Reconsidering our approach to Landscape Photography

by Richard Young, Nature First Member

I have not been writing much lately. It is easy to produce a quick article to meet an editor’s deadline, but it is not so easy to write something worth saying. Will it just add to all the other noise that is already out there? That is always the fear—and I find the same applies to the production of photographs, which is why there are times in my own photography practice where I don’t shoot anything seriously for months at a time. This may seem hard to believe from a full-time landscape photographer—but if I don’t have anything new to say, I’d rather not say anything at all.

This article was originally published in NZ Photographer Magazine

Much like writing an engaging piece, making an original photograph requires a lot of energy and the right headspace, which can be hard to find when focusing on teaching, running a business, and other projects. I can capture a stunning landscape any day of the week, but a stunning capture doesn’t guarantee depth of expression. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to find myself in just such a landscape—in excellent shooting conditions—without ever unpacking my camera. I study the light and work out what I’m trying to say. I may see a shot that will work, but question if it is worth me taking it: is it a shot I need? What will its end-use be? Will I even ever use it at all, or will it just add to the noise of all the other unsorted files on my hard drives? 

Richard Young is a full-time landscape and wildlife photographer based in Wanaka, New Zealand. He teaches photography at New Zealand Photography Workshops.

Today, life tends to take place in a rushed manner. It’s hard to leave this attitude behind, even when we go out to photograph wild places. Our instinct is to turn up, capture the image, and go. Little regard tends to be given to our impact on the landscape we are “capturing” or our reasons for photographing it to start with. But when I am out shooting, I actually spend more time engaging in the landscape—studying it, working out how to compose it, seeing how the light reacts with it—than I do taking photos. I enjoy the thought process behind the creation of a work as much as I enjoy the end product.

Of course, this thought process—what I am trying to express—will not be obvious to the viewer, so how can I express it in the resulting photograph? If we give ourselves time to connect with our landscape, take it in, and decide the story we wish to tell, it can lead us to a more sustainable approach and a more original body of work. 

I’m lucky enough to be based in what many consider one of the top countries for landscape photography: New Zealand. Its iconic locations have been shared worldwide and used to help drive tourism as the country’s largest export earner pre-COVID. Most landscape photographers worldwide will recognise or be able to name our most famous locations, and many have visited these places themselves. The same few locations tend to top the list for visitors (including, of course, a particular famed tree often simply referred to as “That Tree”—you know the one I’m talking about!).

But does this stunning natural canvas lead to the best landscape photography? Does it make it easy to be a landscape photographer here? Surely with the advantage of all these iconic landscapes, there’s no shortage of material for Instagram posts? This may be the case, but I also believe it is one of the very reasons for the lack of originality in much of the landscape photography produced in New Zealand. Many stunning images are produced, but often there is little to set them apart from one another—apart from the latest capture trends and, at times, questionable post-processing techniques. This leads to quality of work being judged for the craftsmanship in its creation over anything else. Has landscape photography become simply a craft? One that can be taught from a YouTube video? Is there a “recipe” that will produce the desired results? Or is there a more engaging way to approach and capture the landscape? As much as learning craft is important—it gives us the tools to work with—executing that craft to capture the same landscapes as everyone else will not result in an original body of art. 

To be considered a work of art, a piece must be driven by intent; a desire to express something through its creation. This intent should go beyond simply capturing the most beautiful rendition of a much-photographed scene. Finding this intent is no new challenge in landscape photography—and one of the reasons it has long struggled to be accepted as art—but it is a challenge that has only been compounded by the likes of Instagram. Sure, that sweeping vista—captured as an HDR, long-exposure panorama—will get people’s attention. But for how long? What really makes it stand out from the last image posted of the same location? Has landscape photography just become one big competition, played out across an online platform judged by the “likes” of unknown users, who are in turn equally addicted to the split-second engagement of each image? 

While it’s true that New Zealand is producing lots of stunning landscape photography, I feel there is considerably less original work being produced here compared to, say, the UK—despite the range of landscapes being arguably less diverse in the UK than those found in New Zealand. The UK has some beautiful wild places, but the scale cannot compare to the volume of untouched wilderness that still lies within NZ national parks. Perhaps the greater volume of original work is partly due to greater population size: with 68 million people in the UK compared to our 5 million, there are obviously a lot more photographers in the UK, so if even 1% of these were to produce something truly original, that would be a large body of original work. But this also works in the opposite way; with so many people shooting, it can be hard to produce something unique. 

I think one thing that has happened here in NZ—along with other popular landscape photography locations, such as Iceland—is that production of original work has been sidelined by the race to capture the iconic locations that so many are visiting. The draw to capture them has become central to our approach to the landscape, and even if the captures are exceptional, they show scenes that have been seen so many times before. The abundance of similar images makes me question whether I still wish to capture the “iconic locations” of NZ anymore. Much of my early work was built around these vistas—and while I’m happy with the images, there are only a couple that offer a truly personal expression of the landscape. The others could easily be recaptured to similar or better quality on a return journey—and could be captured just as easily by another accomplished landscape photographer. This being the case, how can I make my images stand out from the work of others? 

I often travel to these iconic NZ landscapes—sometimes multiple times a year—to guide groups on tours and workshops. The participants are mainly motivated by the goal of capturing these scenes for themselves, and sometimes they even produce a representation that is “better” than what I have in my own portfolio. I don’t usually shoot the scene myself on these trips, as my focus is on helping those I am there to teach and guide. I also feel I won’t be saying anything new by simply capturing a better shot than I already have. That being said, there are times—when sitting in a conference room the following day reviewing the stunning photographs captured by the group—that I do wish I had “got the shot” as well. But what I really enjoy about working as a tutor is having the opportunity to visit these amazing locations with people from all around the world, and discovering everyone’s unique visions, which comprises a very important part of the workshop environment. There are times when the whole group sets up their tripods in a line to capture the same vista, but there are also times—at other locations or with a more considered approach to what they are capturing—when everyone ends up with their own unique image. I particularly enjoy taking people to lesser-known locations for this reason. While everyone has a hit-list of images they hope to capture on the trip, the unknown locations are often the real gems. Arriving with no preconceptions allows visitors to explore, experiment, and express their own vision. 

Despite some of the limitations, I still enjoy visiting iconic landscape photo locations—provided they are not too crowded—and believe they serve as an important learning step for photographers starting to engage with the landscape. It can be useful for photographers to pitch their own ability to capture a scene against that of others to learn the craft, and I get excited in helping people capture such images. Teachers of photography often focus heavily on technique, but what I enjoy most is teaching people to see: to break down the scene in front of them, decide the story, determine the key elements of their photograph, and figure out how to express their vision. Time and time again, even when I’m sure I’ve visited a location far too many times to see a fresh interpretation, someone always finds a way to create something totally new. Maybe they have seen some small detail that others overlook, or maybe they just approach the view in front of them in an unusual way. 


As a landscape photographer based here in New Zealand, I have seen the impact photography has had on well-known locations. In today’s world of social media, it is hard to keep a beautiful location secret for long: as soon as it is picked up by well-known “influencers”, the crowds start to arrive. In this rush to get the next best shot, are we considering our actions to the landscape we are shooting and sharing? Photography is a powerful marketing tool that can be used to present products in a way that is irresistible to the consumer, and over recent years, some of our natural resources—our landscapes—have been treated like a product, something that can be packaged up and sold. The likes of tourism boards have quickly jumped behind this: realising the marketing power of photography to attract more visitors to a destination, they use Instagram posts by wide-reaching influencers in the race to attract as many visitors as possible to honeypot locations. 


Looking at this post-COVID, people are starting to question the benefits of bringing in more visitors. What impact are all these people having on the locations they visit? How does the experience match the dream view that has been sold to the viewer—captured in the best light, by a skilled photographer, excluding the large crowd of other people that were also there. Does the actual experience match up to this? Most likely not; the visitor might even leave a little disappointed by the experience. As landscape photographers, we must consider the part we play in this. Although we may wish to share the beauty we find and gain exposure, we also need to consider how our actions impact the locations we’re shooting.

As someone whose company involves guiding photographers to locations as part of my job, I feel responsible to assess and manage the impact of the visit. This is something we have worked hard on at New Zealand Photography Workshops: we have worked hard to obtain Department of Conservation (DOC) concession permits for the locations we use, so that visitor numbers can be managed, along with any negative impact to sensitive landscapes. Our aim is not just to reduce our impact on the location, but to positively affect it. As part of this sustainability philosophy, we sponsor and donate to various programs throughout the country, including bird conservation and habitat protection for marine species, with the aim to leave a positive local impact wherever our tours visit. We also offset all the carbon from our tours by planting native trees in national parks and conservation areas (which will also positively impact our future photography, since there will be more trees and native wildlife to photograph). 

Of course, there is more work to be done than we can do alone: we need to see significant cultural changes—both here in New Zealand and on a global level—to the way we treat the places we photograph. This is why New Zealand Photography Workshops decided to join Nature First as a Silver Partner, not only adopting their principles, but helping to educate others on the importance of these values when we engage with groups in our workshops. While all of the principles are equally important, I wish to focus on the need to #UseDiscretionIfSharingLocations. This can reduce the impact of too many people visiting a particular location. Perhaps it can also positively impact our photography—helping us approach location choice from a more personal perspective, rather than chasing the latest honey pot. 


A couple of months ago, I was chatting to the ex-manager of a local tourism board while we were both camping out at a remote and photogenic hut. We were speaking about the damage that could be done if this became an “Instagram location”—it was a remote area that could not handle large numbers of visitors. He shared how he had seen the impact of this in his past actions, actively using Instagram influencers to promote the area as a top tourism destination in New Zealand. The board had supported famous influencers to post from a local mountain peak with stunning vistas and a well-known tree sitting in a lake. The plan worked a treat, and these locations became globally recognisable—but it led to an uncontrolled number of people visiting, which in turn led to parking problems, toilet problems, and track erosion, which has become a considerable problem to manage. 

I’m sure the hut where we were camping had been photographed before—it might have even been shared on social media channels—but we decided we would keep it a secret. If we felt the need to post at all, we would be cryptic in its naming, referring only to the region of the country and excluding the sign on the door that would enable it to be found. As landscape photographers, when we post images with the location attached, it is important to consider not only the other photographers this will attract—which has a multiplying effect—but also general members of the public. After all, most of these are now “photographers'” too, armed with their cellphones.

A few weeks after my visit to the hut, while running a tour to a nearby area, I saw first-hand how quickly visitors can impact a location. In moody light, we drove out to a collection of historic miners’ huts nestled into an impressive wild mountain landscape. Just the day before, I had talked to the group, asking them to #UseDiscretionIfSharingLocations for the places we would visit during the workshop. It was important not to damage these places for others, and we were, after all, guests to the landscape; we intended to leave it how it was found. But when we arrived at the huts that day, another “special interest group” had taken them over—a group of 4WD enthusiasts. While I am sure many partake in this activity with consideration for the impact of their actions (we were responsibly driving a 4WD to get out here ourselves), this group was not. As a photography destination that day, and likely for some time until it recovers, the location was very unphotogenic. The visitors had managed to drive their 4WD and dirt bikes right between all the huts, turning the land around them into a churned-up muddy bog. I’m sure they were having a great time—and when they share the location with friends, many more will be back—but at what cost?

When incidents like this happen, local authorities need to change the access to the location, which impacts future photography. A classic example is a very iconic church known for being captured under the Milky Way here in New Zealand. Due to the sheer impact of the number of people walking around it—mainly to take photos—it has now been fenced off for protection, affecting how well it can be both experienced and photographed. I have witnessed other actions just as damaging to a location by photographers: sometimes these are the selfish actions of one thoughtless individual, but more often the actions of people who are quite unaware of their impact of visiting or sharing a location. They might feel their footprint is light, but the same footprint multiplied by the 100 other photographers who visited that day is not. 


There is a stunning vista across a certain New Zealand lake that has become a “must capture” location for any landscape photographer. The other day, I found myself searching for images of it on Google, and was surprised to find that two of the first shots that came up were my own. One is an image I held dear for many years; if you asked me a few years ago, I might well have told you that this was a unique and personal expression of this vista. But when I look at this image now—while it does still bring me happiness—I see there is little to set it apart from the many captured there in great light by other skilled photographers. We are often afraid to return from well-known locations without the perfect shot of an iconic view. However, a true artist will be more afraid to return without an image expressing their personal vision, and the urge to capture popular scenes can be little more than a distraction. This raises the question: should we be photographing famous locations at all if we wish to develop a unique body of work? 

The popularity of landscape photography and the sharing of images on social media affect both where we shoot and how we capture such images. We may be envisioning the image we want before we even arrive. For a clear example of this, you only have to think about “That Tree” here in New Zealand. The widespread nature of such images has opened up a genuine challenge for landscape photographers. If we choose to visit such iconic locations, how can we capture a unique interpretation of these landscapes? Simply showing up and capturing a technically perfect image to represent it is not enough—and besides, it has already been done by so many before us. When we make a photograph, we want it to be about our experience, not just about the place. A personal image that expresses our vision might well receive little attention on social media; it may not deliver the instant ‘wow’ factor of the sweeping vista everyone else is posting. Craving that magnificent scene and the recognition that comes with its capture, some photographers have allowed this to become the primary driver behind their work.

Over the past couple of years, I have largely stopped sharing my work via online platforms or social media. This is partly due to a personal choice to be more engaged with life experiences and people rather than engaging with my phone or computer (which I already spend far too much time on). This choice has given me more freedom with the work I produce—making an image I want rather than what I feel will get likes or sell as a print. This approach has had a positive effect on how I evaluate my own work for originality and quality. I feel a lot happier with the photographs I am making, and feel much less pressure to “get the shot”, which allows me to enjoy my time in the landscape. Simply posting images to impress others and get the most ‘likes’ is like trying to make yourself happy by buying material items. It may feel good for a time, but it will not lead to lasting happiness; it is more likely to lead to social pressure and anxiety. 

Of course, completely avoiding social media may not be feasible for those who rely on their photography for an income, as there is a strong connection between self-promotion and sales. Often I hear people say they wish to become a professional photographer or start to sell their work, and while this is an admirable goal, it is worth considering what the cost will be to your work and the enjoyment you experience from creating it. Choices may start to be driven by business—or likes. At some point, you will have to decide which is more important to you: the business or the personal expression? 


Today, much of my work is centred on a more expressive approach to landscape photography—making photographs about the landscape rather than capturing images of the landscape. There is a real difference between the two. This can be very hard to achieve in well-known locations—with our approach influenced by all the other images we have seen—and this reality has somewhat reduced my desire to visit such places. But they are iconic for a reason, and if we can disconnect from what has been captured there before, it is still very possible to produce something original. I once made photographs solely to celebrate the beauty of a landscape as a grand vista, but I take a very different approach now—and enjoy representing well-known landscapes in a way that makes the location unlikely to be recognised. For it is not the location that the image is about, but my expressive engagement with it. Over the last year, I have captured many well-known locations—some represented in the photographs in this article—in such a way that makes it very hard, if not impossible, for a viewer to guess where they were taken. This was not my original goal in the capture, but rather the result from engaging more closely with them.

So next time you plan a photography trip, arrive at an iconic location, or prepare to post an image online, ask yourself the question: who are you photographing for? If it’s for yourself, then be true to this and let it guide your work. Consider how you can approach landscape photography more thoughtfully and expressively, less reliant on the views of others, and you might find it leads to more original work—and a greater enjoyment of the time you spend in the landscape creating it.