I love nature photography. I love the patterns that nature produces, the colors—both vivid and muted, the awe-inspiring vistas of the grand outdoors, and the intimate details of a single flower. Some of my favorite photos are nature shots, with not a human being in site.
Nature photography presents its own challenges, of course. Few of the techniques you learned to create portraits and candid people shots apply to photographing landscapes and other scenery. You need the right lens and the right light to shoot great outdoors photos—as well as a good eye for the beauty of nature.
Finding the Right Light
We start our examination of nature photography by talking about the lighting. Of course we're talking natural light—whatever the sun is producing today. But there's good sunlight and bad sunlight, and which you work with determines the quality of your final photograph.
Shooting at the Golden Hours
As you've learned throughout this book, the worst lighting to work with is direct lighting; it's harsh and unflattering. In terms of nature photography, direct lighting is what you get at midday, with the harsh sunlight shining straight down on you and the landscape. For that reason, you want to avoid shooting from midmorning to midafternoon.
You get much better light when you shoot in the early morning and late afternoon—the hours just after dawn and just before dusk. These are the golden hours for landscape photography.
The golden hours are golden for a number of reasons. First, the color of the sunlight is warmer, which puts a golden hue over the landscape. Second, the light is coming at a low angle, which creates flattering long shadows and reveals the texture of the scenery.
Bottom line, that scene that looks flat and washed out at noon comes alive when photographed in the early morning or late afternoon sun. For the professional landscape photographer, these are the only times of day to shoot.
Shooting Sunrises and Sunsets
Get up a little earlier or keep shooting a little later and you can capture some wonderful sunrise and sunset photos. Obviously, you need to be facing east to capture the scenery at sunrise, and west to capture the landscape at sunset. And you only get about a half hour of shooting, which means you have to be quick about it. But the results are worth the trouble, as you can see in Figure 23.1.
Figure 23.1 A dramatic shot of the setting sun—look at those colors!
Here are some tips to get the most out of sunrise/sunset photography:
- Try to arrive about an hour before sunrise/sunset. This gives you a half hour or so to get everything positioned before the best shots present themselves.
- To capture a sweeping landscape in the rising/setting sun, use a wide-angle lens. To capture the sun itself dominant in the shot, use a telephoto lens.
- Use a tripod to ensure your camera doesn't move while you're shooting.
- Turn off your camera's auto white balance mode. In the auto mode, you're likely to lose some of the warm golden tones of the sun. Instead, switch to the "shade" or "clouds" mode, usually used for cool lighting; this forces your camera to warm up the shot a tad.
- Position the horizon at the bottom rule-of-thirds horizontal line. This puts the sunset and sky in the top two thirds of the frame.
- Experiment with different manual exposures. Overexpose to see more of the foreground and blast the sky brighter; underexpose to capture richer colors from the sunrise/sunset itself.
- Shoot silhouettes against the sun, like the one shown in Figure 23.2. Expose for the sun itself, and all foreground subjects will be underexposed to black. The silhouette can be a person, place, or thing; it can even be the horizon itself.
Figure 23.2 A sailboat silhouetted against the setting sun.
- Don't just shoot the sunrise/sunset; look around you at how other aspects of the landscape are captured in the sun's new or dying rays. Often the best shot will be of some object in the gentle glow of the sun.
- Don't shoot just a single shot; a sunrise or sunset constantly changes over time. You'll capture different colors and different effects over the course of the sun's movement, so shoot a lot of photos to capture all the variety.