The trend in landscape photography has been every more dramatic, epic, and otherworldly lighting conditions. Combine this was some iconic spot and one has the formula for a Facebook post, Tweet or Instagram post to garner lots of likes or maybe even go viral. The euphoria and endorphin rush with capturing a scene under dramatic lighting combined with lots of likes and comments on social media feeds right into one’s ego and can set a photographer on a temporary feel good high.
As with both light and capturing that light with a camera and creating a photograph, these conditions and moments in time are ethereal. Both the photographer and their mostly anonymous social media fan club that liked, shared and retweeted the image, will move on to another image or shiny object.
Make no mistake about it, as a landscape photographer the condition that allows me to convey my message and portray my subjects personality and mood is the lighting. Like most other landscape photographers I strive to photograph my subjects in the most dramatic lighting conditions possible. I study the conditions, topography and subject envisioning the best conditions that will render what I perceive as a reflection of the sense of place of a given location based on what the potential lighting conditions may be. I’ll stare at a landscape and envision what it would look like wrapped in fog or lit with sun and clouds in a manner that flow with jagged peaks or deep canyons.
Even though I strive to photograph locations in dramatic lighting conditions, some of my favorite light on the landscape is still plain old diffused lighting found on cloudy, rainy and snowy days. For me, while this particular lighting is more subtle and quiet, it often allows me to photograph subjects and conditions that would not reflect the sense of place under more dramatic lighting conditions.
Earlier this week I found myself immersed one morning in cloudy overcast lighting conditions on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park. I headed out in Rocky this particular April morning with the hopes that we would get some breaks in the cloud cover at sunrise. Snow had been falling the night before and being as difficult as it is to capture landscape images in Rocky after snow (on account of high winds and bluebird days preceding storms), I’m always going to take my chances hoping the light breaks my way. While I’ve had more than my shares of sunrises and sunsets where this has not worked, many of my most dramatic images have happened on mornings when chances were slim anything dramatic would happen.
Well as so often happens the dramatic lighting did not come this morning. It looked good at times with breaks in the cloud cover but just as sunrise approached snow moved back in over Rocky Mountain National Park’s east side and the lighting on the landscape remained gray and diffused.
I could have packed it up and left the park. Instead I started scanning the list in my head of locations I wanted to photograph under these conditions. That list is as long or longer than the locations I want to photograph in RMNP under prime lighting conditions and sun. Instead of sulking and heading home I was excited and energized by the prospect of being able to shoot locations and subjects that I’d normal pass on.
With this in mind I headed out into Hollowell Park. Hollowell Park is a beautiful location accessed from Bear Lake Road. Great hiking trails emanate out of this small park but I would think for most landscape photographers shooting Rocky, its not high on the ‘to-do’ list as the view of the mountain peaks are not quite as sexy as they are further up Bear Lake Road.
But there is plenty to photograph in Hollowell Park, especially under gray, diffused light. Fresh snow on the landscape and snow covered pines, willows and aspens could keep me and my camera busy and clicking all morning. Even better was I had the entire area to myself that morning kept company only by a pair of ravens, the occasional mountain bluebird and a pack of coyotes.
It get’s tiring hearing many well known photographers rail against the copycat nature that seems perverse in the craft these days. Comp-stomping has become and epidemic and social media only serves to fuel this behavior. That being said, we’ve all been there at one point or another and I can still get just as excited for a dramatic sunrise at Dream Lake as I could twenty plus years ago when I first started photographing Rocky Mountain National Park.
Nowadays I get just as excited for cloudy, gray days to photograph. In fact, with 300 plus sunny days a year here on the Front Range of Colorado, getting these kinds of conditions can be difficult at times. The bottom line is that its important to embrace all kinds of light.
Enjoy and photograph dramatic lighting, but also learn to embrace and enjoy the more subtle lighting when it arrives. It will make you concentrate of both your subject, your composition and your surroundings more. I think you will also find this kind of lighting will allow you to create images that are both more original, and speak to your creative side as much or more than dramatically light iconic subjects.