To be a better photographer, stand in front of better stuff.”Jim Richardson – National Geographic photographer
Only five days into the new year and I was wondering if the string of good luck from the previous few months would continue. For successful landscape photography, good fortune plays a significant roll, and cannot be overstated. I’m not referring to the “seeing” of smaller subjects that would make fine photos, but rather the conditions encountered at a particular location while looking for a wider, more grand view of things. This past October, on a trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, conditions were excellent to make good photographs of the ocean almost every day. Plenty of clouds provided subjects in the sky on which the colors of the morning could be painted, which in turn reflected those colors onto the sheen left by the surf, and the ocean itself. With a blank, blue sky, the same scene would have been uninspiring, seriously lacking any drama, and may have caused the camera to remain inside the bag.
On many occasions, I find myself alone at a location very early in the morning, where the lay of the land is photogenic, but like the ocean, without atmospheric conditions to go along with it, any photos will be less than stellar, and may even be a bit boring. So we have to admit to ourselves that the success of our broad landscape photography is directly dependent on the conditions we encounter.
I’ve had my share of luck, both bad and good, when I’ve headed out for photography, whether locally or to some of our nation’s iconic locations, and I’ve heard the same lament from fellow photographers as well. But for this type of photograph, the long views that record the glory and majesty of our world, they are made much more powerful with unique, or at the very least, interesting atmospheric conditions. So when a photographer produces a “great” photograph which includes some of those inspiring conditions, should he or she take any credit for those conditions? It’s my firm belief we can only take credit for tripping the shutter, and should consider ourselves lucky that inspiring conditions happened to occur at the same time we were there. We have absolutely no influence in creating those conditions, and therefore are only innocent bystanders to the weather that is the real determining factor on how “great” the final photo is.
Take the image above as an example, exposed at 7:21am on that day in January. Fog had been in the forecast that morning, so there was no urgency to get up until it was light out. When I peeked out the window at around 6:50am, there was no fog, but there was a hint there might be a decent dawn. With only about 35-minutes until sunrise, I scrambled to get dressed, grabbed my gear, scraped the frost off the windshield, and headed to Jordan Lake’s nearest location that looked east, 13-minutes away. But when I arrived, it was now almost completely overcast, and there was no fog! Certainly not an inspiring set of conditions for photography. I’m not even sure why I bothered to set up the camera on the tripod and take this first photo of the morning; in fact, the only reason I processed the RAW file was to illustrate here the conditions on arrival. The only plus was the smooth water for reflections.
Here is when luck came into play just a few moments later at 7:24am. Looking just right of the photo above, the sky began to turn pink just above the trees while simultaneously, a light fog began to drift into the lake from the south. The smooth water picked up the reflected light and fog, and now the scene had been completely transformed from dull to dramatic!! Sullen to spectacular!! I rattled off several frames during the 4-5 minutes the color lasted, including the two-frame panorama at the top, just to have options later. Compositions didn’t vary much, just the placement of the color either slightly right or left of center in the frame as seen in the two images below. Taking several frames showed varying fog densities moving across the scene, and a choice would be available for whichever frame was deemed best for color, fog and balance. And then the color disappeared and it was over; my luck had run out as quickly as it had begun. The only difficulty in the post processing was the tedious removal of the many, many (well over 100) small pieces of debris in the water left over from the recent heavy rains, to eliminate their distracting presence.
Sure, I was the only one out there to witness that wonderful confluence of color, fog and reflections, but anyone else with a camera could have taken the identical photographs, and been just as fortunate as I was that morning. Simply stated, it was the conditions that transformed the scene, and therefore the photo, into something magical. I just happened to be there to trip the shutter.
I hope by now there is an understanding that the term “landscape photographer” really needs to be separated into its two component parts. The photographer is the person who operates a camera and has the basic knowledge of how the settings used influence the appearance of the photo. The photographer also makes decisions on camera placement to arrange the elements within the frame to accomplish their purpose in taking the image. Many times that placement has been pre-determined by countless prior photographers using the same tripod holes in the ground.
For the most part, the landscape part of the equation, (remember, we’re talking about the broad views here), is unchanging, remaining the same for hundreds of years, if not eons. Using the analogy of a fashion model, although they may be photogenic to begin with, enhancing make-up, carefully selected clothing and accessories, along with proper lighting, the photograph of that same model is now stunningly beautiful!! In the landscape, those iconic locations that may draw, literally, hundreds of photographers standing shoulder to shoulder every morning, are the models we seek to photograph. Our hope is that, on the day we are there, it is adorned with the necessary additional elements and lighting, as with the fashion model, to transform the scene into something special, beyond it’s inherent beauty. The same holds true for the less iconic locations, which it can be argued, are even more dependent on those additional elements to create that stunning image we’re after.
When we take trips to see these iconic scenes first hand, the hope is we are witness to them when they are adorned with all those added elements to take away an image that stands stunningly above one without them. In short, we hope we are lucky. Locally, those scenes we’ve identified as “iconic” for our area, can be visited often to increase the odds of being lucky. And to increase those odds further, following the weather reports each day can help in determining when those sought after conditions might be present. And other times, as in the case of January 5th, our photography is solely dependent on luck.