This article was first published on DPReview.
If there’s one thing landscape photographers obsess over more than gear, it’s light. And often, we fall into the trap of treating light as a zero-sum game—either a sunset is amazing or it’s a complete fizzer. This all-or-nothing mindset is detrimental to our growth as photographers and the work we can produce.
Instead, when we approach our time in the field with a richer appreciation for the subtle, ever-changing interplay between light and landscape, we foster greater opportunities for creative expression.
Expectations Create Limitations
Early in my landscape photography journey, I would fixate on burning sunrises and sunsets. Almost obsessively, I would track the clouds each day, searching for the signs of a promising explosion of colour. While every month or two the heavens would align, more often than not, the sky either fizzled out or failed to produce the colour I had hoped for.
Chasing idealised visions of light, I’d either a) go out anticipating perfect conditions, only to be disheartened when it didn’t materialise, or b) I wouldn’t go out at all if there weren’t signs of a banger on the way. I’m not sure which was worse. Both mindsets have been harmful to my development as a photographer. In hindsight, internalising the concept of ‘perfect light’ falling across each scene was an unrealistic expectation—one that set me up for disappointment and hampered the images I took.
By tying our time in the field to ‘great light’, we limit our opportunities. Opportunities to grow in versatility. Opportunities to better experience landscapes and compose scenes. Opportunities to expand, refine and execute on our photographic vision.
Go Out Earlier, Stay Out Later
If you’re the kind of person who, like I was, predominantly shoots 20 minutes either side of sunset (or sunrise), then consider widening your capture window. That is, arrive on location an hour earlier, and continue taking images well into twilight.
This enables you to gain a more rounded understanding of the key elements of the scenes unfolding before you. Exploring locations without looming time pressures offers you the freedom to discover compelling compositions. Compositions that may not present themselves to others who simply arrive at the car park 10 minutes before sunset.
(Note: This emphasis on time is understandably more difficult for people travelling or working another full-time job—people like me. Time is a limited resource, particularly so for some more than others. If that’s you, then reflect on your priorities. Do you want to capture a collection of good images from multiple locations? Or is your preference for a handful of great images—images that you’d be proud to add to your portfolio?)
Additionally, expanding your capture window forces you to experience the landscape under ever-changing lighting conditions. Over a one hour period on sunset, a scene can change from golden side light, to indirect light from colourful clouds overhead, to soft, yet moody, blue light before dusk arrives. Sometimes a burning sky can be too overwhelming, commanding all the attention in an image, while softer light during twilight may better emphasise the midground and foreground elements.
By allowing yourself more time, you can still reserve a window for your ideal composition later in the shoot. Having that composition safely scheduled away opens up new opportunities to create images you not only previously overlooked, but may have entirely not thought possible.
Furthermore, this mindset needn’t—and shouldn’t—apply to sunrise/sunset scenes. Challenge yourself to head out during non-ideal conditions. When time allows, explore landscapes in the middle of the day, after (or for those more adventurous, during) rain or even under moonlight.
Without a colourful sky acting as a crutch to make the scene interesting, how else might you compose it make it compelling? For seascapes, try shooting handheld and getting even closer to the action. For forest scenes, consider shooting with a telephoto lens to really focus in on the subject and remove all distractions. While it’s approaching cliche, experiment by adding a human element to your image for an enhanced sense of scale and place. And when all else fails, shoot abstract—capture intimate details that hone in on key elements of the landscape.
This article shouldn’t be treated as a prescriptive guide—nor would I want it to. Each of us has our unique way of seeing and capturing the world around us. That’s one of the reasons so many landscape photographers are passionate about their craft. It’s a medium for personal expression.
Rather, I’m sharing this article to encourage you to expand the scope of your photography and of your potential as an artist. To broaden your view of the images you can (and hopefully will want) to create. To open up new possibilities for your creative vision.