Adapting To Light
Each day of my first 2 years of traveling went something like this: Wake up early, shoot sunrise, put the camera away, wait around for hours and hours, shoot sunset, and then go to bed to do it all over again. The long summer days seemed endless and extremely dull. Sunrises and sunsets can be super rewarding to shoot with their colorful and dramatic light but unfortunately the good ones are usually few and far in between. So when you limit your shooting schedule to just these two times of the day, you not only spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing, you usually come back without anything to show for it.
Limiting yourself by designating only a couple of short windows a day for your creativity to flow not only stunts your growth, it will make you flat out bored. When you limit yourself to only a certain kind of lighting condition, you can find yourself not only getting skunked, but sitting around at home waiting for weeks before you even get out to shoot. Once you learn to utilize all different kinds of light, you will no longer be dependent on uncontrollable weather conditions, rather you will know what kinds of scenes you can shoot with any type of light that may be available. Now, I rarely check the forecast before I go out and shoot, and if I do, it doesn't determine whether I will go shoot or not, but rather what it is I will focus on. Knowing what kind of light works best for what kinds of scenes allows you to be out photographing all day long. This results in being much more productive, increasing your output, and having a lot more fun.
1. Shoot In The Shade: One of the main techniques that I have learned overtime that keeps me finding and shooting scenes all day long is to find smaller, more intimate scenes in the shade. Shade provides more even light which works well for scenes that need to be simplified in order to focus on certain themes, subjects, or principles. Shaded areas will also allow you to show off truer, more accurate colors of objects than direct sunlight will.
When I first arrived to this half frozen lake in the middle of the day, the direct light was giving too much glare to the white snow so I couldn't expose the scene properly. Since it was below a giant mountain peak, I waited until the sun's position moved to where the mountain was casting its enormous shadow upon the entire area. I was then able to shoot the scene exposed properly with the white snow and blue ice more evenly bright.
2. Play With White Balance: While midday or flat light usually don't give you any kind of warm/cool color combos or interesting, reflected hues, you can cool down the white balance to give an image more mood. A lot of times cooling down the white balance can also bring out a greater variety of color within a scene. Playing with saturation can also give the image more of a monochrome look by simplifying the color palette which will draw more attention to other principles such as textures or lines.
This image was shot in harsh, early afternoon light but cooling down the white balance brought out more moody, interesting hues in this corn lily plant and returned more contrast to the scene.
3. Hunt For Smaller Scenes: Smaller scenes tend to lend themselves best to even, soft light, so that the details can be seen more clearly. Even if you find a small scene out in the open in direct sunlight, you can stand in front of it to create your own shade and even out the light.
I found these interesting mud cracks while hiking back to my car during high noon. This spot that worked the best compositionally was out in direct sunlight which was giving the scene too much contrast. I set up my tripod and composed the scene to my liking and then stood between the mud cracks and the sun in order to cast a shadow on them and soften the contrast. I then used a wireless shutter release remote to take the exposure. Like I mentioned in technique #2, I also cooled down the color temperature and lowered the saturation when processing this image to remove distracting colors and further simplify the scene to draw more attention to the lines and patterns.
4. Utilize Overcast Conditions: While grand landscapes in overcast, flat light can look rather boring, you can look for other kinds of scenes that lend themselves particularly well to this kind of light. Mainly these are the more intimate and abstract scenes. Cloud cover may seem like it blocks all sunlight from hitting anything but really it acts as a natural, giant soft box. Particularly colorful scenes actually look best in this kind of light as the colors and tones will be more vibrant and defined. Direct sunlight can wash out and actually desaturate or add horrible glare to colorful sandstone, fall foliage, or intense greens for example.
This scene was shot in the late afternoon under a stormy, dark sky which was blocking all sunlight from hitting the area. Direct sunlight would have caused for the contrast to be too harsh which would have made it too chaotic. The even, soft box-like light simplifies the scene and helps the viewer focus on just the vibrant orange leaves and the fresh, white snow.
5. Stop Depending On Color: While a fiery sky or orange alpenglow can bring an image to life, color is really just one of many important principles in art. Having intense, warm, colorful light is a great way of getting a viewer's attention, but by no means is it the only way. Search for scenes that aren't dependent on color by finding strong examples of form, pattern, contrast, texture, design, etc. These kinds of images that don't depend on color in order to impact a viewer are usually a lot stronger compositionally and tend to live in portfolios longer.
This image was shot in the middle of the day when the light was very harsh and almost white. This results in an almost monochromatic look but because of the framing, interesting shadows, and dark, stormy sky, the scene can still engage a viewer. Strong color is not necessary in order to grab attention or make a landscape look beautiful and intriguing.