Landscape Photography & Grey Days can be friends
Updated: Jun 1
Not every day has a sunrise, followed by a sunset with a Summer's day in-between. Landscape Photography has many challenges and the biggest one to overcome is the weather. #LandscapePhotography #BadWeather
The best thing about Landscape Photography is being outdoors. The worst thing about Landscape Photography is being outdoors. Yes, as a landscape photographer you soon become optimistic and pessimistic. What are the chances of a sunrise tomorrow morning? Who cares? Just get out there and you will be rewarded with amazing light for your efforts, even if all you can see is thick cloud... right? Unfortunately not.
I have been huddled up a distant hill or mountain that took all my energy to get to the top so I am going stay there until I get that shot I was after. Even if I have to stay there for 3 hours. What about 5 hours? Heck, I would even wait a whole day to get the light that will make this photo worth it. If the light doesn't come, maybe I will camp overnight and try again the next day #livingthedream. Well, that is the optimistic view. In reality very few of us have the time, means or resolve to wait for too long.
Every photo shoot starts with a vision; Where are you going to go? What are you going to photograph? How are you going to photograph it? What do you want to portray? What light do you want to photograph it in? All of these questions have an answer that you can control, except for the last one.
As a landscape photographer I am no stranger to light. It is, after all, what photography is all about. There are lots of qualities of light; colour, strength, direction, clarity, etc, and they all add a different appeal to an image. When I plan to photograph a sunrise at an ungodly hour, I want a clear, strong, orange sidelight lighting up the landscape with amazing contrast. Otherwise I can't justify leaving my teddy-bear back in my warm bed.
How often do I get the perfect light, every shoot, 1 in 2? I have visited a location that I had visioned as a strong landscape between 20-30 times. It took a lot of effort, both physically and mentally, a lot of time and a fair amount of money. But was it worth it? I don't know, I never got that perfect light. In fact I didn't get good enough light for me to bother getting my camera out on any of the occasions. And that is the pessimistic view. But not quite. I would say that is being realistic.
If you want to take a panorama of a grand vista incorporating pretty much everything you can see within a 180 degree angle, you need some quality of light. If it is grey and over cast you image will be flat and dull. You won't get shadows to add depth to the landscape. You won't have colour that you only see if you make the effort to get up early. Basically you won't get an image that justifies all your hard work getting ready for that 'once in a life time shot'.
So do you have options?
Yes! Time to get back to being optimistic. You can continue going back until you get that light. It's just one big roulette wheel, but don't just throw away your chips, play smart. How? As usually it is mostly down to research and experience.
From experience, I have noticed that certain times of the year have a higher chance of a sunrise. This is usually late Spring to mid Autumn here in the UK. However, you have to get up earlier and earlier which doesn't make for a relaxing lie-in. Early Spring and Late Autumn often has some amazing dramatic skies but it's far less reliable. These days, Winter can be written of by rain, featureless cloud and a lot of browns and greys. It's not the crispy white snowy days of the past, but hey, that's Global warming and Brexit for you.
As for the research, Google is your friend (Other search engines are available). If you are lucky enough to live in Australia, then you only need to look out of your window. For everyone else there are weather apps. One of the biggest pastimes in the UK is talking about the weather. And for good reason. Unlike every other country in the world, we are not blessed with a hot, dry or even dependable climate. Though we are blessed with dozens of shops selling waterproof clothing, in every street of every town. In fact, evolution failed the British when it took away our gills and flippers.
However, we don't just talk about the weather. We moan about it too. And this in part is down to the inaccuracy of weather forecasts. We even have famously inaccurate ones. So are these weather apps any good? Unfortunately, they are brought to us by the same people that give us these weather forecasts. Don't get me wrong, this inaccuracy has been a running joke for many years so it can't be easy to do, though is getting more accurate over time. I have used a multitude of forecasts and none have been reliable enough to tell me that at 5:43, there will be a break in the clouds to the East to let enough light in to smother the tree in my frame with golden light. Maybe there never will be. I find that the most accurate way to check the weather is to look out the window, like our friends in Australia. It's as accurate as anything else.
Effort is never wasted.
On the other hand you can channel that inner optimism and make the best of the light. Don't go for big vistas, go for intimate detail. And by intimate detail I don't mean hiding in the bushes in your neighbour's garden at bath time. I mean photographing close up to something like a flower, decaying wood, or inside a woodland scene. Great light for large landscapes is not great light for detail. To photograph close up you need flat light so you don't get shadows obscuring the detail. An overcast day acts as one giant light-box. In fact it's better because you don't need to haul an excessively long electric cable around.
Flat light is also good for portraits because it doesn't cast dark shadows from Aunty Jenny's* unfeasibly large nose**. In my videos on YouTube I make the effort to get up and out for sunrise in a stunning location and often don't get the light I want and people comment saying I shouldn't moan as it's perfect light for Wedding Photography. And yes, while I would agree, I wouldn't suggest waiting to see if the light is too flat for landscape photography and then decide to turn up to photograph that wedding after all. People expect a level of commitment from their wedding photographer these days.
Finally, I want to refer back to the start of this article. "The best thing about Landscape Photography is being outdoors." This is true in so many way. Just being outside is great for the sole and blows away the clichéd cobwebs of today's stressful lifestyles. So take this opportunity to leave your kit at home and just go for a walk, preferably with friends, and don't worry about getting that photo for today. Besides, walking is a great way of seeing new compositions. Plus, most of my walks end up at a pub.