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September 23rd, 2016

Landscape Photography with Emotion and Mystery by Joshua Holko

Posted by liveBooks

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Living in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Joshua Holko is a full-time Professional Nature Photographer who specializes in polar photography. Joshua is a fully accredited AIPP Master of Photography and member of the Australian Institute of Professional Photographers (AIPP). He has won countless awards for his photography including being names the 2015 Global Arctic Photographer or the Year.
Joshua is officially represented by Philip Kulpa and the Source Photographica Gallery in Australia and Aspen, Colorado.

To see more of Joshua Holko’s work visit his website:

Photography is at its core a still medium that we use to tell stories. The problem with much of the photography that is referenced in the blog post “Will the Real Landscape Photography Please Stand Up” is that there is no story being told by the photograph. Or rather, the story is one of technical perfection and a pretty picture.

Photography is the art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place or thing. It frequently has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them. And that brings us to the art of seeing. An art that is being lost in a sea of technical perfection. Sure it takes technical skill to set up a camera and tripod in a beautiful location with great light and make a pretty picture. It takes artistic skill, however, to create an evocative photograph with emotion and mystery.

Creating images with mystery and emotion starts with seeing with better eyes. Weather, light, and composition all play a vital role in the process but the real emotion is going to come from the story you are trying to tell with your photograph. I wrote in my book review of La Nuit du Cerf (Night of the Deer) about how photography is a subtractive process and what we exclude is often more important than what we include. Photographs are often successfully emotive because of what the photographer chose to exclude, rather than what he or she has included. Giving a sense of something is often far stronger than showing the whole thing. Leave something to the imagination of the viewer in your photographic compositions and you will find your images become stronger, more emotive and mysterious. The story does not have to be completed in a wide-angle frame that encompasses absolutely everything. It is often well worth letting the viewer fill in the blanks in their minds’ eye. After all, no photograph can compete with the stimulated imagination. The more you can fire the imagination of the viewer the more successfully emotive your photograph will become.

I cannot recall who it was who was first quoted as saying “Don’t photograph what it is. Photograph what else it is” but this statement is great advice we should all keep in mind when we are out taking photographs.

I have judged many photographic competitions over the last few years and without a doubt those photographs that are more successful are the ones that tug on my emotional strings. These photographs create a connection with the viewer that is deeper and more meaningful than the feeling a pretty picture might impart.

Learning to see with better eyes takes time but is something we can train ourselves to do. Looking at photography books or attending galleries (not just photographic galleries) and exhibitions are two good ways to improve your vision. Look at how other photographers whom you admire interpreted a scene or subject and analyze what it is that created the connection for you to the work. Think about what is is you are trying to say with your photography before you click the shutter. I frequently ask workshop participants what their photograph is about when they ask for feedback on their images – I often receive a blank stare in return. If the photograph doesn’t know what the image is about, how is the viewer supposed to know? It might be a photograph of a Penguin and that well be the answer, but the real answer should be about what the photographer is trying to say about the subject.

Lets look at this photograph of mine on Gentoo Penguins in the sea ice near the entrance to the Lemaire Channel in Antarctica as an example. This photograph is about “being left behind”. It tells the story of the Gentoo Penguins in their environment. We know (even though they are small in the frame) that there are penguins because of their distinctive shape. We know they are in Antarctica because of the giant icebergs in the background. We know they are in their natural environment as they are walking across the sea ice. Yet, it is that one lone penguin that is lagging behind that creates the emotion in the photograph. When this photograph was judged at the 2014 APPA Awards, the judges giggled and commented about the story being told. The mere fact the photograph elicited giggles speaks to the emotive content. The photograph subsequently received a Gold Award.


Now, if you put your thumb over the screen and cover up that lagging penguin then suddenly the story is now nowhere near as strong and the real power and emotion of the photograph is gone.

The same applies to the overall composition of this photograph. To the left of the large iceberg just out of frame is a large island. To the right-hand side is a mountainous peak, likewise just out frame but neither of these elements are important to the photograph so I excluded them to simplify the frame and distill it down the essence of what I wanted the photograph to be about. I wanted to tell the story about the penguins on the ice with the little feller playing catch-up. Excluding these extraneous elements not only cleaned up the frame, but it also left the imagination to fill in the blanks about what might lie just to the left and right. Our mind’s eye fills in the blanks and at least in my own case, I imagine the sea ice continually stretching out in both directions. This is far stronger than seeing the Island and mountain that are just out of frame.

Learning to see with better eyes is a core aspect to creating emotion in your imagery. Learning to use the elements available is another. Those who have travelled with me to the Polar regions know I relish bad weather. Snow, blizzards, and dramatic weather provides the perfect canvas to create emotive imagery. It doesn’t have to be Polar though – a breaking rain storm or the edge of weather will almost always provide an opportunity to tell an emotive story. The take-away to remember is that the weather provides only some of the feeling and drama to the photograph. It is your composition and choice of what you include and exclude that is going to tell the story. Remember, like all good stories, a photograph should leave the viewer wanting more. That is the key to getting emotion and mystery into your photographs.


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