Courting Luck: How to Take Advantage of Special Light and Weather in Landscape Photography

Half Dome and the Merced River, late afternoon, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
Half Dome and the Merced River, late afternoon, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
Ansel Adams used to say that “chance favors the prepared mind.” His point was that photographs like Moonrise Hernandez and Clearing Winter Storm weren't lucky accidents; he was able to capture those moments because he had honed his eye and his photographic technique, and was able to apply those skills when a special opportunity presented itself.

Tuesday night a private workshop student and I had an opportunity to test our mental preparation in Yosemite Valley. We got lucky, as the sun broke through a layer of clouds late in the afternoon. For 45 minutes we watched and photographed a spectacular light show, with beams of sunlight first illuminating the cottonwood trees along the Merced River, then moving upward to reach the Royal Arches, North Dome, and Half Dome itself.

Every landscape photographer hopes to get lucky and capture a beautiful light display like that. But when it happens, will you be prepared? Will you be able to do justice to the gift that’s presented to you?

The first part of that preparation comes with being in the right place at the right time. Luck plays a role here, of course, but so does the ability to anticipate and predict the weather.

I’ve become a student of the weather. To me that’s part of being a landscape photographer—to have some idea of what the weather might do, and try to put myself in the right place to take advantage of interesting weather conditions, whatever they might be. I don’t always get it right, but this kind of preparation increases the odds.

I’m frequently looking at satellite and radar images online, and correlating that with first-person observations. Tuesday, the skies were overcast in Yosemite Valley in the afternoon, but satellite images showed that the cloud bank was moving eastward, and there were clear skies to the west. That meant that as the sun set it might crawl underneath the clouds and light up the cliffs and the underside of the clouds. You never know for sure about these things, but based on that information it seemed like a good idea to put ourselves in position to capture that kind of light.

Once you find yourself in the right spot when the light gets interesting, you have to apply your eye and technique to capture the photograph. This means, first and foremost, finding a composition that emphasizes the light you’re presented with. I often see photographers set up their camera on a tripod at a viewpoint and never move it, even though the light and clouds are constantly changing. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but I think it’s always more productive to adapt your composition to the light and weather, rather than hope the light and weather adapt themselves to your composition.

Then, of course, you have to get the exposure right and make sure the image is sharp. It’s easy to panic when a special opportunity presents itself, so it helps to be thoroughly familiar with your camera and tripod. You don’t want to be fumbling with controls and thinking, “now where is that exposure-compensation dial?” as a rainbow is fading. Develop good habits under less stressful situations so they become second nature—habits like using a cable release and mirror lock-up (on a tripod), always checking the histogram and blinkies, and zooming in on just-taken photographs to check sharpness.

Also, know how to use your camera’s auto-bracketing feature. Many of the most interesting lighting situations are contrasty, making exposures difficult, or requiring you to blend exposures together later to retain detail in both highlights and shadows. Auto-bracketing can be invaluable in these situations. If you don’t know how to set up auto-bracketing on your camera, go find your camera manual right now and figure it out. And then practice using it.

If you’d like to learn more about exposure, histograms, and auto-bracketing, I explain these topics thoroughly in my ebook Exposure for Outdoor Photography (it's only $5 from Craft and Vision), and also in these blog posts here and here.

But there’s no substitute for practicing good technique in the field, with your camera, in a variety of situations. If chance favors the prepared mind, then get prepared.

— Michael Frye

P.S. As you might be able to tell from this photograph, there's still fall color in Yosemite Valley. The cottonwoods are beautiful this year, and are near peak right now. Some of the dogwoods and oaks also still have nice color.

P.P.S. Ansel was probably paraphrasing Louis Pasteur, who said, "In fields of observations, chance favors only the prepared mind." Photography is nothing if not a "field of observation."

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

In the Moment: Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

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4 Comments

    Thanks for the artical. I often find myself fixating my composition on the physical elements not how the light is hitting those elements then forming my composition around that. Food for thougt. (I’m an amature so I can get away with using the word composition without a wise comment from another commenter, I hope) I noticed the light almost becomes the subject or part of the subject in your picture. Nice picture by the way. I did read the sunburst artical. My 16-35mm L seems to suffer with refraction (word?), a soft look, if I step it down too much. I find I can’t dial it down beyound f/16 without loss of quality. Do you think it’s just me doing something wrong?

    Thanks for your comments Paul, Laura, and Nova.

    Paul, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong — it’s common for most lenses to lose sharpness at the smallest apertures. But first, a slight loss in critical sharpness, something only noticeable in a very large print, is not a reason to sacrifice something else, like, for example, getting everything in focus. Second, you should be able to get a good sunburst at f/16 anyway.

    Laura, thanks, and no, this is not a blend, it’s just one exposure processed in Lightroom 5. Since Lightroom 4 was introduced I rarely have to blend exposures anymore, since the newer versions of Lightroom do such a good job of handling high-contrast scenes.

    Nova, you’re welcome, and thanks!

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