Ready for a surprise?
Well, the truth is there are no landscape photography secrets. Instead of being secrets they are rather a hidden knowledge beginner photographers are not aware. This knowledge is obvious when you know about them. Even if you are aware of “the secrets” it does not mean landscape photography become easy, far from that.
Beginner photographers often head out in the middle of the day when the light is bright and the sky is blue. Because you don’t know better this time sounds like a good idea. I did exactly the same mistake when I started photographing. Most of my landscape photos was shot sometime middle of the day and they suffered from strong contrast and annoying shadows. All my landscape photos from travels looked the same.
When you are on holiday you normally spend time outside in the middle of the day. You take the camera with you and photograph whatever scene comes along. In my early days as a photographer I didn’t event think of photographing unless it was more or less a clear blue sky with a bright sun. I did not know you could photograph when the light was fading.
That was before I started to use a tripod. The tripod is probably the photographic equipment that have had the most impact on my development as a photographer.
There was one exception - I did a lot of sunset photography. Most people are drawn to sunsets and try to photograph sunsets. You can easily see that on any website showing landscape photography. There are a lot of sunset shots with great orange color and the rest of the photo totally black or outlined as a silhouette.
Sunsets are spectacular because of the color of the light but they are difficult to shoot due to the high contrast as you are shooting directly into the sun. Well, now back to the “secrets”
Light - the most important of any landscape photography secrets - key to all successful photos
You have probably wondered from time to time why your images look flat and boring compared to the work of expert landscape photographers. The most important answer is light. The best looking photos made by pros are always made in perfect light conditions. As you can not change the light in landscape photography, you need to make sure you are at the scene at the right time.
Just a little caveat before we continue. With digital landscape photography you have to master post-processing as well. A lot of the images you see from the professionals are cleverly edited to emphasize colors and mood. Cameras are simply not capable of capture light and colors the way we see it.
But let us stick to the light for now. No post-processing will be able to save a bad photo if the light is crap at the time you shoot. So you need to get the first part right - the light.
1. Natural light
As a landscape photographer you have to use natural light as it is at the time you are at the scene. You can not change the light, but you can wait for the light to change. Waiting is a key for any landscape photographer - you need to be patient.
The good thing is the light can change very fast. A dull scene with clouds on the sky can become spectacular as the sun breaks through. The change can happen within minutes. On the negative side the perfect light will not last so you need to work fast to get the shot you want.
2. Dusk and dawn
The time around sunrise and sunset is considered being the best times to photograph landscapes. You must get up from bed very early often in the middle of the night in particular if you have to drive to you chosen location. Waking up this early can be hard if you like to sleep longer in the morning.
The same if you like to shoot night landscapes, you need to be a night owl and not being afraid of the dark. You should always try to be a the scene an hour before sunrise and sunset.
A typical mistake a beginner do is to pack the gear and leave the location as soon the sun has set. Spectacular light might appear minutes after the sunset as well so watch out and look behind you. You can miss great opportunities if you don't.
I have experienced this myself. I have taken down my tripod packed the bag and headed for the car just to realize the clouds suddenly changed to beautiful colors. Many times I have turned around and rushed back to the scene. Often the best light is already gone when the camera is back on the tripod - very frustrating. Now I know better, so I always wait until it is dark before leaving a sunset shoot.
The minutes before it gets dark you will see the light and the sky get typical dark blue color. This is the “Blue hour” another interesting time to photograph landscapes. Sometimes you hardly see this with your eyes but the camera will capture the blue color. Give it a try.
3. Proper planning
You need to plan ahead, scout the location and learn when the light is is best at this particular location. If you plan for a sunset shoot you have to know which direction the sun is going to set. Some locations are better for sunsets, and other are better for sunrises.
A mountain or building can obstruct the view to the east where the sun rises and make this location not so good for shooting sunrises. The same spot might be a fantastic place for sunsets.
If you can visit the place before the shoot, you can easily find out if it is best suitable for sunrise or sunset. If you can not visit first, you can use many of the online tools available on the Internet.
4. Properties of light
As a beginner photographer you must learn to see the light and understand the many types and features of the light. Even if shooting at dusk and dawn are considered being one of the landscape photography secrets you should not limit yourself to only these times. You can photograph beautiful landscapes other times of the day as well. Be creative and give it a try.
How do you know when the light is best - there are some great tool to help you
5. Phone and tablet apps
When planning a shoot you need to consider:
- How the light changes throughout the day - knowing the exact times
- How the light changes throughout the year - longer or shorter periods of daylight
- Where in the world you are - light is different north of the arctic circle compared to the light near equator
If you have a smartphone or tablet, there are many good apps available to help in this. Below are a few of my favorites. You can find all apps for iOS and Android in the iTunes app store and Google Play store .
- The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) - you can see on a map where and at what times the sun and moon rise and sets.
- PhotoPills - similar to the TPE but this app have many other cool features built in. The learning curve is a little steeper, but it is a great app. Unfortunately only available for iOS so far. You can read a great review of PhotoPills here.
- Blue Hour app - shows you at what time the blue hour is in the morning and afternoon. Easy to use.
- Sun Seeker - show you the times when the sun rises and sets at different locations. Easy to use.
Learning about light is the the most important knowledge a photographer can acquire. From now on as you know there are no landscape photography secrets you have no excuses not to go out and make some fantastic landscape photos. Check the apps listed above and pick one that suits your need the best.