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Most of us have pointed our cameras across a beautiful landscape and captured the lush green scenery that wraps around us at some point. It is one of the easiest subjects to practice on, it doesn’t run away from you, it doesn’t blink or change rapidly. You can play with new techniques and ideas and it doesn’t get annoyed or expect anything from you.
But the natural landscape is so much more than a great place to practice. No matter how many times you see a photo of a lone tree in a field or the warm sun peaking over a mountain, it never fails to make you feel good. Why is that? Is it Mother Nature calling you back to your roots? It just might be.
Modern daily life is hardly relaxing. For most of us it involves the urban ‘hustle and bustle’, some significant time concentrating on our computers or rushing from meeting to meeting, spilling mocha as we go.
These activities require our direct attention, they need us to focus on what we are doing and actively engage our brains in the task at hand. It is this kind of attention that we need to rest from time to time, to allow it to recoup and avoid attention fatigue.
You are no doubt familiar with the idea of escaping to the country, going camping, hiking and general getting away from it all. That ‘time-out’ is you resting your direct attention and relying on your involuntary attention. Your involuntary attention is an instinct; it doesn’t require you to be actively involved so it is not as exhausting. Your involuntary attention is the one that distracts you when birds fly overhead or the light catches a car window as it passes the office.
It makes sense that leaving our stresses behind and exploring the wilderness with friends and loved ones would rejuvenate us, releasing the tension through the change of scenery. But nature has an even more powerful impact than this. Just the sight of a beautiful landscape can have a positive impact on our health and well-being.
Through research, psychologists have shown that nature has a profound relaxing effect far beyond our desire to be in the great outdoors. Back in 1991 while investigating medical architecture, psychologist Roger Ulrich discovered that hospital patients who had a window with a view of nature rather than facing the brick structures of the internal courtyards, recovered better. They needed a shorter stay in hospital, required fewer painkillers and received more positive assessments from medical staff.
Further studies measured physiological responses to stimuli, from a neutral state, to a high stress state and then through a recovery period. During the recovery period, two groups were shown different images, one group where shown urban scenes lacking any natural features, while the other group were shown green rolling landscapes.
The results showed a significant difference in recovery speed when viewing the natural green landscape. Heart rates return to resting and skin conductance, or sweat level, reduces to the resting level faster. The response takes seconds, it is not something that we have a conscious control over.
Psychologists suggest the reason behind this is due to the evolutionary adaptations humans have made to suit a natural environment. Whatever you believe about the origin of man, it is hard to deny that for the majority of our history we did not live in dense urban environments. We were farmers or hunters, surrounded by nature rather than artificial concrete jungles.
There are more complex preferences for elements within the natural environment. For example, we prefer complex self-repeating shapes, or fractals. Think of a fern, the shape of the blade, or leafy part, is repeated through the pinna, the primary leaves on the spine and again through the pinnule, the little individual leaves on the pinna.
These complex patterns can also been seen when looking at trees, the pattern of the branches and in a meadow of flowers. After all, it is a fundamental compositional principle to use pattern and symmetry in our images.
We also have a higher sensitivity to green light, so we see a greater variation of shades of green than any other colour. This would be a real advantage when searching for the right vegetation to eat or for plants with particular healing properties. Complex green scenes that encompass a variety of trees, shrubs and plants would create a greater depth to the fractal patterns we naturally like to see.
So how does this help your landscape photography? Armed with the knowledge of how calming landscape photography can be, especially with the perfect ‘savannah’ style landscape of scattered trees in lush green countryside, you can have a genuinely positive impact on the lives of others.
You can refine your scene selection to capture the most relaxing images for your audience, adding a new dimension to the composition of your photography. The format you choose to supply your images could change to allow for extra larger prints, or photographic wallpaper to create relaxing internal spaces.
Although I love black and white photography, a psychological approach would suggest that maintaining colour in your images is more effective. The colour tones also need to be a realistic representation of the original scene, so limit the use of strong filters or overproduction when editing. It is best practice to carry a grey card and manually set your white balance for perfect colour results to get the maximum benefit from nature.
It should come as little surprise that this response to natural images is already used in advertising. Not only can brands harness the relaxing effect, but there is the additional angle of associating the brand with an eco-friendly ethos. So for those freelancers working with stock libraries, consider additional keywords you can tag to your images to help clued-up marketers find your work.
Stevens, P. (2015) Relationships with the natural world. In: The Open University, ed. Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes. pp 327- 368.