I always say that landscape photographers and fishermen have a lot in common. Apart from carrying a healthy supply of sandwiches and a flask of tea, the game is the same in the respects of potentially waiting all day for those ideal moments or even the perfect time of year to get the ideal catch. They both use the best gear available, both obsess about lighting conditions and landing a tiddler instead of a prize catch will never do.
It’s a weird analogy, but just like a fisherman can land a prized catch at any time of the day, a landscape photographer can produce that ‘wow’ image if they land the right moment. It’s not just about those few precious minutes at sunrise or sunset, but the ever-changing light throughout the day can throw out some real surprises if you hang around long enough.
Pack for a Full Day Out
Hanging around for that ideal wash of light, the perfect day, or the perfect weather conditions can be more stressful than a NASA scientist waiting for the ideal launch window. The expectations pile up even more if you have traveled to a location, checked every weather forecast under the sun, but still the weather turns against you. Grrr… Instead of those beautiful, wispy morning scenes, the light is completely flat and uninteresting or evening time is just a dull mess, instead of the ultimate of falling hues of light ranging from amazing yellows, ambers, to deep blues of the sky.
One thing you will learn early on as a landscape photographer is that you can never control the weather, so you have no choice but to go with the flow. This means that the ‘all or nothing’ mindset to capture the ideal lighting conditions can be in the back of your mind, but nine times out of 10 you have to deal with what you are given and that means a lot of waiting around. The good thing is that your patience will pay off.
Not everybody has the luxury of copious amounts of time to spend waiting for ideal light. However, giving yourself over an hour before and after your ideal time window will give you more exploring time and equally taking the pressure off capturing that special moment.
Using the fishing analogy again, you never get to your fishing spot roughly around the time the fish begin to bite. There is no 10-minute window either side of a special time. Ideally, you try to arrive a few hours before and start working until something bites. Giving yourself enough time to set up your gear, evaluate the scene, then test shot after test shot will start to reveal the beauty of what you have in front of you.
Depending on where you live in the world, weather conditions can change dramatically. Here in the North of England, depending on the time of year, you can blink and the weather can change from blue skies to overcast showers and back again. This type of changeability in the weather throws up some real surprises for lighting conditions. The only option here is to stick around.
The other benefit of giving yourself more time, especially in one spot is that you start to pick out details and areas of interest the more you stare. It’s sometimes quite surprising how detail-orientated we can become when looking at a scene. Some of the smallest, most insignificant details can start to look the most interesting and these can become the focus of a shot. Coupled with the changing light throughout the day, there should be enough variations of images to chew through a few memory cards.
It’s Not Just Sunrise and Sunset
Some of the most dramatic and atmospheric light occurs at sunrise and sunset, but it’s nowhere set in stone that other parts of the day cannot be interesting. This will depend on your scenery, weather, time of year and possibly a whole host of other factors. Shooting landscapes wide and close with a full blue sky can denote the height of summer, an overcast sky with rain falling infinitely into the distance can show the power of the weather.
Near and far objects will have their own different qualities of light throughout the day. Try low down, high up, close in or far away. Each viewpoint will have its own characteristics which will only be revealed if you stick around.
One example I had was the idea to capture a local meadow at sunrise in early summer, with the wispy fog in the background. Luckily, deer were still active but started to disappear as the early morning light started to appear. As the images turned out, the best ones were just before ideal light but captured the active deer. At the ideal time of light, the scene looked the best lighting-wise but lacked the dynamic qualities of including deer roaming around. It’s a subjective viewpoint, but I hope it highlights how sticking around will unveil qualities in this scene you may otherwise miss.
What’s All This Mean for the Landscape Photographer?
Firstly, give yourself the time to play. Arriving 10 minutes before sunrise or sunset piles on too much pressure and won’t give you enough time to fully evaluate the scene. This may mean getting up a few hours earlier or sticking around a few hours later, but those moments otherwise missed before will reveal themselves. This should also lead you into sticking around for the less ideal times of the day in the future and experimenting with what is possible without the pressure of capturing that one minute of ideal light or scenery.
All this really leads to the area of experimentation. Not just with your camera settings, your location, but also all times of the day. As a landscape photographer, you have to wait for the elements to set up the ideal lighting situations, like a good director of photography. But in the landscape realm, the director doesn’t tell you when everything is optimal, you have to judge for yourself, which makes everyone’s perspective unique.