Despite the huge amount of attention paid to shooting landscapes during the golden hours: before and after sunrise and sunset, these times should only be taken as suggestions. Nobody wants to take out their camera gear at eight in the morning and then not even bother so much as take a lens cap off until eight o’clock the same evening. A day has 24 hours and each of those hours has something very special to offer a creative landscape photographer.
Another problem with much of the writing about the correct time to shoot landscapes is a general failure to celebrate that there is, for much of the western hemisphere at least, 365 days split conveniently over 4 very different season with each season, day and hour offering something unique to the photographer. In this respect I can only really write from the perspective of somebody living in the temperate western hemisphere. The rules change for many Asian locations and and are radically different in the far reaches of the two poles so I hope I can be forgiven for some rather sweeping generalisations. For the most part though the seasons follow a quite distinct pattern in North America and most of Europe.
And let it not be forgotten that each day is punctuated by night, an atmospheric stretch of time where light is bounced gently from the surface of the moon creating yet further opportunities for dramatic landscape photography, and certainly a time that should not be overlooked.
If there is one particular season providing the least amount of good lighting for photography then summer would have to be that season. The summer months are when we ought to make the most of shooting during the golden hours. In summer, throughout the main part of the day the sun is at its highest and produces short shadows and high contrast, making landscapes appear flat and without depth. Much of the texture evident in the landscape is bleached by strong, unforgiving light which detracts from the sense of scale and rich colours are lost through over-lighting or, alternatively, lost in a complete absence of light. Summer in more southern regions, where the sun blazes from directly overhead, may provide ample light document the landscape or take a few holiday snapshots but it is not much good if you want to convey the feel or the very essence of a location.
More northerly regions of the western hemisphere have very changeable weather through the summer months and cloud can help to diffuse strong sunlight, providing a more even cast across the landscape. The high contrast can also facilitate the atmosphere and depth of shots taken in densely wooded areas. So with some imagination and creative thinking (and a good selection of filters….especially polarizing) even the peak of midday in the middle of high summer can provide fantastic photographic opportunities.
High, strong sunlight also has its uses for macro photography; for example, if you want to record the textures and shapes of flowers and leaves. The strong light means you can use faster shutter speeds and negate any movement caused by the wind. It’s a good idea to carry a polarising lens for macro shots and carry a small spray bottle of fresh water. This way you can simulate sparkling rainfall on and around plants. A mist of water can also create brief, localised rainbows as the light is refracted through the droplets of water. You may even get some interesting lens flare to add more depth and atmosphere to your macro shots.
Summer is also the build up to, arguably, the best time of the year for landscape photography: Autumn. At this time of year the sun sits at a slightly lower angle during the height of the day and there is a slight lengthening of shadows creating more interest and depth. The array of colour can be spectacular and leaves, as they die, produce colours ranging from deep ochre through to vibrant yellows. One small drawback is that very often it is necessary to shoot faster speeds because of the constant movement caused by increased wind, leaves falling, cloud movement etc. but the contrasting colours and textures more than make up for this. Incredibly still mornings and afternoons make for great atmospheric photography and it’s a good time to think about getting portfolio standard shots.
As with summer, if strong light in the middle of the day is an issue then consider carrying a polariser and some ND grad filters. Very often the camera, at higher speeds will be unable to represent the strong colour contrasts that you get viewing the scene by eye so it’s always worth looking at tweaking the shots in post production by pushing up saturation across the entire image or increasing the saturation more specifically across certain colour casts. If you cannot get the photo to be representative of how you envisioned the shot then autumn scenes can look great in black and white. The difference in leaf colours makes black and white much more effective than when trees are all varying hues of the same green during summer.It’s also a good opportunity to really experiment with software, perhaps grey-scaling everything whilst leaving single leaves or trees with their colour intact.
Winter provides the greatest shadow lengths as the sun has its lowest zenith in the year. The more northerly you can get, the better. For the greatest photographic depth try shooting with the sun at 45 degrees behind you rather than directly behind you
Winter can often be a time when cameras are as likely to go into hibernation as bears and hedgehogs. The wet weather can put you off from exposing expensive glass to the likelihood of moisture damage, high winds can make even the sturdiest tripod shake about uncontrollably and the need to wear gloves in intense cold makes operating a DSLR about as easy as rolling a cigarette in boxing gloves. The drawbacks and the excuses you can give yourself to simply stay indoors for a few months are endless but nothing worthwhile was ever created without at least some modicum of hardship and lighting during the middle of the day is about as good as it will get for the entire year.
Cold weather produces very little atmospheric disturbance and so the air remains clean and shadows fall at their longest length, completely changing how the landscape looks.
Freezing weather creates stillness on ponds and lakes, even waterfalls can be suspended in time and this creates a much lower reflectivity and so longer exposures are often possible.
The greatest opportunity that the winter months provide, however, is in photographing at night. Winter is the best time of year for astronomers because of the decresed amount of moisture and atmospheric disturbance when the temperature dips below zero so photographing stars produces much more successful results. If there is snow on the ground then using artificial light becomes much more viable as there is much greater surface reflectivity and even a small amount of light can illuminate a great deal more at night.
There are some technical considerations to bear in mind if the weather is particularly cold. Whereas with rain or sun, simple shades or covers will protect your equipment, extreme cold is a different matter. It may be worth looking at the user manual to check minimum and maximum operating temperatures. Memory cards can begin to fail at around -10 and batteries will also fail at extremely low temperatures. Batteries are best kept close to your body until you need to use them. If you think you’ll be waiting around then consider keeping the camera out of the cold for as long as you can manage. If your tripod is made from aluminium then be very careful touching the surface with your hands uncovered as the smallest amount of moisture can freeze your fingers to the tripod and “burn” off the skin. Gloves are available specifically for photography in cold weather but there are mixed reports regarding their effectiveness. Many people prefer to simply cut the the thumb and forefinger of some cheap woolen gloves so that the tips can be hinged back when you need to operate the camera.
Light is incredibly low and direct in the winter so a polarising filter is advisable so that you can cut down on reflection and skies don’t get whited-out too much. As with any other time of year, use a UV filter.
The golden hours are especially good in winter. Cloudy mornings produce incredible sunrises but alternatively clear mornings will give you the possibility of mist and evaporating moisture over water.
Following winter the world begins to come back to life, starting around late february through March and beyond. The sun will begin to rise higher in the sky pushing photography further towards the golden hours but wheras winter is the perfect time for getting up early, spring is the perfect time for staying out late. From mid-afternoon, the sun drops and weakens sufficiently and for a decent period of time to capture some truly dramatic images. The fresh flashes of colour; daffodils, snowdrops, bluebells etc create low, foreground interest and you can often be blessed with the remnants of winter meaning that these fresh colours can sometimes be sprinkled with snow and frost. Clouds are more broken than in winter and move quite quickly in the strong winds and this means that the landscape and the light is changing all of the time so it serves to be prepared to wait for just the right moment to take the shot. The effects of sunsets begin a little earlier in spring so rather than getting out an hour before sunset it is worth thinking more along the lines of three or even four hours before sunset. The weather conditions are often fresh and comfortable with low pollen and none of the freezing cold or sapping heat of the seasons either side fo sprong.
So, no matter what time of day there are always opportunities for taking great landscape photographs and each of the 4 seasons will provide a unique opportunity for something different, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
When the sun has finally gone down the urban landscape comes into its own for graet lighting conditions. Streetlights come on, neon signs, car headlights, windows, architectural lighting, moonlight, cats eyes and many other forms of artificial light provide a great opportunity to get out and photograph cityscapes and the urban environment.
The great joy of night-time city photography is that the lighting conditions tend not to vary too much from night to night. You can spend a good few weeks scoping out areas that you think will make interesting compositions and when you return the whole scene is unlikely to have changed too much, if at all. Obviously it’s not really wise to hand around certain city areas at night with bags full of expensive photo geat but you can get a sense of the shot you would like to take using a simple point and shoot or even the camera on your phone. During the planning stages you can get a good idea of any movement you may encounter and decide if the image would be better suited to colour or black and white. For cities lit at night it’s a good idea to carry neutrel density and coloured graduated filters. These will help to keep light levels under control and enable you to use slower shutter speeds. To keep the images pin-sharp use a tripod, cable release and mirror lock-up.
It’s a good time also to get to grips with white balance which is especially important of you are faced with multiple light sources. Don’t try to photograph something out on the location you believe to be white because the likelihood is, that it isn’t. Carrying an 18 per cent grey card is preferable or at the verty least use a sheet of paper. There is the option of adjusting the colour temperature using the camera’s Kelvin scale settings but knowing how to use the white balance properly will produce better and more consistent results.
Use RAW for more control in post production and leave some added frame for cropping later on. Long exposures, evaluative metering, low ISO and an aperture size somewhere between f7 and f11 I have found to produce good results. It’s also a good idea to set some exposure compensation (around +0.33)
Cities also offer the chance to get up to elevated positions and shoot down onto the landscape below. This means taking the sky out of the equation and eliminates the only chaotic element of city photography.
Often photographers are drawn to the countryside or the beach at dawn to make the most of the sunrise and its effects but there are wonderful opportunities to photograph the urban environment at this time of day, lit in golden amber, stark and unpopulated with long shadows. These scenes can be nothing short of spectacular and certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Here, your photography can allow people into a world that very few get to experience with the exception of the odd drunk or bin man. Urban photography can be remarkably frustrating throughout the day and night if you are waiting for a chance to capture some architectural detail without people in the frame.From around 3am as the until 5am the city goes to sleep as the stragglers from the night before fade away and the morning commute has not yet started. The sky begins to lighten before the sunrise and without people and vehicles around you will get the chance to capture the city using longer exposures and with near perfect light conditions.
Of course not everyone will live close to a large city but more suburban areas offer the same opportunities. Landscapes are not just about capturing where we live but can also say something interesting or profound about how we live. Suburban photography says something about the condition of our lives and the early hours of the morning are a great time to look at streets, houses, gardens and roads in their raw unpopulated state and with great lighting as an added bonus.
The golden hours are a great time to take photographs and the countryside and the coast are ideal places to take them but creativity can only truly flourish when we begin to dismiss the idea of a perfect time or perfect place to take photographs. Any new skill you develop or experience you can have with a camera can only be a good thing and learning how to cope with a variety of lighting, framing and environmental conditions will all be experience that will feed into making you a better photographer. If strong light isn’t working for you on the grand scene then go small and concentrate on the detail. In the middle of the hottest day of the year, when the sun is at its strongest, somewhere or something WILL be in its very best light; perhaps not where you are but certainly somewhere. The more you can seek out these places, look at how the light can work in your favour and try things out then there will be very few times when you can think of nowhere to go and get a great image.