Photo Insight with David Ward

David Ward is one of the UK’s finest landscape photographers. With more than 20 years’ experience in large-format photography, he has photographed extensively throughout the UK and in countries such as Canada, Iceland, Norway and France. He has also led workshops for Light & Land. David has written two books on his photographic philosophy called Landscape Within and Landscape Beyond. Each month, he will discuss the story behind one of his fantastic landscape photographs

I always appreciate it when I find a sense of geometry in natural forms, although it’s not something I specifically seek out. Usually at the point that I take a picture it just feels right, so many of my descriptions about why shots work only come about some time later when I have the time to sit down and consider them. It’s only then that the real picture reveals itself.

I’m a firm believer that composition should come from the subconscious. My understanding is that this is something called the ‘flow-state’. That’s the moment when time becomes elastic and you forget you’re sitting in the wind and rain because you’re lost in the moment of making that image. The only conscious decisions you make in that moment are the technical aspects, such as taking a meter reading. I think once you begin consciously applying rules to an image you can end up thinking too hard and, worse still, miss a shot because the light shifts.

The shot here was taken when I was leading a tour in Wyoming, specifically the Grand Teton National Park, in the USA. I was there leading a group of photographers around the area to demonstrate the wide variety of photographic opportunities that an area like that can offer. Just after lunch we wandered across a meadow to photograph some aspen trees – a sight that was genuinely impressive. What first struck me about this scene was the layering. There are a lot of ‘threes’ going on. There are three bands going sideways with the dark at the top, the purple willow and then the golden grass. Then, of course, you have the three trees as well.

It could be that someone has been taught that an image has to adhere to the rule of thirds, for example. Or we learn to throw those rules out of the window and do something a little more daring.
The title of this image, ‘Rule of Three’ is a little tongue-in-cheek reference to the rule of thirds. If you look at it, the shot isn’t exactly divided into thirds. It’s also a reference to a little nugget of information that I always seem to hear from people who come on my workshops. Many of them have been brainwashed by camera club judges and seem to have this bizarre idea that you’ll never win any prizes if you put just two trees in a shot, but if you get a third in there you’ve got a winner! Odd numbers seem to appeal to these people.

Perhaps one of the key aspects that jump out about this shot is the colour. I did a lot of black & white around 30 years ago and monochrome still influences my current colour work because it dictates how I see forms and composition within a frame. Yet colour and colour contrasts are now absolutely vital and a source of constant fascination for me. The contrast between the purple willow and the yellow grass is striking. Also noticeable is the contrast of the trees. The bark on each of them is a different shade, particularly the one at the back. The grass at the bottom almost looks like fire. It’s a very painterly image.

The lens choice actually affected how strong the contrasts of colour and tone would be. I used a Schneider 210mm f/5.4 lens on a Linhof Technika 5x4in camera (0.5secs at f/22), which is like putting a 70mm lens of a full-frame DSLR. That compressed the perspective and pushed all those tones together. It’s quite a flat space and I think that’s important because it takes it into the abstract realm.

When we view an image we intuitively read depth into it, although this picture, as I mentioned, appears quite flat. Although we can clearly see that some objects are in front of others, the image doesn’t have that classic landscape depth where you have foreground, middle ground and background. It’s a closed composition. At no point can your eye escape from it. There’s no sky to escape to and no river for your gaze to drift down. I think that’s a key strength of the picture. That said, there is a very subtle leading line where the grass intrudes into the bushes. It’s not immediately obvious, but it is there.

I’m a big fan of images that seem to renew themselves with every viewing. Many photographers tend to make images that are immediate. My ambition whenever I make an image is to produce what I call a ‘grower’. The longer you look at it, the more you see. The best way to achieve that is to make an image that is slightly mysterious, something where it isn’t immediately obvious what it is. I think this is a pretty good example of that idea.

To see more of David’s images or to book a place on one of his workshops, visit

David Ward was talking to Oliver Atwell