The Tao of Photography

Anyone active on Facebook or Instagram can’t help but notice the predominance of garishly colored, over-saturated photographs of nature, especially landscapes. In the community of photographers I belong to, I’ve been involved in some lively discussions on when photo enhancing crosses the line into photo manipulation, and when over-manipulated photographs are acceptable.

Of course, when you think of photography as an art form, there is no limit to freedom of artistic expression. Nature photography shouldn’t get too caught up in the rigidity of only showing things exactly as they were when photographed. Photography is graphic art, just as much so as painting or drawing is, and the photographer is an artist.

But in all artistic expression, there is a fine distinction between art and kitsch. Is the consumption of landscape photography guided by the same urge as the consumption of the landscapes themselves by selfie-shooting mass tourism? (see my earlier blog on Iceland). If landscape photography is serious art, as I believe it is, the photos that show true quality, instead of cheap tricks, are the ones that endure the test of time. Ansel Adams’s oeuvre is a prime example.

Lessons can be learned here from studying traditional Chinese and Japanese art, which is concerned with expressing the divine essence of nature through the balance between the Yin and Yang energies. (The following is based on The Inspiration of Oriental Art, from Myths to Live By, by Joseph Campbell) In China, this leads to the Six Canons or six principles of art.

The first principle is that of rhythm. It’s essential to have witnessed the rhythm of a living thing, whether it is a bird, a plant, or even a rock, to depict it properly. Understanding the rhythm of a landscape means understanding its essence.

The second principle is organic form. A photograph that depicts the rhythm of a flying bird doesn’t have to show every detail of the bird. But it should show the bird as a living, organic thing. (Unless, of course, the photographer intends to call attention to the fact that the bird is dead. In that case, both the rhythm and the organic form are that of a dead bird. See also the next principle.)

The third principle is trueness to nature. Similar to the first and second principles, this dives more into the ethical nature of art. The essence of a caged bird is quite different than that of a freely flying bird. Cloning a full moon into a photo where no full moon can possibly have been visible is pushing the edge of ethical photography. Not to mention the practice of game farms, posing captive animals as free, wild animals. This is especially important for photography because many people who view a photograph naively believe that it is a representation of the truth. The American photographer, Matt Payne, has written an excellent blog post on the topic.

The fourth principle is color. Here we see the essence of the yin/yang approach. Light and shadow, bright and dark, warm and cool; these are the elements out of which a good image is built.

The fifth principle is the placement of the object in the field. Again, we can see yin/yang at work here. Empty space (also known as negative space) is as important to a composition as filled space. A bird or animal in a photo needs room to breathe, room to move into. The viewer also needs room to breathe, to take in the scene. In-your-face-photography is popular on Facebook and Instagram, where viewers zap through images quickly, never settling long enough to take an image in fully. Giving equal attention to both the target of the photo and the negative space is the sign of a balanced image. This doesn’t preclude close-ups, even a close-up can contain negative space.

The sixth and last principle is style. In Chinese painting, this refers to the brushstroke or material used. In photography, it would refer to the use of zoom vs. wide-angle, low vs. high viewpoint, the manner of post-processing, etc. The style of an image should be appropriate to the rhythm of the subject so that the finished photo reflects the essence of the scene.

These rules may sound rigid, and, in some cases, they may sound a bit too obvious. They’re more difficult to master, however, than they sound. It’s my experience that those of my photos that come close to being true to the Six Canons are the ones that, in the long run, turn out to be my best work.

n.b. I’ve chosen to show a painting by the Japanese Ohara Koson rather than one of my own photos, out of respect for his mastery of these principles


  1. I always forget that I can’t give yu a direct like on this page but I was sitting here and nodding. True words – and we all, as photographers should bear them in mind!

  2. Thank you for this, Madeleine!

  3. I needed this!!!

  4. Mary-Lou Gillette

    As always, I learn so much from reading your blogs. I read the blog post of Matt Payne and now will look at landscape photographs in a very different way. Not being a photographer I am astounded to read of the slippery slope that can come, psychologically and ethically, from the use and misuse of
    the various forms of photographic enhancements. You know how very much I enjoy your photographs, and I would love to see the ones you consider your best work!

  5. I have periods when I like to experiment and sometimes oversaturation comes into it. But I don’t mind when I am seeking to recreate the mood of the scene and how I felt on the day. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

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