The Landscape Photographer’s Process – Working a Location

It’s no surprise that the vast majority of images taken of landscapes fail entirely to illicit a positive reponse from people who see them, and often are accompanied by the apologetic ‘it doesn’t do it justice’ as the photographer looks accusingly at their camera. You see it time and again at any scenic overlook the world over. Person jumps out of car, takes out their camera, proceeds to stand in about the same place that the last hundred people did before and takes a hurried snap. Unsurprisingly, this is not the path to photographic nirvana. Photography is after all the art of blending light and form through composition, and this, no matter how expensive or megapixel-laden the camera is, requires a bit more thought and creative input from the photographer than simply pointing and shooting from the most convenient vantage point.

The best and most rewarding method of photographing a location is to ‘work’ it. This means starting from that bland, ubiquitous vantage point and then searching out better and more interesing angles, refining them and if possible coming back when the light and weather conditions better suit the scene.

All the images in this article feature Rosserk Abbey, a 15th century Franciscan abbey on the shore of the Moy estuary in County Mayo. It’s a beautiful location, fully removed from distracting clutter, and fairly photogenic straight off the bat. The image above is my personal favourite so far. But this was far from a spontaneous image. Taken at dawn around mid-summer’s day in 2011, it represents the culmination of several visits to this spot. It is the result of a carefully considered process that seeks to combine the right location with optimum composition and light.

The following series of images represent a chronology of visits to Rosserk, and illustrate the process of working the location to produce increasingly compelling photographs:


This is the first shot I ever took of the Abbey. Even here I’ve gone a stage beyond the common vantage point and taken myself up onto a small hill overlooking the site. However the composition is basic and the light is bland.

Storm clouds over Rosserk Abbey, Co Mayo, Ireland.

The second image here is taken from very close-by, using a conspicuous wind-bent hawthorn as a foreground. Heavier, dramatic clouds lend extra drama to a more dynamic composition.

Dawn at Rosserk Abbey, Co Mayo, Ireland.

This shot illustrates the idea of coming back to the same composition (roughly) in different light. This time, rather than visiting in the afternoon, I made the effort to be here at 5.30am on a mid-summer’s morning. I placed the hawthorn on the other side to partially block the rising sun, and so prevent excess flare on the camera lens.

Dawn reflections of Rosserk Abbey, Co Mayo, Ireland.

The fourth image was shot on the same morning, moving around to face the opposite direction. I had planned the visit for a dawn that brought together a rare trinity of conditions for this location: nice light, a high tide and calm winds. Though the reflection is not perfect and an even higher tide would have been preferable, the image still has a pleasing dynamic, with a good angle of light to highlight the architecture of the building. You can see the hawthorn from the previous images on the hill to the left of the abbey.

Morning Flag Irises at Rosserk Abbey, Co Mayo, Ireland.

The fifth and final image was again shot on that morning, not far from the shore, where a swathe of flag irises was just coming into bloom. This is the same location that I used the following year to shoot the lead image in this article.