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"It's all about the light..." I say it all the time. It's my tag line and if you've taken any type of class with me, you probably have a smile on your face. This being said, "It's all about the light." I can't emphasize this enough when it comes to landscape photography. The quality of light, the time of day, the direction from where it comes, the contrast, and the drama all factor in to determine the impact of the image. On one hand, there really is no such thing as non-photographable light, depending on the subject you wish to capture. On the other, the more dramatic it is when you photograph the grand landscape, the bigger your smile. Have I been out on days where I haven't even lifted the camera to my eye? Of course, but that's what makes hunting for and capturing the perfect light most special.
Think of every landscape situation you encounter as a portrait subject in front of your lens and you want to make that person look as good as possible. Think of how the light falls on every feature of the "face." Is it flattering, does it emphasize the best parts, is it shot from the best angle? Look at the light, study it and determine if all comes together. For the same reason a person wouldn't want a formal portrait created at 12 noon in the bright sun, think about how the landscape would feel if you did the same. The light is harsh, the shadows fall in awkward places, the contrast is high, and the overall look is simply not flattering.
If landscape photography is all about the light, what kind of light provides the best opportunity? Actually, there are many variables that affect a definitive answer. If the goal is to emphasize texture, shadows, highlights, shapes and form, then you want crisp sidelight at sunrise or sunset. If soft details are the focus of the shoot, then bright overcast conditions are desirable. If you crave impact, clearing or impending storms are prime. If the conditions you desire don't come together, this is when you need to punt and photograph subjects that work, given the hand you're dealt. Knowing an area well and visiting it often offers you the knowledge of where to go, given the conditions. One can never go to the same location too many times.
In the images that accompany this article, each was made under different conditions that offered desirable light for each subject. I'm not a proponent of shooting front-lit landscapes, except when it's really close to sunrise or sunset. Add in storm clouds on the opposite horizon and a big smile lights up my face. This is what occurred in the first image of the Alter of the Sacrifice in Zion National Park. In image number two, the strong sidelight at sunset was the key. It created the brightly lit right side of the dune and the strong shadow on the left. Without the bright sun, the shadow wouldn't be dark and the image would lose its punch. In the intimate landscape of photo number three, I zoomed into a portion of the grand scenic. Another tag line of mine is, "Exhaust all possibilities." I made sure I captured every photo op in front of me.