A Landscape Photographer’s Dream — The Changing Color of Light

Post on my blog dealing with landscape photography or travel photography are more popular than my posts on sports photography or Motorsports photography and I wonder if landscape and travel photography’s popularity is because you don’t need fast glass or fancy camera equipment to capture good landscape images. If you want to photograph sporting events you need access and often times you also need special lenses and expensive gear, which may be the reason it is not as popular as landscape or travel photography.

Landscape photography seems simple enough, and with the technology available in today’s modern digital cameras I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t find capturing stunning landscape images easy as pie, and yet a quick search on Google for landscape photography will yield literally millions of examples of poorly composed and incorrectly exposed “so-called” landscape photographs.

I will admit that I am still learning things about landscape photography as well as all other types of photography every time I pick up my camera, but some of the landscape photography examples I have seen out there on the internet just baffles me at how bad it is.

I would say one of the first lessons a landscape photographer should study and learn is “how to see the light” and by that I mean going some place and just sitting and watching the sun set. Don’t take your camera, just sit there and watch the light change as the sun goes down and how that makes the world around you appear. Face the sun and watch the colors of the sky change, see how the setting sun reacts with the clouds if there are any and take note of how the light changes. Take some time to face away from the sun and watch as the colors and shadows move across the scene in front of you. You should do the same thing for sunrises as well, but that can require a larger investment in time to get up before the sun rises. Once you can get a sense of how the light changes and what is possible then it’s time to break out the camera and try to make some photographs.

Doug James Photography, Arches National Park

There is a moment in time as the sun is going down where the sky and any clouds in the sky turns all pink and everything around gets this great pink-ish glow, that is when the shutter should be clicking.

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Doug James Photography, Arches National Park

The same shot taken a few minutes earlier and the sky and clouds still have a bit of blue color to them and everything is a bit closer to the yellow, orange color, still very nice and worthy of stunning photographs but the color and the “feel” are very different.

Doug James Photography, Arches National Park

Of course there are times of the day when the lighting just isn’t there yet and you only get a hint of what is to come, it’s those times when you can scout around for sunset and sunrise shooting locations.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

If the sky is overcast and cloudy you can often still make wonderful photographs, you just have to adjust your style. When it’s cloudy or overcast I call it a “big soft box day” because the lighting has no direction or harsh shadows and sometimes will mimic the look of lighting the scene with a large soft box. This is less about the changing color of light and more about seeing the light and working with what is available.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

Everyone knows I love the occasional nature detail shot, and when the lighting is not right I will take the time to look for those detail shots. Part of what makes a shot like this work is the shallow depth of field, or narrow field of focus. The thing about getting shots like this is controlling the field of focus and getting just the right amount of the scene in focus and just the right amount of the scene out of focus.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

It is very rare that you can make nice photographs in full mid-day sun, it can happen but you have to be really selective about what you are shooting. Some subjects can lend themselves to being shot in full sun, but it doesn’t happen very often, and when it does there tends to be some luck involved.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

During the couple of hours just before sunset as you are scouting around looking for locations to shoot you will see glimmers of what could be interesting photographs and can often make some nice images. Most of the time these images will be very nice, but not the take-your-breath-away shots you are looking for when the lighting is just right.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

At times the bright sun and contrast between shadow and light can be interesting, but this isn’t possible at noon, it takes place in the last hour or two just before the sun dips below the horizon and all the colors get magical.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

As the color from the sunset light starts to come up your images can be enhanced by clouds in the sky. Clouds can give your photographs a sense of depth and dimension or they can block the light and ruin your afternoon shooting, sometimes it’s all about getting lucky.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

After my hiking and scouting earlier in the day, I finally settled on a location that would give me several opportunities to make a variety of excellent photographs.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

I settled in and watched the colors go from yellow-orange to pinkish-red and feverishly clicked away at the shutter capturing as many photographs as time would allow.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

I picked a location that would give me several different elements to photograph and as luck would have the sky and all the clouds were working with me and not against me.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

Watching the light change color during the sunset doesn’t always work, some days the sun just drops below the horizon and everything goes into shade and that is all there is, and other days you get lucky and light and clouds work in unison to create a beautiful symphony of color for you to photograph.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

It’s helpful to be standing in front of some stellar subjects when the color of light changes, if you are in your backyard and witness this color and light show, depending on what your backyard looks like it may, or may not be the best location for photography.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

As you can see many of these images are taken of the same location, just different perspectives and as the color of light changes.

Doug James Photography — Arches National Park

The pinks and blues of the final moments of sunset made for some fantastic photographs. I think there are many people out there in the world who think you can just take these kinds of photos in the harsh mid-day light and just “fix them up” in Photoshop or Lightroom, and I don’t believe that is possible.

If you want to capture images like this of the colors of light as it changes, you have to actually sit through a good sunset. It helps if you happen to be at one of the most photogenic places in Southern Utah like Arches National Park when it all happens. Now it’s time for you to head out there and learn to watch the changing colors of the light.

5 thoughts on “A Landscape Photographer’s Dream — The Changing Color of Light

    • I’m not sure I totally agree with you on these points Charis, you can schedule a landscape shoot and if mother nature or the weather doesn’t want to work with your schedule it is up to the you, the photographer to “find the shot.”

      I will have an upcoming post where I talk about this and show examples so stay tuned if you dare.

      I’ve seen some of your photographs, you and I both know that the skill and creativity you take with you are what allow you to “find the shot” when the light doesn’t cooperate. That is the skill and creativity part the you bring to the table.

    • Thank you, they are actually petrified sand dunes, or at least that is how most guide books describe them. So, you are right on as far as the sandcastles thing goes.

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