Most of my photography is done while traveling and thus I do a lot of landscape work. And one of the hardest things about landscape photography (other than, sometimes, the actual process of getting to the destination itself) is the fact that you have so little control over the subject. Things like the weather can have a huge impact, obviously – blue skies can’t be prearranged ahead of time. But something that you can at least plan for, if not control, is the lighting. Yes, every single day you’ve got that big light-source in the sky behaving in a very predictable fashion. So use that knowledge!
An excellent case in point comes from my recent trip to Venezuela and a visit to Angel Falls. I’ve already talked about this on the This Week in Photography podcast but because photo discussions often benefit from actual, um, photos, I wanted to go ahead and do a quick blog post about it.
Getting to the falls isn’t trivial .Start with a puddle-jumper plane from Caracas to a small town in the middle of nowhere that has no roads leading to it – everything comes in via plane. Then several hours upriver in a very uncomfortable wooden canoe equipped with an outboard motor. And then about an hour’s trek through the jungle. But eventually we made it to a nice overlook of the falls, arriving sometime in the late afternoon.
And the sight was indeed spectacular and massive and awe-inspiring – the tallest waterfall in the world! Took several photos of course and overall they were… fine. Not particularly special other than the subject itself but certainly if that’s the best I’d gotten I would have been perfectly happy with it all. Here’s one such shot from that afternoon:
As you can see, the sky is mostly overcast and thus the lighting was pretty flat but that’s just the way it works sometimes. And so we hiked back to where we would spend the night – a tin-roofed, open-air structure with a bunch of hammocks that we could curl into as the evening’s thunderstorm rolled in.
But ah, it was the next morning when the magic happened. I woke just around dawn – feeling a bit chilly and not particularly inclined to get out from the cozy blanket that I was wrapped in. Still, I could see that the sky was reasonably clear and thus that morning sun might actually be doing something useful for me.
Everybody else in our group was still asleep so I moved as quietly as possible when pulling out my camera and pulling on my shoes and heading down the path to a decent lookout point I’d scouted out the night before. And as I pushed through the foliage and got to the edge of the river where the view of the falls was unblocked, I could see that getting out of bed (or out of hammock, as the case may be) had been a very good decision indeed. The morning light was hitting the side of the tepui at the perfect angle, the waterfall was highlighted almost as if it had a spotlight on it, and the clouds were interesting and well-placed. I fired off a few different shots, playing with the framing, as more clouds started to move in. Of all those shots, the one shown at the top of this post is the one that really nailed it for me. (click here if you want to get to a full-sized version)
So there you have it – the difference between mid-afternoon light and what you can get during the magic hours at dusk and dawn. Timing, as they say, is everything.
As it turned out my morning timing was about as good as it could get. Looking at the timestamp on the photos, the shot above was taken at 6:15:04 am. This next shot was taken at 6:20:17.
If you look closely you can see that somewhere behind the cloud that has moved between me and the waterfall there is still a nice spot of light on the cliff-face but from this location that’s not doing me much good. Quite a difference in a matter of only 5 minutes and 13 seconds!