Chasing the Light

Stunning scenery from a great vantage point, you have set up the ideal composition and all you need is good light to bag the shot. The rising sun penetrates a thinning in the cloudy sky, and a light show you have rarely seen paints the landscape in sublime light – only it never enters your viewfinder! You nailed that perfectly composed shot, yet you have a gnawing feeling you missed some fantastic opportunities. What are you supposed to do? After all, you can focus on only one thing at a time.

We love to see a grand landscape dressed in atmospheric light, but great light also makes a grand landscape. Search for the composition and vantage point that showcases the light rather than waiting for beautiful light to grace the composition you already have decided on. For me light is the primary; it decides when, what and where I photograph. Since light can change and move rapidly, this can be quite a hectic undertaking. To prevent my shoots from degenerating into frustrating outings with mediocre photographs to boot, it is essential to remain disciplined, to focus on what is realistically doable and not to compromise on the essentials such as composition and technical excellence. Over time, I have developed the following approach which I hope will encourage the reader to partake in a more lively form of landscape photography.

Over the course of several trips to the frozen surface of Canada’s Lake Ontario, I observed how specific ice formations developed as the icy surface changed with the weather conditions. I was particularly intrigued by banks of ice which had developed and I knew, from my familiarity with the region, that the rising sun would light it up beautifully. Thanks to a local weather forecast I was able to anticipate that morning’s quality of light, and to my joy it all came together!


1) Know your Surroundings!

As a first step, photograph your surroundings frequently to develop an intimate knowledge of how light interacts with them. As you can imagine, this is not a short term undertaking, but the knowledge gained will be worth your while. With time you will be able to list the general areas and locations where the interplay of different types of light with the landscape is compelling and strong compositions are possible. Examples of types of light are the rising sun penetrating the fog, or the sun breaking though fast moving clouds, spotlighting the landscape. Thus when you see some promising light developing you will have in mind where to go to best showcase it. Furthermore, if you are following light that is rapidly changing or moving, you will have a better idea where next to go to best capture it, and you will avoid wasting time by trying vantages and compositions that don’t work. However, don’t stick rigidly to your list, and always try to be creative. Light can transform the landscape in magical, unforeseen ways and you may end up photographing at a location you never had in mind. Eventually you will develop a comfortable medium between a structured approach and a more spontaneous interaction which best suits you.

I had observed several times the warm light of the morning sun softly illuminating the ridges of these beautiful dunes in Namibia’s Sossusvlei region. I tried a number of vantage points and compositions until I found one which I felt best captured the beauty of the short lived moment. Thanks to my familiarity with this region, I knew when and where to capture these dunes in a manner that I found pleasing.


2) Follow the Weather

The weather report is essential for deciding when and where to photograph. Use forecasts which are as geographically fine grained as possible so that you have a good idea of the conditions at your listed areas. I use forecasts and current conditions from a combination of professional and amateur weather stations. This is sufficiently local so that I can identify those areas where there is the promise of the type of light which best interacts with them. Even so, these forecasts are not infallible and they cannot predict the exact lighting conditions; rather they give useful general guidelines.

3) Observe, observe, observe

Never cease observing, and remain flexible! As you travel to and within the area suggested by the weather report, observation of how conditions are “on the ground”, so to speak, will allow you to narrow down the final shooting location. For example, if you are travelling to some still waters for a reflection shot of what promises to be a beautiful sky, you may realise that the best light is developing elsewhere and that you need to adapt your travels. This is where keeping other suitable locations in mind comes in very handy. On the other hand, you may see that the light will not turn out the way you hoped it would. Continual observation allows you to anticipate this ahead of time so that you can try to travel to a spot better suited to the developing light.

Even while you are photographing, always look up and around you. It will allow you to see how the light is changing and to anticipate the next vantage point and composition to best showcase it. Furthermore, the light behind you may be strikingly different from that which you are photographing. This has happened to me several times and had I not turned around I would have missed out on some great opportunities. Light can move rapidly, and so will you! Moving with the light means walking rapidly, running, driving and/or a combination of these to get from one spot to the other.

We had been hiking among the breathtaking mountain scenery of the Peel Watershed in Canada’s Yukon Territory and we had just finished hiking up a steep ridge, with a deep river valley far below. I was continuously observing our surroundings in all directions and as I was looking behind myself I noticed a spectacular scene of fast moving rain showers which swept over spotlit black mountain ranges and outcrops, towering over the distant tundra. I rushed back down the ridge and made use of the S curve of the winding river far below which pointed right at the black mountain as it was simultaneously spotlit and dowsed in rain showers.


4) Multi Task

Light never is stagnant. Even on a cloudless morning light transitions through various phases, from dawn to sunrise to shortly thereafter. In the 20 or 30 minutes before the sun rises, the colors of the sky transition rapidly and this can vary significantly within a 360 degree of view. If at all possible, make use of this by moving between shooting locations which lend themselves best to photographing at different stages of the light. For example, if you are photographing in the morning, visit those locations which benefit from the predawn glow and then move on to locations which are better suited for light closer to sunrise.

Follow the early morning or late afternoon light as it transitions through different stages. From my familiarity with the mountain landscape of Patagonia, I knew that the twilight of the early morning hours illuminates them significantly earlier than other landscapes with features that are not as high. I had enough time to capture furious winds blowing clouds past the jagged peaks of Patagonia’s Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina, all of it illuminated in the soft morning twilight. I left with sufficient time to visit another location which was better suited to capture the mountains as they were touched by the first rays of the rising sun.

5) The unplanned chase

How does the above apply when we photograph outside our surroundings, e.g., in some particularly beautiful national park? You can transfer much of the experience you gained closer to home. The dynamics of changing light, e.g., the way it pierces through fog, are similar everywhere. Since you will not have an intimate knowledge of how the area interacts with light, preparation is very important. As a first step, look at images of the area, to give you an idea of interesting vantages and compositions. Pay some virtual visits (e.g. using Google Earth) and develop a general overview of the area’s geography. When at your location engage in detailed scouting, informed by your virtual visits. Try new compositions and vantage points and evaluate the images on your laptop/tablet to see how well they work and to visualize how they might interact with light. And, finally, this is the time when you truly need to be ready to adapt rapidly and creatively to the light.

When photographing outside your surroundings, be especially observant of the type of light and its interaction with the landscape. Plan your stay so that you have sufficient time to scout the area and to decide which locations are best suited to the light. As a result of this approach, I identified this spot to capture the last hours of daylight in the Cape Point Nature Reserve, South Africa. To my delight, the radiating clouds turned a beautiful pink and wonderfully complemented the scene. In the background humid ocean air turns into clouds at the coastal mountain peaks, which then are blown inland over the grass covered plains.


6) The digital age is on your side

As you have noticed, the photography I am advocating is dynamic and fast moving. Thanks to digital cameras and post processing you have the freedom to rapidly change vantages and compositions, and still end up with technically excellent images. Thanks to the power of exposure blending in post processing, you won’t loose out on precious seconds as you fidget around with filters and/or lightmeter readings as you try to perfect the exposure. You only need to ensure that the highlights and shadows are captured in correctly bracketed exposures, which can easily be checked with the exposure histograms on your camera LCD. The uninitiated will be pleasantly surprised by how rapid and simple this procedure is.

This is the kind of light you do not want to miss and strong vantages and compositions are essential to showcase it. This area was new to me, but close monitoring and an agile response to the rapidly changing light allowed me to capture it at its best. Having in mind compositions which might work in such situations allowed me to rapidly identify and focus on this particular scene. Properly bracketed exposures allowed me to move on and further capture the light before it disappeared as quickly as it first appeared. You have all the time in the world to blend the exposures carefully in post processing.