Despite what you may think, Summer is not a popular time for Landscape Photographers to go out and take pictures. That makes no sense, surely good weather is…well, good?! It does depend on the photographer, but generally no. Unfortunately, Summer months have developed a bad rep in the world of outdoor photography.
There are specific times of the day/year when photographers prefer to shoot at specific locations or engage in certain types of outdoor photography. For example, soft light or mist can be found early in the morning. Sunsets may provide stunningly colourful and emotionally charged skies. Autumn is perfect for woodland photography due to the changing colours. Blue hour can make interesting long exposures. Even rain and storms can produce dramatic skies and atmospheric scenes.
So, why is summertime pushed to the side? More specifically, those bright, hot, and sunny days? Firstly, if you want to capture those golden mornings you will have to get up very early. In the UK, the sun can rise as early as 5am. Your travel and setup time could take a few hours depending on your location. As lazy as this sounds; what an effort. On a sunny day, the light is generally extremely direct and harsh. Photographers either find it difficult to capture images they enjoy under those conditions or are simply uninterested in doing so. In all honesty, it can be a real drag shooting under a cloudless blue sky. The sunsets can be lacklustre and elements such as clouds can provide additional layers of depth to an image. We want our images to be as captivating as possible. In other types of photography such as wildlife and macro, harsh sunlight and clear blue skies are not problematic.
I, personally, am not fond of highly contrasted images with warm tones. (In regard to my own photography) So, naturally I avoid shooting at midday or in conditions of extreme brightness for my landscape work. Soft and cooler tones appeal to me more. And this is what it comes down to, what the photographer wishes to capture with their camera. A lot of thought can go into an image. Why do I like this scene, does it make an interesting photograph, what story does it tell? There are landscape photographers out there who don’t mind harsh light or sunny conditions. Perhaps they are the better photographers because they are not limiting themselves weather wise. From what I have seen, a large majority of photographers simply avoid or struggle through summer photography.
There are a whole bunch of photography rules. If you start to learn how to take images you will come across them time and time again. For example, rules about how to ‘correctly’ compose an image. It’s an ongoing debate as to when and if photographers should stick by these rules or when they should be broken. I believe rules are there to be broken and great art can be created by stepping outside of the box. As photographers, did we get caught up in some myth that harsh condition makes ugly pictures?
There is no such thing as bad light or bad conditions. However, it may be that the light is not appropriate for your subject matter. Imagine yourself on top of a mountain on a cloudy day, overlooking hills and fields in the distance. It is overcast and dull. Nothing stands out. Consider the same location during a sunny day. The sun filters through the clouds, catching the hilltops and travelling across the fields. There is a peak in shot that is illuminated by sun rays. You now have colour, contrast, and subject separation. A sunny day in a forest will make your surroundings look contrasted, making it more challenging in pulling everything apart to spot subject matter.
Last week I visited Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire and swapped the rain for sunshine. Yes, that exact sunshine I’ve been telling you photographers don’t generally enjoy. It was one of those hazy sunshine’s that strips the horizon of any detail. Unless I only wanted to capture white haze and blue skies, I wasn't going to get wide landscape shots. I was still determined to successfully accomplish some summer photography, so I cracked on regardless.
Below are a few things that I did to make it easier for myself:
1: Use a Circular Polarizing Filter.
A circular polarizing filter is a darkened piece of glass that attaches to the end of your lens. (Think sunglasses for your camera) It naturally darkens the scene slightly, but this is merely a side effect. These filters reduce reflections, haze, and glare by filtering out light that has become polarized due to reflections from a non-metallic surface. Reducing these certain types of light can enhance your photographs. For example, by removing the glare from water's surface, the camera can capture what is underneath. (You know…rocks and…. things.) You want to draw some contrast and detail from the sky on a hazy day. I used my polarizing filter for the latter.
2: Avoid the sky.
This wasn't the case with every image, but often, the sky was a smaller and lesser significant portion of my image. Crickley Hill is home to many walking trails going in all kinds of directions. I decided to use these pathways alongside prominent trees and hillsides to fill my frame and draw little attention to the hazy conditions as much as possible.
One exception is this image of a house perched atop a hill. The position of the hazy landscape behind is intentional. It draws attention to the house as the main subject and suggests height and distance.
3: Go hand-held.
To begin with I did set up my tripod, but decided it wasn’t worth the hassle very quickly. As the hillsides were uneven, getting it into position was a nightmare. I could have taken multiple images in the time I had adjusted my tripod legs, so my camera was level. It was warm and the less time I spent in the sun was better for my skin. Hand-held also meant I was more likely to test out potential compositions and try different things. Unfortunately, when you’ve got to get the tripod out, unless the scene before you is worthy of landscape photographer of the year award, it’s common to decide it probably isn’t worth the effort. Yes, sometimes we can be lazy.
Being bright and sunny, a hand-held technique was easy enough. (Even with a Circular polarizing filter on my lens) A fast shutter speed was possible because there was plenty of light to go around.
4: Check settings often.
My polarizing filter needed to be adjusted every time I switched scenes, or the light changed. Towards the second half of my shoot more clouds began to pass overhead. As they blocked out the sun it would cast very dark shadows on the landscape. I would have ended up with underexposed images if I had kept using the same settings as when the sun was brighter and less obscured. I used apertures around f/8 – f/16, taking the opportunity to play with higher f numbers that I don’t use all the time. This would be altered depending on the subject or subjects I was capturing. When the clouds took out some of the natural light and I didn’t want to alter my aperture or shutter speed, I could instead bump up my ISO to allow for some extra light to enter. It was a lot to think about at the time, however getting my exposure as perfect as possible made post-processing easier.
5: Shoot in RAW.
I generally use RAW files instead of JPEGs. One benefit to shooting in RAW is that in post processing I can lift any dramatic shadows and recover any overblown highlights. (Which can accidentally happen in harsh light.) I wouldn’t lose any detail in those areas. In contrasted scenes you cannot expose for the highlights and shadows at the same time. You can take two or more different exposures and squash them together in editing software or only expose for the highlights and accept you will need to lift the shadows in photoshop. It’s best to expose for the highlights as they are more difficult to recover than shadows.
6: Back to the sun.
By standing with your back to the sun, the subject in front of you will be well well-lit and you will not become blinded by looking into the sun. Depending on your subject, it can be interesting to shoot directly into the sun. You can create sun flares and sun stars. This is a personal and creative preference. As I was not aiming for those elements, keeping my back to the sun meant I did not have to squint uncomfortably while shooting. Instead of relying on my LCD screen for framing, (which wonderfully reflects the bright sun) I stuck to the viewfinder on the camera for ease of use.
The summer photography experience at Crickley Hill was not a total failure, but neither did I come away with my best work. I stepped out of my comfort zone to try out some different conditions. While scouting I did notice quite a few nice composition ideas that I can try in the future. There is nothing wrong with midday light and contrasted images, in fact I am somewhat inspired by the black and white image I captured. I think it could be interesting to experiment with the contrast between hillsides cast in dark shadows and bright sun beating down on others. However, I see Crickley Hill being much more impressive during a colourful sunset with some wide-angle images, or potentially even soft mist early morning. In fact, now that I’m thinking about it, it would be a fantastic place to watch a storm roll by!
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