This time of year can both awesome and awful as far as landscape photography goes. On one hand you’ve got the amazing autumn colour that can make the most ordinary scene become something incredible, whilst in some parts of the world snow is almost a guarantee, bringing it’s own brand of landscape-transforming properties. Unfortunately, once the leaves have fallen off the trees and until the first snowflakes make an appearance, the weather can be uninspiring to say the least – murky, misty, wet fields can make your images seem pretty manky (hey an alliteration!)
It’s quite easy during November to February to be a tad depressed as a landscaper, especially if you’re craving dramatic lighting and assuming you’re not lucky enough to be in the right place when storm clouds roll in or you just don’t happen to get any notable sunrises/sunsets to speak of, the temptation might be to stay indoors and go into photo ‘hibernation’ until spring shows up. This is a shame though, since there are definitely photo opportunities to be had on those murky days if you know what to look for and how to make the most of the lighting you’re presented with. Some of the tricks you can employ to get around the uninspiring lighting are pretty obvious when you think about it (though so often we find we haven’t thought about it, which is kind of amusing!) Here are some of those simple techniques…
1. Cut out the sky:
Probably the most obvious one (I thought this was a good place to begin) is to consider your framing carefully – which focal length is the best under your restricting conditions? What crop ratio works best? On those occasions where you’re shooting in a wide open space and your sky is that dreary washed-out white that you often find on misty/drizzly days, the last thing you want to do is include a huge area of it in your photos by using an ultra-wide lens. In these cases zooming in a bit tighter than you usually might will cut out all but a sliver of mind-numbing white sky and will help balance your shot, so there aren’t large expanses of distracting empty space. Try using a middle range ‘standard’ focal length of between 30mm and 50mm as this will be inclusive without over doing it as far as empty space goes.
Secondly, you might try cropping at the post processing stage, the advantage of this being that you get to choose your composition whilst looking at a much larger image than the one on the back of your camera, allowing multiple possibilities from each shot you take. Be mindful of the extent of your cropping however; remember that cropping means deleting pixels, so unless you’re working on a raw file in Lightroom etc. where you can revert to the original image, be sure to watch the resolution of your photo. Try a long format like 16:9 for starters or even 6x12 or 6x17 if you have pixels to spare, all of which will limit the amount of visible sky.
2. Use a hard grad filter:
In many cases a soft ND grad filter is enough to hold back detail in your sky, but on dull days, where contrast is low and lighting flat (i.e. boring) you want drama. A 3-stop hard grad (aka. ND8/O.9 ND) will darken an otherwise bright white mess from top to horizon, allowing cloud detail to show through. As always when using a hard-edged filter, look out for objects breaking your horizon line as these will be artificially darkened and look ugly. One thing you might want to consider is applying a grad filter virtually in Photoshop and using this to add a little colour at the same time. The problem with simply darkening a dull sky is that it’s still dull, just…well….darker! Injecting a subtle tint that matches the tone of your scene (i.e. cool hues if you’re shooting a snowy scene) can bring your shot to life. Do this using the Graduated Filter in ACR or Lightroom or applying a colour gradient in mainstream Photoshop.
3. Think outside the box:
The extreme side of ‘enhancing’ the sky might be to replace it completely using layers in Photoshop, but in doing so you’d have to be ultra-careful to choose a replacement that fits well with the lighting you have in the scene. In many cases we’re talking about very flat ambient lighting and so this severely limits your options for possible skies to swap in. A far easier option and arguably more “honest” if you’re of the opinion that Photoshopping = cheating (which I don’t by the way) is to think more creatively about how you use the conditions at hand. Instead of trying to take in the whole landscape, pick out the details which you feel best sum up your location and focus in on those. Dull, overcast lighting might not be great for wide landscapes, but it’s a dream for enhancing colour saturation and creating soft, subtle shadows. For the shot you see here I simply chose to use the cloudy sky as a gigantic softbox and use the diffused light to make an evenly-lit study of this seaweed. This way I turned the less-than-ideal conditions into an asset and came away with shots that wouldn’t have been possible under summer lighting.
4. Think outside the box part 2:
The other option might be to use a bright, featureless sky as a feature itself. Instead of trying every trick under the (non-existent) sun, approach things from the opposite direction and think about how you can use your lighting effectively. Position yourself down close to the ground and try shooting flowers/plants using the sky as your backdrop. If your subject is brightly coloured or very dark, the contrast with the white sky will create a very graphic look and almost appear to have been shot under studio lighting. Try using positive exposure compensation to ensure the background is totally blown-out to maximize this high key style.
5. Go for the extremes – don’t sit in the middle
When we’re presented with a scene containing subtle tones, like a misty landscape, you have to decide if you want to attempt to counteract conditions by creating a ‘false atmosphere’ i.e. using Photoshop to adjust the atmosphere to how you’d like it to be, or work to enhance the ambient conditions. Don’t do both at the same time! Let’s say you’re shooting a woodland scene like the one shown here. There’s mist in the air and it’s clear this will make a good subject. The important thing to note is it’s the low key, low contrast lighting that is the baseline for this whole image, so make sure you don’t obliterate it by bumping up the contrast or saturation at the editing stage, as it’s so often tempting to do. Attempt this and you’ve got a slightly misty-looking image, with colours far more saturated than we’d expect in real life: in essence the worst of both worlds! Go for one look or the other, don’t combine them. Not here…
6. Go abstract
Lastly, if you want to spice things up a bit, try using long exposures to add movement and energy to a lifeless landscape. Winter is actually the perfect time for long exposure photography as the short days mean longer periods of low light, whilst dull, overcast days allow you to use extended shutter speeds in the middle of the day and without seeing bright ‘hotspots’ from dappled sunlight- an exposure nightmare. Even if it’s drizzly, this won’t show up in a 20 second exposure, whilst 30 seconds or more can hide any slight camera movement induced by irritating winds (as seen in the shot of Bamburgh Castle on a wet, stormy morning.)
So there you have it folks, 6 quick tips for squeezing images out of dull, grey wintery days. Just remember the basics: always dress appropriately for low temperatures, keep an eye on the weather if shooting in remote highland/exposed locations and if you venture off, let someone know where you are. Oh and look after your gear too- take a rain sleeve and allow your kit to come to temperature on your return home, to avoid moisture damaging the electronics of your cameras and lenses.
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