When it comes down to it I think what you’re really shooting in landscape photography is the light. Of course your subject, setting, and composition are important but light can make or break a scene.
I’ve written before about light in the sense of being present and fluid when conditions change, but never specifically about different types of light or conditions that are often viewed as “unfavourable”.
As landscape photographers we are very much creatures of the dark; we head out, and come back, in the darkness to ensure we’re capturing those precious moments during sunrise and/or sunset when the angle, quality, softness, and colour of light creates magical scenes. But I think too often we can be guilty of missing out on exceptional photographs due to entrenched beliefs of what constitutes “good light”.
Here’s a shout out to “unfavourable” light conditions and what can be achieved in them.
1. Midday, summer, clear skies
The bane of many a landscape photographer: there’s nary a cloud in the sky, it’s summer, direct and harsh sunlight is beaming straight down everywhere… it can definitely be challenging. But such conditions shouldn’t be ignored.
1.1. Gills, Gorges & Caves
Everywhere is illuminated with blazing sunlight and casting strong shadows… well, almost everywhere.
Go trekking up some gills and gorges, or find a cave; you’ll very likely be in deep shadow whilst your subjects will be drenched in light. You’ll be able to use the geology in these places to restrict the amount of blue sky, too.
And, as we’re talking about harsh light in summer, it’s likely that these places will be dryer, making them more navigable.
1.2. Head to the beach
If there’s a landscape that does look in good in the midday summer sun it’s Beside The Seaside. Everywhere will be bright and filled with light, and the water will glisten. Here is an opportunity to work in the higher register of tones, creating images that are filled with light with only a few key details in the mids and shadows. Don’t fight it. Embrace it.
A good example of working more in the higher register of tones is available in my Sandscale Haws work, shot during the Summer of 2017.
And perhaps a more extreme example would Bruce Percy's body of work shot in Lençóis Maranhenses.
2. Heavy, relentless rain
It’s understandable that, if you’re looking at your weather apps or even just peeping outside, you might not want to venture out at all when it’s “stottin’ doon”. But you could be missing out on dramatic conditions and atmosphere.
2.1. Get tha’ sen a brolly!
First, a disclaimer: if forecasts are saying torrential rain and/or lightning, do not risk it. Otherwise, if you’re just expecting protracted periods of mizzle (misty drizzle) or light rain, then get yourself a good brolly and head out anyway. Rain obscures details in a landscape, immediately lending a sense of depth and mood in your photos. Even better if you can get an umbrella that clips onto your tripod, freeing up your hands for compositional purposes.
2.2. Wear good waterproofs & be patient
If you’re in rainy conditions sometimes the best advice is to just be patient and watch. The light can change quickly, creating temporary moments of crepuscular rays (sunbeams) for example. Watch the clouds; depending on how heavy the rain is and how fast the weather front is moving, you might be fortunate to capture some incredible cloud formations. But you have to be there in the first place, so keep yourself dry with some good clothing.
3. Endless monotone grey skies
Have you ever been out hiking and looking for compositions only to look at the sky in disgust, shaking your fist at its featureless complexion? No? Just me?
But still, I know there are plenty of photographers who despair of a flat, bland, dull sky, hoping instead for dramatic cloud formations or breaks of crepuscular rays onto the land. However, bland grey skies have their advantages.
3.1. Use the sky as a canvas
What do I mean by this? Simply that flat grey skies can be useful compositional devices. If your photo consists of an interesting foreground, compelling leading lines, inspiring subject, and dramatic skies… well, it can be too much. Instead if your land composition is richly textured and interesting, a flat grey sky can provide “rest” for the eyes, especially if you use a neutral density filter to shoot a long exposure and render the sky completely featureless.
Additionally, flat grey skies are useful editing components; they often sit tonally near the middle greys so can be easily dodged or burned in ways that direct the eye around the frame and aid your final photo composition.
3.2. Level: Beginner
If you’re just starting out in photography, particularly landscape photography, then a dull and bland sky is a boon. The light becomes very soft, with easy transitions between shadows and highlights. So if you’re just starting out with learning to read, meter, and expose a scene then it’s considerably easier to do so on a grey sky day, rather than a striking sunrise. We’ve all gotta start somewhere, haven’t we?
So there we go: three weather conditions with qualities of light that are often avoided by landscape photographers. They still nevertheless have their advantages and I encourage you to resist the temptation to skip a “bad” day and instead embrace the conditions for what they are and try something different.
You might learn something about yourself.
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