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Location scouting to find the ideal spot is just as important as what camera settings you use. Don’t miss this important first step in order to get your perfect sunset photograph.
“Hi. Are you a photographer?” a young voice called to me.
“Hello,” I turned back and replied to a smiling and inquisitive face. It was a little girl with a point-and-shoot camera.
“Yes, I am,” I nodded in affirmation. The backpack and tripod were a dead giveaway.
“This is so beautiful,” and after a moment of watching me, “Aren’t you going to take a photo?” the girl continued, as she scrutinized me searching for something in between granite boulders on the beach but not taking photos.
Mother Nature had put on a mesmerizing show of stormy clouds and light at Camps Bay Beach in Cape Town, and it seemed that almost everyone had their cameras and cell phones pointed towards the far horizon. Our brains are programmed to do routine work subconsciously, like changing gears of a car.
For a landscape photographer, scouting for a good location is part of the job. It can be a challenging, albeit fun routine, and I was doing exactly that an hour prior to what was going to be a stunning sunset. In fact, I find it quite therapeutic to search for a good spot. You pay attention to details and discover small wonders in the process.
The question from the little girl triggered a lot of possible answers in my mind. “I am trying to make a good photo,” could be one of the answers, but it would have confused her even more, so I told her that I was looking for an interesting pattern of rocks for my sunset shot. My quest resumed after she and I finished chatting.
In my journey of landscape photography thus far, I have learned that the main characteristics to look for are good light and composition. After you find these, you need good camera settings and technique to capture the moment.
The light is not within your control. But you need to gain knowledge of the terrain, keep an eye on the weather and clouds, and possibly go around dawn or dusk to get softer colors and light.
The choice of composition is yours based on your own style and preferences. As a landscape photographer, you need to have an aesthetic sense that attracts viewers to your images, a style that will become your own. Composition is a topic in itself, but obviously, the key is choosing a location that provides good subjects (e.g. a waterfall, mountains, icebergs, boulders, trees, rocks) or something that appeals and possibly tells a story.
Camera settings and techniques come with experience. Do not compare it to the value of the equipment you own – the simplest equipment can take a great shot. The only way you can get better is by taking photos, learning more about the basics, and correcting yourself after making mistakes. If you can invest in the best camera, filters, tripods and other accessories, then that’s a bonus. Whatever equipment you own, you must know its full capabilities and how to make good use of it.
The day I met the girl, I was at one of the most picturesque beaches in the world, Camps Bay. The location and subjects were there, but I still had to work to narrow down my composition for the sunset.
I needed to make decisions such as; Am I going to set up on the sand or in between the boulders? Should I go on the mossy rocks or stand in the water?
The light, as per my assessment of the weather forecast, was going to be perfect if the clouds allowed the sun to peek through the horizon. I brought the lens and camera of my choice, filters, shutter release, and tripod to take photos in low light.
After some exploration, I settled upon a water channel between two massive granite boulders. My test shot looked promising. My hunt for an agreeable foreground was finally over. The water would make interesting patterns through that small ally, and the leaden clouds and orange sun would be my background.
I took another test shot and soon realized that the sun was going to be behind the boulder on the left, and I would miss it in my photo as I had miscalculated the angle. I re-evaluated the scene and adjusted my perspective to align the composition with the drowning sun. Careful use of camera settings, a polarizer, and a soft graduated ND filter yielded a result that I was satisfied with. Mission accomplished!
As you will see in the video (and image) below, I took an additional photo of this channel from a higher vantage point as well.
So the next time you see a landscape photographer rushing to and fro on a location, you must know that he is busy making a photo, as pressing the shutter button is only the last part of the job!
I hope these tips are helpful. Please share your questions and comments below.