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Do’s And Don’ts Of Summer Landscape Photography

Five tips to turn your summer vacation into an opportunity for great landscape photographs
Mount Rainier, Washington

It’s official, summer is here! And because summer is the time for vacations, it’s also the time when many landscape photographers are able to ply their trade during time away from work. While a family vacation may not be the ideal time to dedicate yourself to the craft of photography from sunrise to sunset, it’s the best that many of us can hope for. So if you have a chance to photograph landscapes during your travels this summer, consider these five tips to make the best use of your summer landscape photography opportunities.

Don’t Be Afraid Of Bad Weather

Let’s start off being crystal clear: You should absolutely be afraid of bad weather when it’s tornadoes and lightning and hail and such. When there’s weather that warrants fear, trust your instincts and get to safety. What we mean when we say don’t “fear” bad weather is don’t feel like you can only take pictures on sunny days. Overcast and rain don’t mean you’ve missed your photographic chances. In fact, many things in the landscape look better with a bit of weather. Case in point, a lightly overcast day might make focusing on textures an easier task. Or for a mountain vista, photographing the clearing sky after a storm has rolled through can make for great opportunities to incorporate parting clouds, different colors of light, direct sun and diffuse light, as well as a more obviously interesting landscape than an otherwise empty sky. The point is that clouds and rain can be your friend, particularly as they’re arriving and departing. Just because the forecast isn’t ideal doesn’t mean you need to miss out on photography. That is why you shouldn’t be afraid of bad weather.

Photographers’ Ephemeris

Don’t Run From The Midday Sun

Sometimes when you’re turning your family vacation into an opportunity to make interesting landscapes, you might get stuck shooting in the middle of the day. Well, that’s nobody’s ideal time for summer landscape photography, but what are you supposed to do—not make a picture because the light isn’t ideal? Instead, consider preparing for this summer vacation inevitability. Consider bringing filters—more on that in a minute—that will help handle harsh light, such as neutral density and polarizer filters. Consider looking for views that are smaller rather than grand vistas; a close-up landscape may offer opportunities to eliminate the contrast that can otherwise ruin a grand vista. Along those same lines, look for small scenes that occur in the shade of a forest or stand of birch trees—or even just a passing cloud. If you can do anything to soften the harsh midday sun, you stand a better chance of making an image that isn’t ruined by extreme contrast.

Zabriskie point, Death Valley, California

Do Be Prepared

Speaking of extremes, is there anything that ruins a nice day outside faster than a sudden thunderstorm? Such extreme weather can make your day uncomfortable and ruin your equipment, so it’s best to be prepared. If you’ve done your homework and you know changing weather may present an ideal photographic opportunity, you should also plan ahead and dress yourself and your equipment for the occasion. Not only is rain gear essential for you, you’ll also need a waterproof camera cover and a rain cover for the bag. You might even want to consider carrying silica desiccant packets in your bag to fight any humidity that finds its way inside. By keeping gear dry in the first place, you’ll hopefully not need to rely on the desiccants to eliminate moisture, but it’s better safe than sorry. A little rain won’t harm you, of course, but it can certainly ruin your day if your camera stays dry but you get soaked to the bone. Take the time to ensure your comfort with appropriate rain gear for the weather you’re likely to experience.

Do Your Research

Choose ideal vantage points in advance of your journey, and do this based on pictures you find in books, magazines and online. Something as simple as Google Maps street view can be a useful way to find great spots for roadside shots, while online tools such as the Photographers’ Ephemeris offer many more tools to help plan ideal vantage points based on the locations of sunrises and sunsets as well as the trajectory of the moon. Another great location research shortcut is to consult Flickr, the photo-sharing site. Specifically, with Flickr’s photo map you can zoom in to your destination and find geotagged photos made there. It’s a great way to discover where optimal vantage points can be found, whether you’re looking to travel to the most iconic destinations or to avoid them. With a bit of advance planning, you can make the most of your limited time so you’ll know right where to go, what lens you may want to use, and even channel the spirit of Ansel Adams as you pre-visualize the shots you want to make once you’re there. When you won’t have days or even hours to wait for an ideal image, advance research can help you make the most of the limited time you have.  

Flickr Photo Map

Don’t Forget The Filters For Summer Landscape Photography

You may not want to carry a lot of extra equipment on a summer vacation, but there are a few essentials you should be sure to find room for. The good news is these essentials aren’t very large at all. They’re filters for your lenses—popular filters such as neutral density and polarizers—which can turn an otherwise ho-hum scene into a striking landscape.

The neutral density is helpful for when you’ve got too much light and want to make a long exposure—for photographing a waterfall, for instance, or some other subject where motion blur might be beneficial. Even better is a graduated neutral density filter, which is darker on one half and clear on the other, and it can be positioned in front of the lens in such a way as to balance the exposure between a bright sky and a darker landscape. This can be especially useful during the bright and contrasty light of summer days.

The polarizing filter in particular is useful for all matter of outdoor photographic opportunities and for landscapes especially. A circular polarizer helps to eliminate reflections and glare on the surface of water, which allows the color to come through. It actually does the same thing for the light that scatters in the atmosphere, and by so doing it has the effect of deepening blue skies—always a recipe for better summer landscape photography.

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