Those of us whose photographic passion leads us to specialize in landscape work, especially those who participate in it as a hobby, understand just how precious and rare an explosive sunset or sunrise experience can be. Many of us have 9-5 jobs, and may only get a handful of opportunities to get out and chase light. I’ve been in this category for years now and have learned over time to make the most of every sunset and sunrise I’m given, in particular when I realize the light show is unique and dramatic (often associated with a variety of clouds, we’ll get to that). In short, I’ve trained myself through trial and error to bring some extreme greed to the table when it comes to capturing images.
Before we all start getting greedy, some prep work needs to be done. This prep work often plays a critical role, and if you want to bring back the most the landscape and lighting conditions have to offer, it's essential to understand a couple of key concepts.
The Importance of Prep Work
As I’m sure many of you have already realized, clouds have a huge impact on the quality of a sunset or sunrise. (In fact, an article could be written on understanding clouds and light interactions.) Different types of clouds react completely differently when the low morning/evening light starts to hit them. High cirrus clouds often cast dramatic pink and red hues that can literally light up the whole sky, and puffy cumulus clouds can be incredibly dramatic if the light conditions allow for it.
If you really want to improve your landscape work, I would highly suggest you begin to study clouds, even on days when you have no intention of shooting. Watch the sunset, notice what the clouds looked like before the sunset, and begin to take mental notes of which cloud conditions typically do what. Become a student of the sky. Worst case scenario here is you’ll take a few moments to stop, and metaphorically speaking, smell the roses. I know photography has helped me appreciate memorable sunsets, whether or not I have camera in hand. Best case, you’ll begin to fully grasp the interaction of light and form in clouds and use it to put yourself in ideal locations for your photography.
Another key prep work step to get straight up greedy photography style is understanding where the sun is setting or rising. By understanding the location of light, you can predict where the light will be best. Often I’ve found that side-light, light that is at roughly a 90-degree angle to the sunset is, of the highest quality. This side-light allows the photographer to present great detail in an image because the light is casting deep shadow and provides depth. Certainly, side light isn’t always ideal for a specific landscape. By knowing where the sun is going down or coming up, we can pre-plan our images and try to display the elements of a landscape that will be enhanced by the specific type of light that will be cast. Combine this understanding of where the light will be with a solid understanding of clouds, and you’ll have a solid foundation to work the light of any sunrise/sunset wherever your travels take you.
Once we have an idea of where we want to shoot, we need to find compositions. Greed in this step is an absolute must. We never want to walk away from a shooting opportunity wondering if we captured the best composition, so do yourself a favor and avoid this by trying many different approaches and working a scene. I very rarely set up before sunset and stay in one location. For me, one of the sources of my passion for landscape photography comes from the challenge of piecing together a flowing, balanced composition for the viewer. Practice can’t be overstated. When you find your shooting location, remember to get greedy and get that body in motion to find the perfect camera placement. This may be inches from the ground or it may be extending your tripod to its highest position. The only way to get there is by practicing and not settling.
The last bit of advice I’ll give on getting greedy is working all the light a sunset/sunrise has to offer. Experienced shooters know that there is a large window of quality light that extends well before and after the minute the sun actually drops or rises over the horizon. It’s often referred to as the "golden hour." I like to think of it as happy hour. By having a knowledge of what the light and clouds may do, we can begin to plan multiple shots throughout the best light. The key word here is PLAN. If you plan on changing locations, have a solid reason why. Let me show you an example of what I mean through some images I created on a recent road trip.
My wife and I were road tripping to Glacier National Park in Montana from Wyoming’s Teton National Park. It’s a LONG drive and instead of going all the way to GNP, we decided to find a campsite at nearby Flathead Lake. We were able to get camp set up just before sunset, so I thought I’d try to get some images. I looked at the clouds and knew it had potential to be a good sunset, and I also had a general idea of where the sun would go down above the large lake. Armed with these two pieces of info, we drove to an empty parking lot that looked like it may lead to the shoreline of Flathead Lake. The trail descended through thick trees until it opened up to this view:
There were definitely good compositional elements that I felt would be worthwhile setting up and spending valuable sunset minutes. Moving quickly and with purpose, I snapped these images as the sun crested below the horizon. I did not leave until I was 100% confident that I’d recorded the best this scene had to offer.
It seemed the open views from the shoreline a couple hundred feet below would offer more potential for the post sunset colors so I headed down there. The light to the south looked great as it hit a combination of both cirrus and cumulus clouds and things were really lighting up. Through my personal mantra of getting greedy and trial and error, I landed on this comp. By setting up very close to the water for a low angle, I captured this image as the wave crashed along the shore.
Once I was certain I had the image I wanted from there (correct shutter speed for wave, good composition balance) I abandoned the area and moved in the opposite direction up the lake’s edge to some drifted logs that looked like they had potential. This is where it all came together. The light and natural elements worked in great symmetry. After a lot of subtle tweaking and adjusting (and general greediness), I landed on what I consider one of my prize shots of the trip.
With one sunset opportunity and by employing some of the techniques discussed in the article, I was able to create 4-5 images that I regard highly in my portfolio created from a location that was completely new and unexpected. These types of challenges are rewarding, and by not settling, we give ourselves maximum opportunity with the finite amount of time we have in the field to shoot and create. So my advice is to get out there and GET GREEDY!
As always, if you have questions on techniques or concepts discussed above, don’t hesitate to contact me via my site.