Author: Peter Watson
Publisher: Photographers’ Institute Press
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
Most landscape photographers who are serious about their work easily learn how to expose film and focus properly. After that, the difficulty is learning how to arrange the landscape, or more properly, arrange oneself with respect to the landscape, so that a beautiful compelling picture can come out of the camera. Arranging the landscape, and the light, which is the other side of the landscape coin, is what Peter Watson talks about in Reading the Landscape: An Inspirational and Instructional Guide to Landscape Photography.
The organization of the book is quite simple. On the right side of the gutter is usually a full page landscape. On the left side is a description of some of the photographers considerations in taking the picture, followed by a thumbnail image with annotations of the considerations. The book is divided into chapters by environmental type, like Urban and Rural Landscapes, and Coastal Landscapes.
I found the book quite provocative. The images from the British Isles reminded me of the work of other great landscape photographers, like Tom Mackie, Peter Ward and David Noton, and indeed the great English landscape painters like Constable. Their pictures seem so much alike, it made me wonder how much the land and the light imposed the composition of the image. This was further impressed on me when I looked at Watsons North American images and they seemed to have a different feel to them. (To be fair, I also have seen the same piece of landscape captured by two different artists and noticed the difference.) Given the constraint of the subject, how does the photographer create something that is his own?
Watsons solution is to carefully select the place from which the image is taken, plan for the light that will convey his vision, wait for the moment, and then take his photograph. These are amorphous considerations and not easy to convey. For example, in a particular scene he says that he feels that having the foreground in shadow will call more attention to the midground, and so he waits for the light. He indicates how long he waited for the light for each image and occasionally he waited several days.
The photographers images are beautiful, without being spectacular. There are few majestic mountains here. Even his American pictures are more likely to be of abandoned buildings surrounded by woods than steep crags.
The author has used annotated thumbnails in at least one previous book, but here the small image does not seem to have as much information as previously, showing mainly how he positioned a graduated neutral density filter.
Watson is still using film and a view camera to capture his images, so that on the one hand he has the advantages of being able to control his plane of focus, but on the other lacks any of the bells and whistles of modern digital photography, including post processing techniques like high dynamic range photography.
To learn the most from this book, one ought to have well developed technical skills and be able to study each of the images with the authors considerations in mind and then apply some of those considerations to ones own landscape photography.