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Photographers are a special type of people that usually pay a lot of attention to detail. They’re also known to be patient and perseverant. However, in my opinion, landscape photographers are a unique breed. I’m sure that only a hand full of people are willing to hike 10 miles with 25 pounds of photography gear on their back, just because they hope to seize the perfect moment.
Generally, in photography, practice leads to improvement. However, practicing landscape photography is a bit trickier since you don’t have control over the light setup, the weather, or the subject. Sometimes, you might plan a trip for three months; you research the best spots, and you bring all your equipment. Then, when it’s show time, you walk outside to face a cloudy, rainy day, if not a snowy mess. All that can be very frustrating. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to deal with that. In this article, I will share three simple tips to help improve your images and take better landscape photos, regardless of the weather.
Let’s start by talking about one of the most important topics in photography, light. Usually, landscape photographers revolve their schedule around the Golden Hour, meaning the early morning or late afternoon. Photographers choose those portions of the day to take full advantage of the magical, warm, rich, natural light available. Yet sometimes, you cannot reach the planned location by car, making a strenuous hike of 10 miles the only available option to get to the desired place. Hiking is great, and if you love landscape photography you probably love the close contact with nature, but sometimes this passion doesn’t translate into mountain exploration at 3:30 a.m. Occasionally, you will find yourself starting your day hike around 6:00 a.m. to reach the desired area around 10:00 a.m., meaning that you will have to work with hard sunlight.
Portrait photographers have an easy fix for that problem, move the model to the shade. I’ve tried using the same approach in landscape; but I’ve never had any luck trying to move mountains and lakes around. Another approach that portrait photographers use to avoid hard light is using light modifiers such as diffusers and softboxes. Unfortunately I don’t believe you can buy one of those big enough to use on a mountain. What you can certainly do is use the clouds as a light diffuser, thus avoiding the harsh sunlight from midday. Depending on how you capture your image, clouds can also help improve your composition by adding depth or a sense of movement. After I grasped this concept my mindset shifted, now I’m always hoping for the perfect cloudy day.
If this tip wasn’t enough to make you enjoy a cloudy day, let me tell you about a second trick that involves clouds when capturing landscape images. We all like to go online to wonder around photo sharing communities, looking for inspiration, a different point of view or even a new technique. I’m no different. I like to believe that I’m very active in some of those social media channels, however, when I look through pictures, I avoid focusing on landscapes. I like to explore portraits, Black and White, macro, pretty much anything but landscape. I can imagine you asking yourself, “Why would a landscape photographer do that?”. The answer is quite simple; I like to borrow successful techniques used in other fields. Sometimes, when I’m trying to capture an image of a mountain, I don’t face it as a landscape. I try, for example, to approach that image as a portrait. Once you learn how to repurpose techniques from one type of photography to another you will notice an improvement in your art.
In most types of photography, the most striking photos are those with strong contrast; images that harmonize shadows and highlights seamlessly. One side effect of the current advances in digital photography, sensors, and the digital darkroom, is that a lot of landscape artists try to capture everything in one single image. Some will use HDR to bring up the shadows, others will use masking and blending to create a final image. I was no different.
Lately, inspired by the work of great masters such Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, I’m trying to play with the shadow to highlight ratio in my images. Portrait photographers are very good at using artificial light (strobes or speedlights) to create dramatic images. In landscape it might be a bit more difficult to position the sun at a different angle. Still you can use clouds as a light filter, concealing light from distracting spots while revealing patches of bright sunlight that will accentuate your main subject. Once you start to play with this idea you will be able to create very dramatic images during those dreadful cloudy days.
Finally, keeping up with the idea of creating a dramatic image, photographers must be able to understand an important concept called balance. Not only the shadow and highlights balance, but also color balance, subject positioning, overall image balance and so forth. I remember some of the first photos I took, very often I liked the concept behind the photo, but the final image just didn’t convey what I had envisioned. That was when I discovered the concept of balance.
This concept is very basic, yet extremely powerful. A well-balanced image will stand out on its own and will captivate your audience. Balance, simply put, is how you distribute the elements, colors, and brightness in the frame. There are countless ways to achieve balance, so many that we would probably need another entire article just to talk about it. As a general rule though, a well-balanced picture aims to distribute the elements evenly throughout the image. So next time you are out capturing an image, try noticing how you arrange the elements in the frame. Check if the amount and position of the shadow and highlight are reflecting what you want to show in your photograph. Finally, before you press the shutter, ask yourself if all the elements in the frame are contributing to the overall image. Sometimes, you can get overwhelmed by the landscape, and in an attempt to capture all the beauty you end up with a busy, unbalanced, and unappealing image.
I will leave you here, but next time you’re out there during a cloudy day, instead of complaining about it, just try your luck. You might be surprised by what you can achieve when you open your mind to work with whatever mother nature throws at you.
Do you have any other cloudy day or landscape tips? Please share in the comments below.
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