Long before it’s time to actually fire the camera, landscape photography requires you to make all kinds of considerations. The more thoughtful you are about a shoot beforehand, the more likely it is you’re going to walk away with images that you really like. Not least among those considerations is the time of year. Colorful fall foliage, icy tree branches, summer sunsets and budding flowers demand different approaches. To that end, UK-based photographer Chris Gatcum’s new book Landscape Photography: The Four Seasons (Focal Press, 2011)—actually four mini-books in one—addresses the unique photographic challenges of each season.
"It’s all about capturing the essence of the season," explains Gatcum, "and to do that, you need to understand the season in terms of its weather, light and color, and then bring your camera skills into play. So the challenge is twofold: to be able to observe accurately what it is that makes the season special—both on a large scale and in terms of the smaller details—and to then know how best to record it with your camera."
Before we delve into Gatcum’s top tips for each season, there are a few things to keep in mind regardless of the time of year.
Do your homework. No matter when or where you’re shooting, Gatcum says there’s no point in going somewhere only to find the light is coming from the wrong direction. This is where web resources such as Google Earth come in handy. You can find out precisely when the sun is rising and setting, and where it will be during any given time of the day.
Be prepared. If you’re heading out early, pack the night before. After forgetting the baseplate for his tripod one too many times, Gatcum made sure to permanently attach quick-release plates to all of his cameras and tripods. You don’t want to get to a place and discover that you’ve forgotten a filter, lens hood or other important tools.
With budding trees and shrubs and grass starting to emerge from the winter thaw, Gatcum describes spring as being typified by early signs of new life on the landscape, making for plenty of detailed close-up shots. "These details can be easily lost in a broad view, so get closer and look to use these signifiers larger in the frame, perhaps to add some interest in the foreground," he suggests.
Since spring weather is known for changing quickly, it’s wise to keep a close eye on the forecast. Dramatic weather changes allow you to capture the same scene in vastly different conditions over just a few hours.
Don’t be afraid to break "the rules," Gatcum says. "Not all landscapes have to be taken using a small aperture, so try shooting ‘wide open’ so that parts of your image fall outside the depth of field and become blurred."
This is probably the perfect season for experimenting with high dynamic range (HDR) imaging because a bright, direct sun will result in deep shadows and bright highlights. Combining multiple exposures into one can create photographs with more punch.
When the sun is low in the sky, it casts long shadows that create a three-dimensional depth. But the time around sunrise and sunset is short-lived, so you need to set up and be ready to shoot ahead of time.
Gatcum acknowledges that, while the high summer sun isn’t ideal for landscape photography, just one small cloud passing through can transform the lighting. "These moments can be fleeting, but ultimately rewarding," he says.
This is the time of year when color rules everything, so Gatcum advises using a polarizing filter because, along with intensifying a blue sky and cutting down reflections on water or glass, it also reduces the reflections caused by early-morning dew or rain on fall foliage. "This will allow you to make the red, orange and gold leaves really pop," explains Gatcum, "especially when they’re contrasting with a deep blue sky."
Experiment with the "wrong" white balance setting on your camera. Setting the camera to its Cloudy or Shade setting on a sunny day will add warmth to your landscapes and exaggerate the fall colors.
As winter approaches, heavy frosts begin to form overnight. Says Gatcum, "This not only transforms the wider landscape, but also provides you with the opportunity to capture some great close-up details."
When shooting snowy landscapes, exposure is a critical factor because just slightly overexposing can mean a loss of highlight detail that’s impossible to recover. Gatcum says that "old-school" methods, such as using a handheld meter or gray card, are good solutions.
Bright snow, flat skies and dark trees are the ideal combination for creating high-contrast, abstract monochrome images, where graphic shapes are more important than identifiable subjects.
Wear plenty of layers so you can shoot for as long as the light allows.
While Gatcum says there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all, year-round camera bag, he starts with the basics: a DSLR, wide and telephoto zooms, and a tripod. From there, he adds a polarizer to enhance the colors of foliage and the sky, and neutral-density graduated filters to balance the foreground and the sky.
In the spring and fall, Gatcum adds a macro lens for picking out details such as buds or frost. Sometimes, when he wants to travel light, he takes just a fast 50mm prime with him. Says Gatcum, "A fixed focal length and wide aperture can encourage you to think a lot more about what you’re doing, rather than relying on a zoom to do the legwork for you."
Chris Gatcum’s book Landscape Photography: Four Seasons is available at Focal Press, focalpress.com, and other book retailers.