Working with the Landscape in Front of You

Tips & Techniques

I just returned from a long trip to Yosemite, partly to test some lenses for upcoming reviews, and partly to unwind. Although I had a great time out there, the conditions for “classic” landscape photography left something to be desired: very few clouds or fall colors anywhere.

It’s often true in landscape photography that bad weather makes for good photos. On this trip – unfortunately – the weather was good the whole time! I woke up early for all sixteen sunrises, and only one of them had more than the slightest wisp of clouds overhead. Although sunset was usually better, some of my favorite compositions didn’t have the right direction of light at sunset.

My backup plan was also a no-go. I chose to visit Yosemite in autumn instead of another season in hopes of seeing the fall color, which is one of my favorite subjects. Even simple “intimate landscapes” of yellow leaves on the ground can be beautiful, and you can easily photograph them on a sunny day. However, the extreme drought conditions this year caused most leaves to turn from green to brown with nothing in between. So, the fall colors weren’t so good either.

When I started the trip, I didn’t give these conditions much thought. I figured the fall colors would improve as the trip went on, and I couldn’t complain about a couple of sunny sunrises in a row. As the days passed, I grew increasingly disappointed in the conditions. It’s frustrating to wake up early, set up a carefully scouted composition, and leave without a photo because the sky didn’t cooperate (for the fifth time in a row).

After several days of this, I realized that I had been approaching it all wrong. Simply put, I had been trying to fight the landscape! Sure, there was a good image in my head, but the conditions simply weren’t going to create it. Rather than fixating on the photo anyway, I needed to change plans.

After some thought, I wrote a list of subjects that I knew could still be good possibilities during the trip:

  1. Backlit trees in the morning and afternoon
  2. Close-ups of frosty plants shortly before sunrise
  3. Milky Way and nighttime photography
  4. Post-sunset clouds over the compositions that I had scouted for sunrise
  5. Sunset outside Yosemite Valley

The last two depended on getting some good sunsets, but the first three could be done even on the bluest of blue-sky days.

The following morning, I set out to work with the landscape in front of me instead of fighting it. I caught the first bus to Mariposa Grove in the morning and stayed all day to photograph redwood trees. It was still a sunny day, but I found plenty of compositions – especially backlit in the late afternoon – that made good use of the light.

Nikon Z 24-120mm f4 S Sample Image 35 Small Pine Tree Backlit Yosemite
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 120mm, ISO 64, 1/30, f/8.0
Nikon Z 24-120mm f4 S Sample Image 36 Sunlight in Mariposa Grove
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 120mm, ISO 64, 1/40, f/4.0
Nikon Z 24-120mm f4 S Sample Image 33 Black and White Two Redwood Trees
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 120mm, ISO 64, 1/60, f/4.0

A few days later, weather conditions throughout the day were gradually building. Blue sky turned to clouds, which turned dark and eventually became a storm. All afternoon, I stood at one of my pre-scouted sunset compositions next to the Merced River, hoping for a moment of good light as the rain fell on me. (I might as well have jumped into the river considering how soaked I got.)

That day, I had left the Z7 in the car and carried my large-format film camera instead. I’m still waiting to get the film back, but I expect it to look something like this, which I took on my phone:

Yosemite El Capitan Sunset Phone Photo
iPhone 11 Pro Max @ 1.54mm, ISO 100, 1/122, f/2.4

Once I made it back to my car after sunset, the clouds were still beautiful, though very dark. I drove to one of the locations I had scouted beforehand and took some long exposures with my Z7 and the lenses I was testing.

Yosemite Valley After Sunset
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 64, 30 seconds, f/5.6

I did more photography in the intervening days, including some Milky Way work, but the real treat came a few days later. At one of Yosemite Valley’s many meadows, I found a trail with beautiful, backlit trees at sunrise.

Once again, I think that my best photos of those trees are on film, which I should get back in about a week. But this was the most rewarding sunrise of the trip so far – and the subject looked its best under bare sunlight, which was perfect.

Yosemite Backlit Tree Sunrise
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 40mm f/2 @ 40mm, ISO 64, 1/60, f/6.3

I returned to this spot the next morning, and it was by accident (on my way walking back to the car after sunrise) that I found a sixth point to add to my list:

  1. Sunbeams catching the smoke and dust in the air

The air in Yosemite was hazy throughout my trip, but even visiting Mariposa Grove several days in a row when it opened at 8AM, I never saw any great sunbeams. Now, though, the remnants of sunbeams in one of the Valley’s forests were pretty striking even at 11AM. I went back the following morning and found some beautiful subjects to work with.

Sunbeams through the trees

It wasn’t the grand landscape I had expected to photograph during my trip; it’s a more intimate composition. Maybe in winter or spring, I can go back and capture some of my pre-scouted compositions with better light and clouds. But I wasn’t disappointed in the results. In fact, now that I had started working with the scene in front of me, I was finally satisfied with the trip.

That process – “working with the scene” – is important in other areas of creative photography, too. I talk all the time about emotional messages in photography. My usual refrain is that you can influence a photo’s emotions with your decisions in the field – say, making a picture feel more peaceful by balancing your composition – and steer the photo toward the mood you want.

But what also matters is the mood of the scene in front of you. Maybe you want a dramatic photo, but the landscape is throwing you gentle, pastel colors. Or you want to take a calm photo of a winter landscape, but it’s a whirling blizzard outside. My recommendation? Cast off your initial goals, and go where the scene takes you. Don’t fight the landscape. Work with it instead.

Nikon Z 24-120mm f4 S Sample Image 39 Colorful Redwood Trees Yosemite
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-120mm f/4 S @ 120mm, ISO 400, 1/250, f/4.0

I always internalize new things like that during landscape photography trips, no matter how many times I go out. Even though I took relatively few “classic” landscape photos at Yosemite and ended up with a bunch of pictures of trees, I couldn’t be happier. I only wish I had figured it out sooner and taken more.

In any case, I hope this article gave you some thoughts about the scouting and composition processes in photography. As always, let me know below if you have any questions.

Now that I’m back from my trip, I’m giving a free talk on composition in landscape photography for the Rising Tide Photography Summit, which my friend Angel McNall is hosting. My presentation is in a couple of days. You can join the summit here.

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