Black & white landscape photo taken in Galicia, Spain

What I Learned About Landscape Photography in Northern Spain

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Earlier this year I spent three months in northern Spain. If you’re not familiar with this region and you’re into landscape photography than I strongly recommend you put it on your list of places to go. The Cantabrian coast stretches from the Basque Country to Galicia, and is marked by high cliffs, beautiful beaches and lots of photogenic rock formations – perfect for those of you who enjoy seascapes and long exposure photography.

These are some of the things that I learned while in Spain.

1. You need time to get to know a place.

It’s very hard to visit a region for a week and create good landscape photos. You need time to explore, to get to know the place and find the best the locations for landscape photography. You also need the weather to co-operate and, if you are shooting seascapes, for the tides to be at their optimal height for the composition of your photos.

What if, for example, you find a beautiful beach where you need a low tide to create a good image, yet sunset and the golden hour coincide with high tide? You’ll need to wait a week to see a low tide at sunset.

If you only have a few days on location you need to prepare as much as possible in advance by researching the place you are going to. Look at photos taken by other photographers (500px is a good place to start). This will tell you where some of the most photogenic spots are, and give you a shortlist of places to explore. The rest of it you’ll just have to keep your fingers crossed for.

The truth is that it’s difficult to photograph a landscape properly without spending a decent amount of time there. There’s no way around it. It’s one of the reasons that landscape photographers who build up a good body of work either live close to the region they photograph the most or spend a good deal of time there.

For the less dedicated landscape photographer it means that you should take a close look at your local landscapes to  see what potential they have to offer. They are the ones you will get to know the best and spend the most time in.

Black & white landscape photos of rock formations at Oliencu Cove, Asturias, Spain.

2. Don’t chase other peoples’ photos.

Every location seems to have its iconic locations – those photographed over and over by just about every photographer that passes by. In New Zealand there’s the Wanaka Tree and the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tekapo. Here in northern Spain certain beaches are photographed much more often than others. It is natural to want to take photos in the same places, especially if these images inspired you to go.

There are two difficulties here.

First, it’s difficult to create an original image at an iconic location.

Second, you’ll be continually making comparisons between your photos and everybody else’s.

You may not be bothered about originality. For you, it might just be about visiting a place that you’ve seen many times in other people’s photos and making a photo for yourself.

That’s fine, we all do it. I’ve photographed both New Zealand icons mentioned earlier (I used a photo of the Wanaka tree on the cover of my ebook Mastering Composition, although it is different from most that you see because of the weather conditions).

But after you’ve satisfied that urge, look elsewhere for photos that are more personal to you. Ask yourself what appeals to you about the landscape you are in. What do you find beautiful, or evocative? Maybe there’s something that reminds you of happy childhood memories, or somewhere you’ve been in the past.

Also don’t fall into the trap of comparing your photos with those of other photographers. Remember, you have no idea how long the photographer had to wait for the ideal combination of light, weather and tide. Local photographers have the advantage here as they can keep returning and making photos in different conditions. Or the photographer may just have got lucky.

Black & white seascape taken in Asturias, Spain.
Looking at other people’s photos for research is useful. But it may also have the unintended effect of making it more difficult for you to see other possibilities. It is natural to want to take similar photos to the beautiful images you already seen.

I call this chasing other people’s photos. If you want to create landscape photos that are more personal to you then you need to search for your own images instead.

Photographer Cole Thompson practices something that he calls photographic abstinence. He never looks at other people’s photos when he travels somewhere new. Instead, he waits for the photos to present themselves to him. Without preconceptions, he can make photos that are personal to him.

The more I practice landscape photography, the more I believe that photographic abstinence is the key to creating beautiful, original images.

Let me give you an example. There is a famous beach in Galicia called Playa de las Catedrales (Cathedral Beach in English). It is known as one of Spain’s most beautiful beaches.

Here is a photo I took one morning, showing the rock arches the beach is famous for.

Black & white landscape photo taken at Playa de las Catedrales, Galicia, Spain.
It’s the result of chasing other people’s photos, and little different from other photos of the same scene.

Then I realized that the rocks in the sea made beautiful subjects. I spent some time photographing the rocks. These landscapes are not iconic in any way, nor do they look like other photos I have seen of this beach. But they are personal to me, and I like them better.

Black & white landscape photo taken in Galicia, Spain

Black & white landscape photo taken at Playa de las Catedrales, Galicia, Spain.

You can read more about photographic abstinence in my interview with Cole Thompson in The Black & White Landscape.

3. Luck favors those who go out exploring with their cameras

It’s important to be curious, to go out for walks and explore and see what there is to be found. It is also important to do this at the ends of the day, when the light is best for landscape photography.

This is how you find things that other people miss, and that may make interesting photos.

I created the photo below while walking along the coast near the nondescript coastal town of Rinlo in Galicia. I came across these ruins. They are the remains of a cetárea – a building for harvesting shellfish left behind by the retreating tide.

You can’t make discoveries like this unless you get out and explore.

Black & white landscape photo of cetárea taken near Rinlo in Galicia, Spain.

4. You have to take your opportunities when they come.

It’s too easy to make an excuse. Maybe you’re short of time, or tired, or hungry. Maybe you think you’ll get a better photo when the light is different, or at another time of day.

But, if the conditions are suitable enough to create a good photo, then you should do so. You may never get chance to go back. The conditions might be better than you think.

I made the photo below at the Playa de Illa in Galicia. It was my first time at this beach. It was evening, and the tide was going out. There were some impressive rock formations in the sea. The swirling tide made it difficult to get into position.

I climbed up onto another rock and found this view. I made the photo. When I imported it into Lightroom Classic I realized the photo was more interesting than I had originally thought.

Black & white seascape taken at the Playa de Illa in Galicia, Spain.
We’ve visited that beach several times since and each of those times it would have been impossible to take a photo like this because the tide was never in the right place.

I didn’t know it at the time but I caught the tide at just the right height – low enough to climb up onto the rock from where I took the photo, and high enough to hide the rocks under the water. If I hadn’t made that first photo – if I had been tempted to return another time – I would never have had the same opportunity.

5. Set themes to evolve as an artist

Setting themes allows you to evolve as an artist by focusing on ideas, places or techniques.

My theme for this trip to Spain has been a very loose one – black and white long exposure seascapes. Yes, I’ve taken some other photos as well, but this has been my main focus. The result is that it has driven me to search for locations suitable for this type of photography. The more I do it, the more I understand the subtleties of the techniques involved. My understanding of composition and light have also improved.

Cole Thompson also works with themes, and if you read my interview with him you will learn about his Lone Man, Monoliths and Ancient Stones series. You see how pursuing this themes over a number of years has both given him a subject to shoot and allowed him to build up a body of work.

Following and exploring themes is the best way I know to develop and evolve as a photographer and artist.

If you found these tips useful, then please check out my ebook The Black & White Landscape.

Further reading

100 Composition Assignments

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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