What are you Photographing?

Mountain Light, Tasman Glacier ISO 400, f11, 1/1250 seconds

Often while immersed in capturing a stunning landscape, bathed in beautiful warm light at sunset, a passer-by will stop to talk to me. The first and more than likely only question will typically be; “what are you photographing?” As if there is something that they are missing looking out over the same fantastic vista in front of them. It is a question that annoys me at times, partly because of being interrupted from the moment I’m in, but also because it seems they feel that this beautiful landscape is not worthy enough to make a good photograph on its own. I could, and often have replied to them with “this beautiful landscape, isn’t it stunning?” They will generally seem a little disappointed by this answer, as if they were expecting something else, perhaps some exciting wildlife.

But in reality, it’s a very worthy question. Yes, I am standing in front of this stunning landscape, but what part of this is my subject? What is the story I wish to tell about this landscape? If I point my camera towards this grand vista without considering this, I am going to record the scene without any personal or artistic interpretation. As a photographic artist, this is my job, not just to capture this landscape but to add my visual interpretation to it and tell a story in my work. Sometimes it is also what we leave out of a photograph that can help define our subject. A painter can have the luxury to choose what to include in their painting, as a photographer, we often need to decide what does not add to the image and how we can leave this out. Deciding what to leave out of a photograph is often harder than it sounds, especially when faced with an amazing vista it all too easy to include everything.

Pink Boulder, Lake Oahu ISO 64, f11, 4 seconds

I think there three crucial elements make up any successful landscape photograph; subject, light, and composition. Just shooting some beautiful light (e.g. a fantastic sunset) is not enough on it own to make a great image. If we start to break down the landscape in front of us, we might wish to capture all of it, but which part of it is most interesting? What part of this grand vista should our subject be? Once we have made this choice, we can then decide how to compose the photograph to make this subject clear to the viewer. We can also determine what other parts of the landscape will add to the picture, and what will only be a distraction.

I often find while teaching on a workshop when I ask a student what they are photographing, I will get a reply like “that interesting little rock on the side of the lake” when they are standing 10 meters away from this rock with an ultra-wide-angle lens on their camera. While this is a great subject, it will be lost in their final photograph, due to their current composition. With their distance from the rock and current lens choice, the rock might only represent about 5% of the image area in the photograph. It’s important to decide what our subject is before we set up our tripod, this will then inform our decisions of which lens is best to use and where best to capture this from.

Frosty Tussock, Tasman River ISO 64, f11, 6 seconds

If they had started with deciding this rock was to be the main subject of their photograph, they could have moved closer to it, made it larger and more defined within the surrounding landscape. Or they could have selected a longer telephoto lens to zoom in on the rock and isolate it from the rest of the landscape. Both of these choices would allow it to be a more significant part of the end photograph and define it as a subject to the viewer. Hopefully, the subject, (“what I am photographing?”) in the pictures attached to this article, are clear. For the image looking out across lake Ohau, this is the foreground rock on the side of the lake. I have framed this with the distant mountains and soft light behind. The photograph looking up the Tasman River at Mt Cook is about the lovely texture of the frost-covered tussock against the soft swirl of the river pool. I have framed Mt Cook in the background, but this is to give a sense of location, not as the subject of the picture.

So the next time I am out photographing a beautiful sunset at one of my favourite landscapes, will I be any less annoyed when a passer-by stops to ask “what are you photographing?” Probably not! If I replied to them that I am photographing this little rock on the side of the lake, instead of this beautiful landscape, do you think they will be less disappointed with my answer? Probably not! They might even reply with; I thought you might have been photographing the sunset!


Richard Young – Professional Landscape Photographer and director of NZPW.

Landscape Masterclass – Mt Cook

Feeling inspired? Learn more and practise your landscape photography skills on our Mt Cook Landscape Masterclass.

Landscape Masterclass – Mt Cook – 10th-13th September 2020

About the Author
Richard Young is a full-time landscape and wildlife photographer based in Wellington. He has been guiding groups of photographers in New Zealand since 2010 and founded New Zealand Photography Workshops in 2013.

Leave a Reply