Secrets of the landscape photography masters
Chasing the light
Great landscape photographers have a passion for light. Not just any light, but soft, colourful and gentle light. The sort of light that makes the landscape sing. They study it by being immersed in it. They study their images, the ones that sing, and then search for it.
There are two clear approaches, best illustrated by the working methodologies of two famous Australian landscape photographers. Lets examine Ken Duncan’s approach first. On arriving at a new location, he scouts it. He wanders through it, and figures out the composition, and when he will need to return to capture the image. In a remote location, he may even set up his tripod or using GPS mark the exact location. The foundations of his composition are set. He then will return as the blue hour gently creeps in after the twilight just before sunrise. He will set up exactly as he pre visualised the composition, and then shoot throughout the whole magic hour capturing many images. Sometimes he will composite over 25 images together to create his stunningly colourful panoramas. The compositing will be so gentle that we can’t even notice the subtle layering of detail and colour. If the light doesn’t arrive that morning, he will be back the next day, doing it all again until he gets what he has imagined.
Peter Dombrovskis on the other hand believes that there will be something beautiful worth photographing when the light is just right. He rarely spent more than 30 minutes on a single image. If the wind didn’t subside, or the light didn’t improve he would move on. Preferring to walk and wander to pass the time. Peter with his large format view camera preferred not to bracket his shots, and they were originally printed straight from the original transparencies by master printers. You can stand in front of his images at the Wilderness Gallery at Cradle Mountain in awe and easily see why he is the only Australian photographer to be included in the American Photography Hall of Fame.
Both of these photographers clearly demonstrate the importance of chasing the light. So the question you need a firm answer to is: “When is the best light for landscape photography?”
Blue & Golden hours
The most consistent is what are referred to as the “Blue hour” and the “Golden hour”. The blue hour is the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. You can photograph in the morning from the moment you can see, and in the evening until you can’t. You can easily photograph in the dark in-between the two, but I will leave that for another time to discuss. The key to working this light is using a tripod, with natural light hand holding at this hour is out, unless you have a specialist high ISO camera.
Focusing can be hard at this time, so carry a torch, and shine the torch at the subject you wish to photograph and focus on it. One Landscape Master I know puts a mini led in the photograph at the point he wishes to focus on, and once the camera is in focus he will remove it from the scene before taking the photograph. Auto focus has loads of trouble locking focus in the dark, so you will find you are better off using manual focus. Personally I put my camera on live view, and zoom into the point I want to focus on, then shine my torch light on it so I can focus.
Exposure can also be problematic with some cameras in such low light conditions, so if this is the case, take a test exposure and look at the image and then alter your settings so you can slowly get to the correct exposure.
The Golden hour starts a few minutes before sunrise, where the light warms up from the blue and turns golden orange / red. It lasts for another forty minutes or less. If it is a clear day, I love to photograph this raw sunlight as it hits the landscape. Red rocks, golden beaches will glow with this light shining on it. The trick here is not to be distracted by the actual sunrise, but to be focused and ready on the scene that is going to be flooded in this light. This is often looking in the other direction, or off to the side. Beginners often face into the sunset wanting to shoot the bright colours they see in the sky around the sun. Masters look at where this beautiful light is falling.
If I am travelling with other non photographers, I always negotiate a few hours before sunset, and well after sunset as my photography alone time. A time where I can head off into the sunset and shoot until it is dark. Of course I pack a torch and a warm clothes, as well as a map so I can find my vehicle or accommodation again afterwards. The rest of the day I am happy to devote to my family.
The light from twilight to into the day is actually continually changing. It starts as a cold blue light and gradually changes through orange and red eventually fading into what we photographers would call daylight. This is usually our neutral for colour balance as it is what we see and know the most in our lives.
Rain, mist and storms
Personally my favorite photography time is when the weather turns. The light is magical in the wet. I fell in love with this light during my passionate colour photography years living in the Blue Mountains. On still misty days I love being out in it. Of course you need to be dressed appropriately to keep warm and dry. I have protection for your cameras as well (my camera gear lives in individual press seal lunch bags in my camera bag, I carry an umbrella and use a weatherproof professional camera).
In this light colours glow, particularly greens and blues. The rain washes away that layer of dust and thirsty plants respond with photosynthesis turning even greener. Highlights and shadows are enveloped in soft light, allowing you to dig deeper into them. Objects appear rounder with a gentle light that sweeps gently around them forming soft shadows.
One secret here can be gleaned from Peter Dombroskis in that he intentionally left his sky out of images taken in this sort of weather. Dull grey flat expanses of sky will do nothing for your landscape photographs. So think ‘Intimate Landscapes’, getting in close and removing the horizon. Elliot Porter coined this term to describe his masterful images. Porter was considered the first colour landscape photography artist by Stieglitz.
Lastly we know that another magical light is in-between storms, in particular just after one. That magical moment when the rain stops and the sun shines. Like the mist and the rain it means being out in it. Another advantage of being out in the rain, is that you may happen chance this magical light besides the waterfalls will be running with more force as the water finds its way to the sea.
So instead of chasing that amazing landscape why don’t you put some effort into chasing that magical landscape light? The benefits are well worth it and far out weigh the effort required. Become a landscape master and chase the light.