10 Tips For Brilliant Landscapes

To get your best shots, follow the light
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1. “Desert Window,” Arches National Park, Utah. The contrast of textures and colors and the sense of motion over time create a dynamic composition.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, 7-stop Schneider graduated ND, ISO 200, ƒ/18, 30 sec.

“Chase the light.”
For years, landscape photographers have lived by this motto. It’s not really a technique—it’s a philosophy, a way of life, an existential state of being. It’s about chasing those rare magical moments when Nature displays her finest. It fuels our passion for nature photography and becomes our raison d’être.

What follow are concepts, essential philosophies and techniques that guide my photography—a light chaser’s manifesto, if you will. Master these tips, and you won’t just be chasing the light—you’ll be capturing magical moments that inspire and amaze.

1 Use Color For Artistic Effect
Few things elicit an emotional response as much as color. While taking a photo of a brilliant pink sunset sky may impress many viewers, what I’m talking about is a bit more sophisticated—consciously using color as a creative tool. There are several ways to do this. Bold, primary colors can be very effective at triggering simple emotional responses. For example, red and yellow attract attention and create excitement, while at the same time convey warmth, whereas blue can be more soothing and relaxing, but also can convey a sense of bleakness and cold. Color contrasts also can be powerful. Artists have long known that colors seem most vibrant when juxtaposed against opposing, complementary colors. For example, warm colors (red, orange and yellow) look more vibrant when set against cool colors (blue and cyan). Also, color can be used to create powerful compositions. Areas of color contrast draw the eye and form abstract shapes, creating compositional interest, and repeating colors can create a sense of order and visual flow in a scene.

2. “Sand Star,” Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Strong backlighting and the inclusion of the sun as an element of the composition help create drama.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, ISO 50, ƒ/16, 1⁄30 sec.

2 Shoot Into The Light
In general, avoid shooting in light that comes from behind you (except when working with overcast or twilight) because it will illuminate the landscape evenly, leaving the scene looking flat and featureless. Instead, look for an angle that has light coming from the side or behind the scene. Sidelighting and backlighting can be dramatic, and provide texture and relief to the landscape. The main technical challenge when working with sidelight is avoiding lens flare, which is caused by sunlight striking the front elements of the lens. To prevent flare, shade your lens using a lens shade, or your hand, if necessary. For the ultimate backlit photograph, incorporate the sun into your composition. Use wide-angle lenses and small apertures (ƒ/16 or ƒ/22), which create an attention-grabbing starburst. In this case, you can’t control flare by blocking the sun with a lens shade because the sun is actually in your photo, so you must partially block the sun with some feature of the landscape or sky, such as a tree limb, a cloud or a distant mountain (don’t block the sun completely; make sure enough light shines through to create a starburst). When incorporating the sun, place it in a compositionally pleasing place since the viewer’s eye will go there instantly.

3. “Taylor Creek Reflections,” Zion National Park, Utah. Sunlit canyon walls are reflected in water in this simple image.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, ISO 50, ƒ/22, 5 sec.

3 Learn To Love Bad Weather
This is my personal favorite tip for getting better landscape photos. Incredible moments in nature don’t happen when the sun is shining through blue skies—instead, the magic happens when conditions turn nasty. Weather, and bad weather, in particular, is of paramount importance to nature photography. Weather can transform even mundane scenery into something magical. Weather influences light, color and mood. Weather also influences composition, as shapes formed by clouds can be used creatively when composing images. Bad weather can bring a whole host of interesting and photogenic meteorological phenomena such as rainbows, fog, sunrays and dramatic storm clouds that light up at sunset. The best light usually occurs when a weather event, such as a storm, is building or breaking up. This is when you’ll get dramatic clouds, great light and wild atmospheric conditions. Resist the temptation to pack it in when you see menacing clouds moving your way!

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4 Reflect Your World
Reflections can add a dash of color and impressionism to an image, and can transform your photographs into something special and unique. Water is the best source for reflections. Still water can act like a mirror, producing a perfect reflection of the world around you. Moving water produces a more indistinct reflection, often nothing more than a surreal blur of color. The intensity of the reflection is dependent on the water’s clarity, depth and turbulence. A shallow pool of clear rainwater, for example, will reflect better than a deep and choppy lake. Other surfaces besides water reflect light, including rocks, ice, snow and even foliage. These surfaces are less reflective than water, so they won’t reflect an image, but they will reflect color with varying degrees of intensity. For example, reflected light is what illuminates the dark interiors of deep sandstone slot canyons, giving them their famous glow. Reflections can be used as your main subject, or they can simply provide a subtle touch that elevates your images to the realm of “high-concept” photography.

 “The Lonely Shore,” Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina. If a storm breaks at dawn or sunset, dramatic light often results.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, Singh-Ray reverse 2-stop graduated ND, ISO 400, ƒ/14, 0.6 sec.
5. “Winter Flow,” Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. The composition was carefully chosen to create a visual relationship between the stream and the clouds above.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED (used with an adapter), ISO 100, ƒ/11, 1⁄13 sec.

6. “Court of the Patriarchs,” Zion National Park, Utah. This scene was lit by the red glow of the light reflecting off the clouds above.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8G ED (used with an adapter), ISO 100, ƒ/11, two exposures of 13 sec. and 3 sec. manually blended in Photoshop to extend the dynamic range.

5 Unite Land And Sky
The question of what to do with the sky is often overlooked. Regardless of what the light in the sky looks like, it’s important to think about the sky in terms of composition rather than just light or color. If the sky is featureless, such as when it’s heavily overcast or clear, consider excluding most or all of it from your frame. If the sky has mixed cloud cover, especially with heavily textured clouds, it can become an important, or even dominant, element of the composition. Clouds can form shapes that relate to the landscape below—or they can form shapes or lines that distract and confuse the viewer. Pay close attention to what’s going on above, and make sure that, if you choose to include the sky, that it relates to what’s going on down below.

6 Shoot The Edge Of Light
Power is found at the edges, such as the edge between light and shadow, or when the sun peeks over a distant mountain. Drama is found at the edge of a storm, where rain, wind and clouds collide with all the intensity and fury that nature can muster. Color is found at the break of dawn or in the last faint glimmers of twilight defying the black of night. Chase the edges of light, and you’ll be on your way to making truly epic images. Although edges can occur at all times of the day, my favorite “edge” light is found at twilight, the 30-minute period after the sun has set or before it rises—a magical time when reality blends with fantasy, what I like to call “dreamscape” time. During twilight, the portion of the sky lit by sunlight striking the upper atmosphere acts as a giant reflector, bouncing a soft directional glow onto the land. It’s subtle, but sometimes surprisingly colorful. Twilight glow on the landscape is strongest facing away from the sunset or sunrise. Long exposures are necessary to compensate for the faint light; clouds, water and windblown foliage will move during long exposures, creating an impressionistic blur.

7. “Light is Life,” Mount Rainier National Park, Washington. A creative lens flare was possible by placing the sun just off the edge of the frame.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, ISO 100, ƒ/16, 0.4 sec.

7 Master The Moment
Nature photography is an exercise in finding convergences, those moments when two or more natural elements come together in an interesting or artistically relevant way. Such convergences usually are fleeting, leading famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to describe photography as capturing the “decisive moment” in which one is able to record an essential interaction of subjects at its peak. Ideally, the moment should reveal something about the character of the landscape or capture an instant when nature’s power is at its fullest, filled with energy and possibility. Waiting for the decisive moment requires patience and dedication, but is at the core of the light chaser’s credo. If you’re not sure when the decisive moment occurs, then sit back and watch, and learn about your subject. Get to know nature and her rhythms and patterns. Develop a connection with the natural world, and I guarantee you that you’ll began to see decisive moments all around you. Learn to understand nature, and all the rest will fall into place.

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8. “Fitz Roy,” Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. A promising weather forecast called for rising several hours before sunrise to hike in the dark to this stunning and remote backcountry location.
Canon EOS 5D Mark II , Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM, ISO 100, ƒ/11, 1/4sec.

8 Work Smarter
My motto is “work smarter, not harder.” A smart light chaser learns a thing or two about the weather and how it relates to catching great light to be in the right place at the right time. Although each location has its own local weather patterns, here are a few general guidelines. Partly to mostly cloudy skies give you the best chance of colorful sunsets and sunrises. When clouds have separation, light can break through the gaps to produce stunning results, even when cloud cover is significant. The best time to catch great light is when a storm is clearing, especially at sunrise or sunset. Remember, all you need is a tiny gap at the horizon, right where the sun is rising or setting, to set fire to an otherwise completely cloudy sky. Online weather services and smartphone apps help immensely when you’re trying to position yourself to take advantage of promising conditions, especially if they offer hour-by-hour forecasts and satellite maps showing cloud movement over time. Nothing, however, beats simply being on location: The worst feeling in the world is to walk away from a scene when conditions seem bleak, only to have the sky light up with beautiful color.

9 Create Visual Flow
A click of the camera shutter captures a slice of reality, plucking a moment from the living world and suspending it for all time. Sometimes, though, photographs can appear static and lifeless. The best photographers resist this tendency of still capture and instead strive to impart a sense of motion, energy and life to their pictures. “Visual flow,” as I like to call it, is a way of creating the illusion of three-dimensional perspective and dynamic motion in a two-dimensional static capture. Getting the viewer’s eye to move through the photograph is your goal—an image that captures the eye and doesn’t let go is one that will engage a viewer’s interest over and over again. Certain compositions and shapes help create visual flow. Curves can give a scene elegance and harmoniously unify a composition. Zigzags create energy by forcing the eye back and forth. Circles and arcs trap the eye, whereas lines and triangles point and lead. Powerful compositions also can be made by using a repetition of shapes. Your goal is to take viewers on a visual journey. Constantly seek ways to capture the dynamic essence of nature and engage the viewer’s eye, leading it to the most important elements in your photographs.

10 Rise Early, Stay Up Late—Trade Sleep For Light
This one is so fundamental as to be axiomatic. Successful nature photographers don’t get much sleep because the best light—the kind of light that dazzles viewers—occurs at the edges of the day. During the so-called “magic hours” around sunrise and sunset, the sun is low on the horizon and filtered through atmospheric particles that scatter blue light and allow warm light, such as reds, oranges and yellows, to pass through. The result is the beautiful colors we’re used to seeing at sunset and sunrise, which are the bread-and-butter of pro nature photographers. This may seem obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me how many photographers simply refuse to drag themselves out of bed in the morning. When you’re in the field, commit fully to being on location to chase the light—even if it means you lose some sleep.

Ian Plant is a widely published professional nature photographer and writer and an instructor. To see more of Plant’s images, read his daily photoblog or learn more about the topics discussed in this article, his photo workshops and his instructional e-books, visit www.ianplant.com.


Focus By Limiting Your Gear
Having the right gear is critical for achieving your vision, but sometimes carrying too much of it with you is just too much. This spring and summer, try this exercise: Go out with your camera and a single lens (and don’t bring the 10x zoom for this one). Spend the day with a limited focal range, no filters, no other equipment. This will keep you from being distracted by the limitless combination of focal lengths, filters and other assorted gadgets that can be used to work the scene. As the saying goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you go out and shoot with less, your thinking gets focused and you start seeing photo possibilities that you may have missed otherwise.