This article first appeared in Pix magazine early in 2010.
If you are a landscape photography enthusiast then you have probably been in the same boat as me where you are visiting a great place and have limited evenings and mornings to capture as many compositions as you can from that restricted time. What often happens is that when golden light hits we can find ourselves so frantic trying to capture the light that we tend to stay in one spot and even though we capture a good deal of shots they are pretty much all the same. To get a truly good variety of different compositions and subject matter in your landscapes a little planning is required and you will find a specific area can go along way in that short time.
The images included in this article are all from a short 3 day visit I had to Hole-in-the-wall along the Wild Coast. Three days unfortunately is not much time in terms of photographing an area of such diversity especially if one aims to photograph it under golden light. The idea behind this article is to hopefully give a little insight into ones approach to a landscape shoot and end up with a better variety of strong compositions from a short visit.
One of the biggest aspects to overcome is arriving when the light hits and then deciding what you are going to do. That’s what happened to the prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial and we know how that ended. We get overwhelmed by the great light that we focus on capturing it and opting for a few safe simple images so we can capture the light instead of photographing the surrounding subject matter. We all want spectacular light but it should never be the subject of the image. It should just enhance the overall subject matter. There will always be another sunset for you to capture but we don’t get to wake up often in amazing places.
Good planning before light is a three step process and if they are done properly the quality of your shots will improve. Unfortunately this involves being in the area long before good light is due but if you are an enthusiast and you are if you are reading this magazine then you understand that effort is necessary.
The first step is reconnaissance. Scouting good locations is as important as composing the final take. I was rather lucky that I was staying with a fellow enthusiast who showed me two great areas but if you don’t have anyone you have to do this alone. He showed me a beach with cliffs and coffee bean rocks and then the Hole-in-the-wall area with rolling hills, a lagoon and the ‘Hole’. When scouting take note of where the sun rises and sets as when tides are if it is a beach. This will help you plan your shoots according to which location and when. For the coffee bean beach with cliffs it was a no brainier, the sun rises over the sea and illuminated the cliffs. If I was here at sunset the light would have been blocked by the beach and that was no good. So it was a definite sunrise shoot.
My other location was more open and had advantages for both morning and evening shoots so I opted to have at least one sunrise and one sunset.
Once your location is planned the next step is to conceptualize what type of subject matter you want to capture. This seems simple but what I really mean by this is think about what you need from the area, for instance if you want a just simple seascape or an image that has elements from the entire area, Maybe you want flowers in the foreground or interesting rocks. To elaborate I will use an example. On this shoot I did not just want photos of separate subject matter but wanted to combine as many elements as I could compose without it being too messy to best show off what the area is about and so the viewer could get a good idea of the place. So I scrambled the hills and found a view that looked over ‘Hole’ and had flowering aloes upfront.
Once you have thought about what type of composition you are looking for it makes looking for potential shots much easier. The final step is be at your location at least an hour before you are press your first shutter if it’s a sunset. For a morning shoot go there the day before. The easiest is to have a composition card that you carry around with you as you start looking for your subject matter. When you find the elements and potential compositions refine them by practice composing through your viewfinder. Once you have what you want think about what the light is going to do. An example is if there are light clouds there is a chance that there will be very dramatic colour after sunset and this will affect the outcome when you take the exposure. If you want seascape check the water and determine if you want long exposures or shorter ones. The idea is to be mindful of what light you want for what compositions and exposure. Then mark that spot and move on to the next composition. This will help you plan a route where you move from spot to spot for getting a good variety of photos as the light changes and you will end up with less recycle bin images.
So recon, think and plan and you will see an improvement in your landscapes.