Yes, You Can Take Great Nature Photos. Here's How
There's nothing quite as invigorating, physically and psychologically, as time spent amidst beautiful landscapes — especially when they're free of crowds and at their aesthetic best in the soft light of day's beginning or end. The best way to preserve memories of your experiences is by taking a camera with you and capturing these scenes for posterity.
Each of the following images illustrates a key landscape photography concept — or two. Understanding and implementing these ideas will help you capture and preserve the essence of the scenes you visit at sunrise and sunset.
1. Avoid mergers
Strolling at dawn on Myers Beach at Pistol River State Park on the south Oregon coast, I had a stretch of sand entirely to myself for miles as the light slowly came up. The only sounds were the muffled roar of the surf at low tide and the occasional cries of the seagulls.
PRO TIP: Take care to avoid mergers — the convergence of lines that represent different elements in the scene — to the extent possible. Doing so helps make the disparate elements stand out in a two dimensional medium. Note that the foreground rock avoids the horizon line and the lower edge of the reflection in the wet sand. This was done while also utilizing a camera position that allowed the reflection of the moon to appear in the pool of water. By paying attention to small details like these, you can make the most of your compositions.
2. Scout out your locations beforehand
In my experience there is nothing as inspiring and enthralling as meandering through a meadow, with the light becoming increasingly sublime with every passing minute. That's what it was like at sunset at the Kootenay Plains, in the eastern front range of the Canadian Rockies in Alberta.
PRO TIP: Whenever possible, scout your sunrise/sunset location thoroughly in advance. When the time comes, the light will be changing with each passing second, and the last thing you'll want to be doing is scrambling around looking for a composition when the light show is unfolding. Head out with foreknowledge of a place you can set up in advance and wait for the light to reach a figurative crescendo.
3. Keep an eye on exposure
Imagine wading slowly into a seemingly endless sea of waist-high prairie plants before dawn, the stalks soaked with dew, without so much as a breath of wind. That's what I did at Nachusa Grasslands Preserve in northwest Illinois one summer morning as the sun — still below the horizon — lit up a cloud formation in the eastern sky.
PRO TIP: Keep a close eye on exposure. The sky is almost always significantly brighter than the land and this is particularly true at sunrise and sunset. Consider using a graduated neutral density filter, blended exposure or high dynamic range technique to balance the exposure of the scene. The image above is a careful blend, managed in the “digital darkroom,” of five bracketed-exposure frames.
4. Always remain mindful of your surroundings
Sometimes, when stunning organic beauty and surreal quiet arrive unexpectedly, a zen-like experience occurs. There wasn't a sound to be heard as I trudged through the trackless dunes of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico after sunset on a clear, windless evening. I stood there drinking it in for several minutes, nearly forgetting to set up my equipment and capture the moment.
PRO TIP: When the light is at its best, remember to look over your shoulder. The above image was made facing east—180 degrees away from the sunset sky. Sometimes the best image is in the direction directly opposed to the spot where the highest level of drama is expected.