If you are really serious about your photography, you will surely know how depressing can be a totally sunny day for a landscape photographer. The perfect time for a hike or a family picnic is a total nightmare for the tripod warrior. That is good news, thought, as otherwise I would miss all barbecues with family and friends... Sunny days are difficult. Light is soon too contrasty (most of all during summer months) and the absence of clouds means no reflected-diffused light around. Shades go totally black and highlights are blown out. You might ease the pain with a polarizer filter, but only partially, and giving nasty blobs of dark polarized skies when using wide angle focal lengths. Therefore, there is the absence of mood, drama, and the 2D effect in the horizons (most of all when shooting mountain regions) where the skyline seems a card-board cut-out. Get into the forest and the effect will also be miserable. Too contrasty light will explode the dynamic range or exposure latitude of any film or sensor, giving you patches of blacks and whites in a messy environment full of disturbing elements. Of course, sunny days have some other possibilities. You can shoot more intimist scenes in the shade, where you will be using light reflected from the sky. Get a subtractor (something dark absorbing the light) and you might get some directional reflected light, giving you soft light still able to sculpt the texture and detail of your subject. The other possibility, if you still want to shoot wide vistas, is taking advantage of twilight and sunrise-sunset. More than ever, you will need to wake up early or stay late (you had your barbecue, so dont complain). Twilight will give you soft and directional light reflected by the sky when the sun is about to rise or just set below the horizon. Therefore, you will have the bonus of shooting at the antisolar point, observing if you are high enough (mountains) the twilight wedge or shade projected by the Earth on the sky (purple band below the pinky colors of the last edge of the sky lit by the sun). Sunrise and sunset will also keep you busy; giving you some minutes of warm and soft light, not too contrasty, that might provide beautiful possibilities. For the rest of the day, it will be scouting looking for photo opportunities and interesting compositions for the evening to come.
So the thing is, if you really want to push further your photography, you will need to get wet, chilly and muddy. That is not bad news, it is a lot of fun. Trust me.
CLOUDY AND STORMY WHEATER
This is one of the very best opportunities for landscape photography, most of all when attempting to shoot wide sweeping vistas. It is also the best opportunity to get struck by a lighting as metallic cameras on tripods standing in elevated points are begging for problems. Anyway, if we suppose we are cautious, these conditions will add lots of positive things to our photographic activity. Firstly, cloudy skies will limit the contrast of the light filling the shades with light scattered-diffused-reflected by the clouds. Secondly, they will provide more depth to the compositions, and thirdly, they will add tons mood and drama. Painters knew this very well, and used extensively "stormy-like" effects in their work. Think of Rembrandt, the master of the Chiaroscuro effect, displaying in his work contrasty scenes with a lot of depth and drama by alternating in the painting very dark and light zones.
In nature, and particularly in landscape photography, we can also make use of such a technique to provide a shot with loads of drama and ambiance. Imagine an image where a key element nestles in the landscape. A focal point: a barn, a mountain peak, a group of animals, etc. If you have fast moving clouds around and you wait and have a lucky strike, you might have the possibility of pressing the shutter when only that very important area of the landscape is lit by a sun beam, while the rest of the image is in shade. Another possibility is having bands of unlit-lit areas in the landscape: layering of light will give you a lot of depth in the image, providing a strong 3D effect. And then, there is the real drama of shooting a storm passing over the landscape: rainbows, rain curtains, backlit hail or rain drops, threatening skies, etc.
FOG AND MIST
Fog and mist can turn the most miserable and mundane place into a fairy tale or otherworldly image. They make things look very different, allowing you to come with striking images. Therefore, they also provide aerial perspective, giving you a lot of depth in the images, just by changing the tones of the elements according to their distance to the lens. For once too, the weather plays ball with the old saying "less is more", as fog will erase most of the details of the landscape giving you the chance of playing with a blank canvas where to compose the image with the key elements. Fog and mist can also give you the possibility of witnessing "God beams", or light rays being diffracted by the fog when obstacles are around. The possibilities are endless, so never complain about fog or mist, and look for it, going up the mountain looking for those clouds wrapped in the high forest.
RAIN AND TOTALLY OVERCAST SKIES
Have you ever considered why some images of the forest-river-cascades look sometimes awful? Besides the common problem of forests (total chaos to be "ordered" by the photographer) the main problem tends to be the light. Sunny days (unless you have mist around which will give you beautiful rays of light in all directions) tend to provide too contrasty images under the canopy. This is not a total rule, but is normally the case (you might find very nice opportunities of shooting the autumn canopy, yellow foliage glowing backlit against a totally blue sky for instance). One of the best opportunities for shooting woods, waterfalls and rivers is under a totally overcast sky, with plenty of light. The soft and almost non directional light given by that gigantic diffuser that is a covered sky will provide a very even light that will get to the darkest shades of the forest filling it with light. The highlights are limited too, avoiding the typical reflections on the leaves that blow up the histograms during sunny days. But that is not all. There is also the saturation of the colors. After some rain (or during the rain) you will get pure hues in the woods, greener greens and a much more ambiance, making the viewer of your photo almost smell the humidity and freshness of the forest. However, don’t forget your polarizer, as wet surfaces will cast heavy reflections even under the softer light, killing all those colors and details.
Another good property of cloudy skies and the softness of the light they provide is the high level of detail and colour that we can get in such conditions. Think on close-ups, flowers, very detailed elements, colourful stuff, foliage, etc. All this elements will benefit very much from soft light. The only problem you might have is getting the skies out of the image if they are totally blank. Totally featureless skies do not add anything to the image and will probabliy go overexposed, so you'd better rule them out of the image. However, this latter situation might not always be true, as sometimes even in the most cloudy skies the clouds display interesting texture, that can be kept within the latitude of the film-sensor with a good graduated neutral density filter.
SNOW AND FROST
As well as fog and mist, snow and frost can turn a normal scene into a winter wonderland. However, try to get it still clinging from branches, leaves, roofs and ground. That means that if you head out for photography when it has stopped snowing, you will normally miss the moment.
Different possibilities arise with snow: the snow still falling in the landscape will give you impressionistic effects with snow streaks crossing the image or as hundreds of tiny dots if the selected speed has been quick enough; the isolated element floating in the middle of the blizzard; the snow storm clearing with warm hues painting the snow canvas on the landscape, etc.
Is landscape static? Not at all. Look at those clouds, vegetation and water. Everything moves. Photographs are frequently called "still" images, however i cannot disagree more. Leave the diaphragm opened for a few seconds and you will portrait all that dynamism: swaying trees, streaking clouds over the sky, blurred water and reflections, etc. So, dont get angry next time you cannot keep sharp those little flowers in the background due to the strong wind. Stop down the lens and put some neutral density filters on it, and reinforce the sense of movement obtaining impressionistic effects on vegetation as the shutter is opened for a few seconds.
So, next time you look at the weather forecast and see some "bad" conditions to come, get your camera gear and prepare to head out to look for stunning and powerful images. The barbecue you were going that evening might have been cancelled, after all :).
Thanks for reading, and good light to you all.