How to think like documentary landscape photographer David Hurn

What appears to be a rocky seashore is actually made up of interlocking concrete shapes, photographed by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
This looks at a glance like a picture-postcard landscape, but Magnum Photos member David Hurn is not interested in those. The waterfront is actually an entirely artificial one of interlocking concrete structures constructed in the 1980s to protect the roadway from the sea. “For me,” David says, “this is one of the two best sculptures in Wales.” Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO400. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

"I didn't want to pretend I was Ansel Adams, because he did what he did so well, and why do something second best?" asks legendary Magnum Photos member David Hurn. He first gained his reputation as a photojournalist documenting the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and has worked alongside the likes of Sir Don McCullin, Philip Jones Griffiths and Ian Berry. Now in his 80s, David has taken up a genre of photography that until recently was completely foreign to him: landscapes.

He shares his new interest with Don McCullin, who recently published his first landscape-only book. "I've known Don since the '50s," says David, who was born in 1934, just a year before Don. "He's not only a close friend, but he's somebody who has kept shooting pictures in the way that I have. If I can get up off the seat I'm sitting in – that's my most difficult problem now – then I'll go and shoot pictures. And Don is exactly the same."

Walkers and tourists on the summit of Mount Snowdon, looking down over misty lakes and valleys. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
David makes a point of seeking out landscapes with some importance, not just beauty. Here he has recorded walkers and tourists on the summit of Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/10 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos
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But while Don McCullin has a preference for stormy skies and dramatic landscapes signalling conflict and destruction, David is taking an altogether different approach. And as he is keen to emphasise, it's not about capturing postcard-type shots. "I'm not very interested in that sort of 'majestic' landscape," he says.

Instead, he's interested in culture, particularly culture in Wales, where he lives. "I was very aware of this Welsh thing of saying, 'Oh well, this is my culture,' and I kept saying, 'Well, what is my culture? It's a word that everybody uses, but if you ask somebody, 'What do you mean by culture?,' they find it difficult to explain," he says.

So David set about trying to explain the unexplainable through documentary photography. He first investigated occupations and people, resulting in two different books, Wales: Land of My Father and Living in Wales. The third topic he wanted to explore was man's relationship with, and impact on, the landscape we live in. That required a whole new set of considerations - ones that other photographers can easily take on board when planning a documentary landscape photography project.

Here, David reveals his creative approach, discusses how his landscape projects evolved and shares his top tips for documentary landscape photography.

Multi-coloured boulders, some with vivid pink and grey stripes, at Caerfai Beach. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
David followed scientific advice to find locations of geological interest such as Caerfai Beach, with its fascinating multi-coloured mix of different rock types. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/50 sec, f/11 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

1. Ask what you're interested in

David set out with a very clear vision of what he didn't want to do. "I didn't want to photograph my favourite views – I'm not very interested in photographers' personal feelings about things," he begins. "It's all a bit narcissistic for me."

He also didn't want to get conceptual for the sake of it. "The idea of getting in a car and shooting out of the window every 400 yards from South Wales to North Wales, and then writing five pages of text explaining why this is significant… Well, I just don't think it is significant, so that that would bore me to death," he says.

David hurn

In conversation: Sir Don McCullin

The iconic British photojournalist talks about his life and work, including the film project McCullin in Kolkata.

Then one day, as he was rummaging in a second-hand bookshop, David found a rare early book on Welsh geology. "I realised that scientists write very precisely about the geology of Wales, but I thought the illustrations didn't interest me very much because they were nearly all etchings and line drawings and woodcuts. And I suddenly thought, 'What would happen if I get a scientist to tell me what I ought to be photographing?'"

So David spoke to geologists and anthropologists, and started off by getting exact Ordnance Survey directions for the oldest rocks in Wales, the best example of a glacier valley, a megalithic tomb, and other landmarks that the scientists deemed to be important.

"And then that developed. I asked: 'What's the centre of Wales? What is the highest point in Wales? What is the lowest point in Wales?' The project will probably end with golf courses, because golf courses are the ultimate man-made landscape, so that's interesting," David says.

Walkers are dwarfed by a hill at Pwll Du near Blaenavon, which is actually a spoil heap left from the days of coal mining. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
Wales is strewn with villages that were abandoned as industry, and particularly coal mining, came to an end. The landscape around the site of Welsh village Pwll Du near Blaenavon, demolished in 1963, has been shaped by industry since the earliest days of mining and quarrying in the area. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/30 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

2. Question the meaning of what you see

It's easy to assume that everyone else makes the same associations as yourself, and that things we associate with, say, romance, have always been considered romantic. But as David began to explore early landscape paintings, he realised that what's in front of you can mean so much more than you might assume.

"Castles were built to suppress people, but there came a time in history when they suddenly became romantic icons," he says. "You see that in landscapes by painters such as Turner, who painted castles in a very romantic sort of way. All these little realisations give me something to go and photograph. And off I trot for a few days, so I begin to learn a little more about my country. I end up with some pictures that I quite like and that seem, to me, to have a purpose."

Picturesque landscape scenes seen reflected in the windows of a slightly shabby train carriage. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
In David’s photo of an old train carriage, now a visitor centre in Tintern, Wales, human artifacts aren’t just part of the landscape. In a sense, the landscape is filtered through a human construction. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/40 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

3. Ask what humanity had added to the scene

Culture can manifest itself in many ways, and a big part of David's project concentrated on what humans have added to the landscape, such as various forms of art. But he also chose to include traces of humanity that are less flattering.

"When I was looking for the oldest rocks in Wales, what I saw was unbelievable. The rocks were covered with drinks cans and other garbage that some people left behind when they were up there.

"In those circumstances I become interested in the political aspect. And so the picture that I end up taking, which is of the oldest rocks in Wales, is the viewpoint that gets the drinks cans in, to show that people pollute the landscape."

An old building by an arched bridge is covered in bright red Virginia Creeper. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
Tu Hwnt i'r Bont, a 400-year-old former courthouse nestled beside a 15th-century bridge, undergoes a startling transformation each year when the Virginia Creeper covering it changes colour in the autumn. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/80 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

4. Consider what you'll achieve with colour

As a documentary photographer, David has always shot in black and white. But he decided that the landscape genre required rethinking his usual preferences.

"If you're shooting pictures of two people who you think are about to kiss each other, and one of them is wearing a bright orange tie, the first thing you're going to see if you shoot in colour is the bright orange tie. It almost becomes a fashion picture first, and a picture to do with human emotion second.

"That's why I normally shoot in black and white, because I'm not very interested in trying to deal with colour, I'm interested in dealing with human emotions, the relationship. But landscape deals with colour very well. You don't have that kind of problem. And there's no doubt that the colour of autumn is different from the colour of snow, so it seems to me logical to do it in colour," he explains.

The remains of a circular stone hut, with two modern cottages behind. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
The Holyhead Mountain Hut Circles are the remains of stone huts dating from prehistoric times. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/10 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

5. Ask what you need from your kit

For someone who is used to taking quick, candid shots in the crowd, planning a landscape project presented a whole new set of challenges and requirements. David was aware that landscape photographs in galleries tend to be printed larger than documentary photographs, and he wanted the highest resolution he could possibly get – a camera that would do the same job as a large format 4x5, without the inconvenience of carrying around a view camera.

The solution: a Canon EOS 5DS R. "The quality is superb, it's sharp as a tack," David says. "It can deal with my lack of technical expertise – I point the camera and the result I get is what I think I saw. I mean, who could ask for more? The exposures always look right," he adds.

He uses his EOS 5DS R the way he would use a 4x5; placing it on a tripod and considering the composition carefully. He usually shoots at ISO200 with an f-stop of around f/9, and prefers to back-focus using the AF ON button, a habit he has cultivated over the years as a documentary photographer.

Although the EOS 5DS R has customisable cropping options that blur out the areas outside the crop in the viewfinder, David found a simpler way to shoot for his preferred 6x8 crop: "I used the little grid lines in the viewfinder, and by convenience, the two outside lines are approximately 6x8, with a bit of leeway if I want to crop the image slightly," he says.

A forest of young pine trees, with a few cut down; a wire fence stands in the foreground, with a drinks can on a post. Photo by David Hurn on a Canon EOS 5DS R.
Pine trees being harvested… with some even more obvious signs of human activity, including a discarded drinks can. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens at 1/8 sec, f/16 and ISO200. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Because he shoots with his camera on a tripod, he prefers zoom lenses that enable him to frame the image exactly as he wants, and he always carries a Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM and Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens when photographing landscapes. "I use the f/4 lenses, rather than the f/2.8, because I'm pretty certain that I'll be using f/8 to f/11 all the time. So I don't think there's any difference between the optical qualities of the f/2.8 and f/4, at those apertures. The f/4 lenses are also considerably lighter, and I'm at the age where lightness is a consideration," he explains.

Although primes would be his standard choice for regular documentary work, he has never felt that he compromised in any way by not using prime lenses in the project. "I don't know if there are any better lenses in the world," he says. "The quality seems to be extraordinary to me. All I'm interested in is the end print, and I've never seen anybody with a print that's better than mine. And having the two lenses gives me the span from 16mm through to 70mm," he explains.

So far, David has photographed over 500 locations, and he is planning to finish the project in 2019. But that's not to say he'll stop shooting landscapes. "I enjoy it immensely. And the thing about the landscape is that you can take it slowly and go no matter what condition you're in – you could go with your Zimmer frame, or somebody could carry you," he laughs.

Scris de Kathrine Anker

David Hurn's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A portrait of David Hurn. © David Hurn / Magnum Photos


Canon EOS 5DS R

Designed to deliver the ultimate in DSLR image quality, with 50.6-megapixel resolution and a low-pass cancellation filter that maximises the sharpness of the camera's sensor. "The quality is superb, it's sharp as a tack," says David.


Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM

A standard zoom range L-series lens including a macro mode with up to 0.7x magnification. Ultrasonic AF enables fast, near-silent focusing, and impressive image stabilisation and UD and aspherical elements deliver superb image quality. "I don't know if there are any better lenses in the world," says David.

Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM

Capture stunning landscapes and architectural images using this compact and lightweight high-performance, f/4 fixed aperture, ultra-wide-angle zoom lens with Image Stabilizer. "I'm interested in the end print, and I've never seen anybody with a print that's better than mine," David says.

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