Let me start with a quick disclaimer. I am not attempting to debate for or against the merits of visiting iconic locations as a photographer. This is a topic that has many aspects to consider, from our environmental impact on a place to the importance of having places that unite our human experience. The reality is that many of us are drawn to these places. So, if you’re going to visit and possibly spend hours waiting around to photograph, why not learn something. Just please remember to visit responsibly. Now, onto the article!
Okay, if you enjoy ad-libbing songs when you’re out photographing, add plus 5 to our compatibility for a road trip. We can add another 10 points if we share a love of audiobooks and snacking on gummi bears. What about stopping at iconic locations? If the hurdles aren’t too high, I do enjoy stopping at these places to understand the experience. What attracted so many to this spot? Instagram? Okay, yes, maybe a few… thousand. Though, I really think the root cause is the light in landscape photography. The collective “we” see and even feel how the light pairs perfectly with the landscape. If I look back on my experiences at iconic spots, they did help me grow as a photographer, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time.
The Right Type of Patience for Nature Photography
I spent many years traveling around the world and visiting some really incredible places. Many of those years were all about the chase of blazing colors in the sky. However, it wasn’t until I spent a significant amount of time photographing in my backyard that I started to internalize how small changes in light can completely impact a photo. Countless hours of stalking birds and befriending squirrels led to an epiphany. Each morning, I found myself focusing on the light and the subtle changes as it shifted throughout the yard. I watched the light crawl up the trees and across the branches. It was 50 shades of blue hour followed by 100 shades of reflected light across various surfaces.
As a photographer, I’m almost ashamed to think of how long I wasn’t paying attention to such phenomenon. It’s like I unlocked a secret level of landscape photography when I heightened my awareness to the light in a scene. The good news is that once you start seeing like this, you cannot turn it off.
Today, one of my favorite times to consciously study light is when visiting iconic locations. Trying to find a new and compelling composition in these types of places is difficult. I mean, there’s a reason it became an icon. If you wish to find your own perspective, then, by all means, go and photograph from a fresh angle.
However, most times, you might be feeling a little stuck on composition or just quite literally stuck. For many of these places, you must arrive hours early and claim your spot. Then, you stand there and wait, and wait, and make-up ridiculous songs while you wait for the sunrise or sunset. Being locked into one position for that length of time is the perfect opportunity for a lesson in patience and light in landscape photography.
So whether you spend your time being a backyard creeper or road tripping to a famous destination, you can learn and use this lesson, without fail. Focus on how the light changes throughout the scene. As an exercise, try to use the changing light to create different emotions into the same composition.
How Light Changes A Scene in Landscape Photography
The goal is to take one composition or scene and use only the light to convey different emotions. In the three images below, notice the change in how you feel and what each of the images express to a viewer.
The image above shows blue-hour light across the trees taken before the sun’s rays hit the landscape. It’s dim and evenly light, which evokes a sense of calm and quiet. It doesn’t necessarily express energy, rather it delivers a feeling of stillness.
Now, let’s consider the early morning image above, where the sun was still inching its way across the trees. The brightest part of an image typically draws the eye’s attention, but those front trees take up a lot of real estate in the frame as well. For me, this image is struggling to express its meaning with half of the trees illuminated and the other half in shade. Perhaps, quite literally, there’s light at the end of this road. I know this probably isn’t going to garner an emotional response from the viewer because it didn’t for me. All we need is just a little patience.
After 10 more minutes, the sun moves into position to complete this creative light exercise. This final image above is after sunrise, where the sun has shifted high enough into the sky to illuminate all the trees and their details. This light is what gives life to this iconic scene. It delivers much more energy to the viewer along with a sense of joy and hope. Simply put, it’s happier.
Which of the three is the best one? There’s no right answer. A person may be drawn to either of the three images for different reasons and how they internalize the photograph. That’s the beauty of photography and art in general.
The important lesson is there is nothing more powerful than light in landscape photography. It’s literally the meaning of the word photograph. Patience is no longer simply waiting for the perfect moment when the sky is on fire. Rather, it is patience for the entire experience, even with clear blue skies. Be open to using light as a tool to invoke emotion in the scene, where small shifts can make significant changes in the message.
Practicing this type of exercises just a few times will have you seeing more deeply into the landscape. Moreover, if you want to move into selling your images, capturing a scene in a variety of lighting conditions adds versatility to your portfolio to meet the needs of future clients.
So the next time you’re with the crowds of photographers… just take it slow and things will be just fine. You and I’ll use a little patience. ;-)