Keep calm and carry on whatever the weather to capture a wider variety of landscape shots for your portfolio with these top tips from photographer James Abbott
As landscape photographers, most of us would prefer ideal shooting conditions the majority of the time. Sometimes we’re lucky and everything falls into place, but most of the time we experience less than favourable conditions, unfortunately. So, rather than resigning the camera to the kit bag and heading home with an empty memory card, there’s almost always a technique or approach that can be used to make the best out of the situation.
"Sometimes we’re lucky and everything falls into place, but most of the time we experience less than favourable conditions, unfortunately."
Think of all the techniques you know as a toolbox from which you can find the right tool for the job at hand. Filters, lenses and other accessories can also fall into this category of tools at your disposal; you probably know how to calculate correct exposures when you shoot with a 10-stop ND filter and have a flawless technique, but if you don’t have the filter with you, you can’t shoot long exposures.
This doesn’t mean you have to always carry everything but the kitchen sink, but think about the possibilities of any landscape shoot and carry the minimum amount of kit that will allow you to shoot the techniques that could transform a dull or tricky situation. So, go with the flow, embrace the conditions you experience and be prepared to shoot a variety of techniques because you may capture more unique images than you expected.
What’s more, image buyers don’t always need images of bright and colourful sunrises and sunsets; they may be looking for something completely different so shooting in the widest range of conditions will increase the sales potential of your stock images. Quality, as always, remains important, and choosing the right technique or approach to the conditions will help you to capture the best shots possible to grow your portfolio.
Some days are simply dark and grey but as long as there’s definition in the cloud, you can still capture interesting ultra-moody images. Plus, one of the great things about overcast days where there’s detail in the cloud is that you can shoot throughout the day, rather than being confined to the bookends of the day – sunrise and sunset.
This seascape below was taken at sunrise on a dark and dingy morning where there was just the slightest glimmer of colour in the ominous sky. The tide was moving out, so by releasing the shutter as each wave receded, the 8-second exposure captured the highlights in the water as streaks that contrast against the dark sky and rocks.
Days where the sky is a featureless sheet of grey are up there with clear blue skies and bright sunlight when it comes to undesirability for landscape photographers. Both can work well for long exposures, as long as shadows on bright days aren’t problematic. Grey days generally don’t suffer from shadows, and while the sky is boring its plainness provides a clean backdrop for minimalist long exposures that make the focal point appear more prominent, and that was the aim of this 5-minute exposure.
Applying Linear Gradients to the top and bottom of the image in Lightroom further focused attention on the focal points while drawing attention away from plainer parts of the scene – a simple device that works well when applied with care.
Learn more about how to photograph minimalist scenes with our dedicated guide on Focus.
Overcast can be great
Overcast days may not always be the most inspiring for wider scenic shots, but they’re perfect for waterfalls and streams because of soft even light. These locations can suffer from blown highlights at the best of times, but in sunny conditions, they’re almost guaranteed alongside uneven lighting and harsh shadows.
This shot below was taken on an overcast day with just a polariser to reduce surface glare on the water and to saturate the greens in the scene. A soft 4-stop ND grad was also used to balance the brighter upper area of the scene with the darker foreground. Exposure was set to ISO 100, 1 second at f/13 to maintain texture in the blurred water.
Focus on details
When the light isn’t right for wider shots, or simply that the seasonal conditions aren’t quite right, focusing on more intimate areas of the scene can produce interesting images. This long exposure below of a swirl pool was taken during an autumn visit to some woodland with a stream running through it. Unfortunately, many of the autumnal leaves had fallen from the trees so focusing more on details provided an alternative way to capture the location.
To capture a small amount of dynamic motion, a polariser was fitted to the lens to reduce glare on the water and reduce light entering the lens. And with the aperture set to f/16, it was possible to achieve a five-second exposure.
Shoot wide open
Many landscapes require a large depth-of-field, but there are several times where shooting with the aperture set to the maximum aperture can produce great results; shooting astrophotography and blurring the foreground interest to create a sense of depth are two of the more common situations where this works well, but you can also use a shallow depth-of-field to create separation between a prominent subject and its background. This woodland shot was taken on a misty morning after the mist began to clear leaving the background cluttered. Shooting with a focal length of 200mm at f/2.8 helps to isolate the tree and make it pop out from the background.
Go with the flow
This image probably looks like it was shot as intended because of the colourful sky, but it’s the result of circumstance; the beach features zigzag groynes that make excellent foreground interest but these had been completely covered by sand thanks to winter storm surges. So, when the sky was bathed in colour at sunrise, the only option was to make the sky the main subject of the image with the groyne marker acting as a focal point to anchor the composition. ISO was set to 50 and a 3-stop ND filter helped to lengthen exposure to 25 seconds, while a 3-stop reverse ND grad was used to maintain sky detail.
Use a Big Stopper
10-stop ND filters are the perfect tool for lengthening exposures to smooth water and capture clouds as long streaks in the sky. They’re also great for minimalist landscapes where a strong focal point acts as a solid visual anchor while the moving elements around it such as water and clouds are blurred. Big Stoppers can be used in any lighting conditions including bright sunshine, golden hour and overcast conditions, so it’s always worth carrying one with you in case you need it.
Carry an umbrella
Always carry an umbrella when wet weather is forecast so you can set up and shoot even when it’s raining. Landscape photography is often a waiting game, holding on for the briefest break of light, so having your camera on the tripod with filters attached to the lens means you’re ready to shoot in an instant. An alternative is to use a camera rain cover and have the lens hood fitted to help keep rain away from the front lens element, but this means drop-in filters can’t be used so shooting HDR is a great option in this situation.
Think in black & white
Photographers are sometimes accused of using black and white to mask poor light or an inability to apply the correct white balance to neutralise colour casts. While this is true in some cases, black and white is a great option for overcast days where there’s texture in the sky because the approach accentuates texture, shape and form in landscapes. A great trick when purposefully shooting black and white is to set the (JPEG) colour profile to black and white even when shooting in Raw. Doing this displays images on the LCD in black and white so you can see how your images could look before processing them in mono.
Use a polariser
Polarisers are the most versatile filters available, and one that cannot be replicated effectively in post-processing. They’re incredibly useful for any landscape image because they can be used to deepen blue skies, remove glare and reflections from shiny surfaces such as water, they can increase saturation and can even be used as a low strength ND filter since they reduce exposure by 1-1.5 stops. Plus, on bright sunny days, they can be used to reduce the harshness of light on subjects and surfaces.
Editing can lift shots
Editing should never be used to remedy poor shooting technique, people will be able to identify it, but it can be used to dramatically improve images taken in flat light. Techniques such as dodging and burning using the local adjustment/masking tools in Lightroom, or the dodge, burn and sponge tools in Photoshop are invaluable. Dodging and burning is perfect for adding contrast to black & white images, can reveal and recover detail and can also be used to adjust or balance the lighting in landscapes to make them more dramatic and interesting.
James is a freelance photographer and journalist producing content for photography magazines and websites and is a former deputy editor of Practical Photography magazine. He’s also the author of The Digital Darkroom: The Definitive Guide to Photo Editing.View all articles