemplative beauty to be found in the natural world.
Ward makes an argument for a particular aesthetic in landscape photography, one centered on the three principles of simplicity, mystery, and beauty. Each is explored at length in remarkably eloquent and lucid essays drawing from multiple fields of inquiry. (Anyone who can meaningfully quote John Keats, John Szarkowski and John Cleese in the same essay has my admiration.)
Simplicity is examined as an artistic theme, starting from the common observation that painters add to a blank canvas, while photographers subtract from a chaotic reality. The gist of the discussion is how difficult, yet how very rewarding it is to distill meaningful simplicity from the wider world. In his exploration of the concept of mystery, Ward begins with the Mona Lisa's ambiguous smile to explain how subtle mysteries hold our attention and pique our curiosity, whereas the facile and obvious image quickly loses our interest despite its initial appeal. His examination of beauty proceeds from Edward Weston's sense of wonder, and touches on sources ranging from Robert Adams to Buckminster Fuller to the Navajo concept of beauty as the embodiment of harmony, order, health and balance. Ward's erudition flows organically; his arguments never feel strained. The final chapter discusses applying a sense of curiosity and exploration to landscape photography, and seeking one's own path rather than imitating images we've seen before.
I find David Ward's metaphysical approach to landscape photography the perfect antidote to ennui and creative block. Just thinking about the perceptual and aesthetic issues in play makes me want to get up at five a.m. and head out to shoot some pictures. Maybe you'll feel the same way.
David Ward's previous book, Landscape Within, covers some of the same issues from a different perspective. In it he explores the web of light linking the physical world with the final print, right brain/left brain thinking and a host of other notions, all with effortless eloquence. Well worth seeking out if you enjoy his written "voice."
Those interested in the traditional photographic notion of pictorial beauty may also want to seek out Katharine Thayer's essay in Lenswork #53, June/July 2004. Thayer gleefully assaults the post-modern disdain for beauty and environmentally-based art as an unhealthy disconnect from the natural world. Folks with recent MFA degrees may be appalled by her logic, but passionate amateurs like myself will find it bracing.
Featured Comment by Andy: "A short BBC video clip of David Ward and Joe Cornish photographing just up the coast from me in Whitby."
Featured Comment by Yanchik: "To generalise about the British Isles is somewhat to miss the point.
"Anyone who has taken more than a superficial interest in the geology, human geography, industry or even weather rapidly comes to realise the extraordinary good luck of any outdoors photographer who happens to be based here.
"Geology from flat misty reclaimed marshlands through chalk scarps, sandy heath, limestone pavement, oak forest, a little strip of tundra, sandstone mountains with hard quartzite caps, old (Ural/Appalachian) glacial granite mountain scenery, new volcanic mountain scenery, tin, copper, coal, pick your preferred fossil era, columnar basalt....
"Of course, there are other places with such a fine variety of scenery, but not so many with it all packed into a tiny area. Comparisons might turn out odious, after all. In my personal opinion, the geological variety translates efficiently into a startling variety of regional dialects, accents and foodstuffs ('cuisines' might be a step too far; I don't want any choking Frenchmen on my conscience!)
"To Martin Doonan's point [in the comments]: take a closer look at David Ward. I don't disagree that Cornish and Waite fall into the Galen Rowell school of hyperfocal Velvia, but Ward definitely makes sallies into graphic/monochrome from time to time. I think it's also a supportable argument that for a general instructional text on landscape, David Ward, Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite and Galen Rowell make a very suitable starting point. A book based on Kenna, Sugimoto and Godwin need not fail, but it would be a harder road."
Featured Comment by PSmith: "One problem that British Landscape photography suffers from is lack of originality. The scene on the front of the book, of the streams running across Rannoch Moor and the mountain Buachaille Etive Mor at the start of Glen Coe in the background has been photographed ad nauseam and appears again and again in publications and on web sites. And that tree features in a lot of them! The vantage point is just off the A82 so although it looks like wilderness it's really easy to get to. Honestly you must have to queue up to take it. It's the British equivalent of Half Dome. What I don't understand is the attraction in taking the exact same photograph as everybody else. The fact that it's on the cover of a book by one of the pre-eminent British landscape photographers shows how endemic this problem is."