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Time for Landscape – Weather and Landscape Photography

Today’s landscape photography post has been written by talented landscape photographer – Derek Forss.

Weather in landscape photography has an influence over the outcome far more than many photographers are willing to take into consideration. ‘It’s the wrong type of snow’ was an infamous gaff made several years ago by a British Rail employee, but looking out of my window in June the same could be true of a ‘lovely’ sunny day indeed is it the right type of sun?

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Take a simple scenario involving our ‘lovely’ sunny day. Ever tried emulating those ‘perfect’ shots beautifully lit that adorn calendars and postcards. Easy, you think – then after you! For the shot to work you require a combination of events where no amount of photographic knowledge or superior camera will save you.

Understand How the Elements in a Landscape Interact

I am always keen to point out that Landscape Photography is about understanding how the elements interact with that landscape to produce a stunningly lit scene. It is also a matter of timing! One has to work with weather, not against it and whilst understanding the basics of photography is essential, in the end it is simply a question of being in the right place at the right time. I have never fully understood the boast of waiting hours, sometimes days, for a particular shot. What a waste of time! One is tempted to ask ‘have you never heard of the weather forecast’? For most of my shots I waited 1/125 second.

The Weather Forecast on BBC has never recovered from the infamous ‘hurricane’ of 17 October 1987. Forecasting has certainly improved since then but presenters on BBC are constantly fighting against having to give the nations weather within a couple of minutes! This becomes a serious problem in an area like the Yorkshire Dales. In describing the progress of a weather front the forecaster might make a distinction between west and east of the Pennines as they themselves can influence the behaviour of the front, but the Dales are in the middle so which will be the right forecast for you?

Watch Local Weather

Watching the local forecast after the national helps to clarify matters, but the above scenario is often the reason why at times the local forecast appears to contradict the national. If one is serious about weather then like photography you need to have some additional knowledge of weather patterns. Most people watching a weather forecast are seeking an ‘instant’ answer, rather like using a compact camera or a computerised camera only on program. In both cases photographers need to be a little more informed, otherwise you end up with is a compromise and if it works, that is largely luck.

Luck Through Opportunism

None of my photographs are achieved through luck, but luck through opportunism does have a part to play. Throughout my work, but firmly in the background, is the traditional approach to photography – you know, f-stops, shutter-speeds, depth-of-field and so on. It is part of my soul but I am never aware of their presence, otherwise it is like asking a pianist to explain how he plays a complicated piece of music from memory! Next comes knowledge of subject – oh yes, it is a good idea to know on which side of the Pennines you are, because top of the list is weather. The mere presence of a landscape that you are trying to photograph is probably the reason why the sun won’t come out from behind that cloud – even though it has been shining a mile down the road for the last hour – because a nearby hill is contributing its own very localised effect to the weather pattern. Discipline is also important in landscape photography and when exercising that requirement it is best achieved without anyone else in tow. Wherever possible before a shoot I will watch the weather forecast with an avidness similar to others watching ‘Eastenders’. In doing so one builds-up a knowledge of weather behaviour, so when a weather presenter on BBC talks about low-pressure accompanied by strong winds, you have a clearer understanding than most how this could affect the appearance of a landscape for photography.

I won’t make a move until I get the right signals from the BBC weather forecasters and through experience one can often predict quite successfully what will happen over the next few days, later one hopes to be confirmed by the experts. This is absolutely important if the subject that I am commissioned to photograph is hundreds of miles away from home. So when I step into my car it could be raining, but by the time I arrive at my goal, working with weather really means that the time taken to achieve success is closer to 1/125 second than several days!

Following that success I would not wish to give the impression that I then suddenly dash off to some other location (although occasionally the terms of a contract will mean that), or dissolve into the nearest hostelry. Having arrived at the right time one obviously capitalises on success and like any other photographer, look at the subject in greater depth – but wasting time by not understanding first one of the fundamental issues of landscape photography is not in my book.

If plans go pear-shaped then you are likely to end up with the wrong type of sun. Timing in landscape is its most critical element and sometimes the difference between success and failure can be less than five-minutes – no time to muck about with a tripod, better to lose that than the picture. The soothsayers pontificate about a landscape not running away, but the lighting that lifts the artistic interpretation above commonplace most certainly can! Much of our weather comes off the Atlantic Ocean and is the reason why the eastern side of the British Isles is often dryer than the west. But it is not as simple as that. A weather front from that direction is often preceded by high cirrus cloud. It is light and looks quite innocuous, but once in front of the sun it mutes the colour intensity radiating from the scene. Ideal possibly for garden photography where deep shadows are otherwise a curse on a strongly lit day, but for landscape you have indeed ended up with the ‘wrong type of sun’, and a very flat looking photograph.

The speed at which a weather front crosses the country will vary; it can also ground to a halt and even go back. High pressure ensuring dry weather in summer is not necessarily a good thing as it traps pollutants creating heat-haze. This is no good for the big view whereas an unstable air-stream courtesy of low pressure will present a much more exciting scenario of dramatic lighting and rainbows, particularly in winter. Coupled to this is the expectation of getting wet, even soaked to the skin. If you are prone to dashing back to the car at the merest hint of precipitation then I am sorry, landscape photography is not for you. Even I could make a case for meaningful photography from a lay-by (an interesting challenge in itself), but ‘real’ landscape photography is often miles from the nearest highway.

Equipment and Weather

I have avoided mentioning too much about equipment, because really it doesn’t matter. If you understand the basics of photography and conduct some research first before making a long journey, then a compact camera costing £100 is just as affective as a digital camera costing £2,000 when working with weather.

When lecturing I am often asked about the amount of photographic equipment I take on a shoot, to which I reply ‘as little as possible’. At times we get besotted by numbers, particularly in digital where it seems that the higher the number, the better it must be! If my work means a 15-mile hike I will often take just a standard lens or a zoom over the middle range. A fit person should be capable of hand-holding a camera at 1/125 second and by using basic photographic knowledge such as the hyperfocal distance, create reasonable depth-of-field. I therefore regard a tripod as effective as dragging a ball and chain across a landscape and have emptied my filters over Beachy Head as products of failure and deceit. I am not a religious person, but I do regard the British weather as my divine spirit provided that you remember that it won’t wait for you. True, photographic equipment is not perfect, but nature is closer to that perception and a far better companion. Why make apologies when weather is so often the true answer and one that a non-photographic audience understands better than some funny work in camera or on a computer. When that audience recognises that your images are for ‘real’ and as close as you are likely to get, they will appreciate your honesty even if others think the system is flawed. ‘Naïve’ you think – better this way than trying to hoodwink an audience who in the end know a landscape much better than you and therefore realise what true artistic landscape photography is really all about.

See Derek’s Photography at derekforss.com

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