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The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

Manuel Becker Manuel Becker in Tips & Tricks
29.02.2016 · 6 min read
Photo by Manuel Becker

One question that I often thought about when I first started out was: Why do other landscape photographers always have these amazing sunsets with a burning sky, the clouds are going crazy and there is a huge thunder storm coming from the left with stunning flashes everywhere?

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating right now, but that’s how I often feel while looking at all these amazing images on platforms like this one or on 500px.

After talking to so many photographers, the answer seems pretty simple: Other photographers aren’t more lucky than you or me, they just manage to be at the right spot at the right time. They are even a few hours earlier in order to compose the best possible shot, because you won’t have the time to focus on this amazing sunset while running around to find the perfect position. And these photographers come back - sometimes every day for weeks - until they got these breathtaking clouds they were waiting for.

To be honest I never thought about this... going back to 1 spot for so many times just seemed odd to me, because usually I just tried to get the best result out of the photos I took. If the sunset was decent and the result was good, I was fine with that and you are maybe too, but the top landscape photographers are not.

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

Jubelpark, Brussels - This photo is a good example for an amazing spot with boring weather conditions that result in a decent but definitely not in a top shot.

You made the shot and went to this beautiful spot to take a picture of an amazing skyline... but the sky is just boring. Well, that sucks, but that’s also a part of landscape photography. You work under very unstable and mostly unchangeable conditions. The only thing you can do is to get the best possible shot while you're there, and come back when the conditions are better.

Otherwise it's like leaving your painting unfinished, because there are parts that just don’t add anything to your final composition.

I once heard a very inspiring talk from one of my most favorite photographers Elia Locardi, who talked about how often he is coming back to one place until he captured the scene in a way he was thinking of it. That speech definitely made a dent for me, because during this time I was totally focused on how I could improve by doing better postwork or how to take a better photo. My "How can I get better photos?" suddenly changed into "When can I get better photos?".

Although you need a little bit of luck for sure to get the very best results, there are nonetheless factors beside these unchangeable things that you can and should consider while planing your next photography trip.

Important factors

Season

Some places are most beautiful during spring... others just appeal on snowy winter days. That’s nothing new, but it's still an important factor for landscape photographers.

You should also think about the number of people in your image. Depending on the season, your chances are better that there are less people at places you would like to photograph. Vacation destinations are usually much easier to shot outside the vacation season, while other places may be a better choice during the summertime, because that’s the time when the sun rises very early and most of the people are still sleeping.

Think about the right season and time when your desired spot is usually uncomfortable to visit for other people – that’s probably your best available time slot!

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

Bluebell forest Hallerbos near Brussels

Time

The right timing always depends on the spot you want to shoot and where the sun is rising or setting at this place. In my opinion, this usually results in two or maybe even just one time slot per day when you should be at any particular spot: during sunrise or during sunset.

There are always exceptions to the rule, but that's probably the best available light you can get for your photos. Both events consist of 3 different parts: the golden hour, the sunrise/sunset itself and the blue hour. The sunset, for example, starts with the golden hour and, after the sunset itself, you still have the blue hour you should use until the sky gets black.

Afterwards the sky is usually too dark, resulting in a huge black part of your image with nearly zero details. Unless you are at this spot to shoot the stars, this is when you normally stop shooting.

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

Sunset at Kennedy Bridge, Bonn

Weather

The weather isn't particularly predictable for huge periods of time, but you can use the weather forecast a few hours before your trip to choose the right spot for that day.
Learn how to read the weather radar and watch out for cloud fronts during sunrise or sunset and where they are coming from.

Your results will look boring with a huge grey cloud ceiling or without any clouds in the sky at all. That’s why sunshine and "good weather" doesn’t equally mean perfect weather for photography. Often the best timings for dramatic clouds or amazing sunsets are just before or after a storm.

Another important stylistic element is fog, which can add that mystical mood to your photos. Especially woods, valleys, or castles in particular look great with fog. It's not fully predictable, but your chances increase during early morning in the spring and autumn. Getting up that early may be uncomfortable, but it’s often worth the effort when you really want that special shot.

Finally, depending on the spot, even rain can add a nice mood to your results. It’s up to us as photographers to decide what feelings we want to convey to the viewer.

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

View to Big Ben, London

Special Events

Obvious, but still often forgotten, are special events that take place at the spots you want to shoot. Fireworks are a good example, but also blooming periods, hot-air balloon festivals, or even historical events like New York’s Tribute in Light are things you should consider while planing your shooting.

Things like that can make a huge difference and add something special and unique to your photography.

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

Tribute in Light, New York

Special advice for beginners

Since time doesn’t ever seem to take a break, your whole scene is changing every second. Therefor, it’s always a good advice to use a tripod and take multiple shots of the exact same frame like you would do this for an HDR during complex lighting conditions.

I've improved so many photos by just taking multiple shots and merging them together into one single composition. In one shot there may be some car trails that look nice, while another one contains better cloud formations, and yet another looks better with all these lights of the skyscrapers turned on even if they were off during sunset for your main shot.

Think about what's changing in your scene and what's important for you to capture. Most of the time I am even configuring my camera settings for special parts in my photo by choosing a longer exposure for a car that is driving by to get these beautiful light trails. The rest of the scene may look odd, but that doesn’t matter because I already know that I got the other parts in shots I did before.

The difference between the top landscape photographers and everyone else

View from John Hancock Building, Chicago

In my opinion it’s sometimes better to focus on just one single element in your scene instead of getting everything just perfect. You can wait for this perfect moment or you can combine multiple moments together to create your own scene. This is not different in my mind than what a fashion photographer does in his studio by telling his model how he wants her to pose… with the exception that you can’t instruct nature.

To cut a long story short: You can extract single elements in time by merging multiple shots, but you don’t have to if you consider this as cheating. For me - and for most of the viewers of your photography - it’s the result that matters, not how you got it. But that’s just my personal view.

Did I miss any important factors to consider? Feel free to add them in the comments below!

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Comments (5)

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Adelheid Smitt
Adelheid Smitt 28.11.2016
I enjoyed reading your article. Most of what you write I have slowly learned in my search for better photography. Returning to places can be easier if you live in areas with high scenic appeal, but otherwise that might be difficult and it's a matter of hoping for the best when you happen to be at a spot you want to photograph. I totally agree with the tripod and taking multiple shots with different exposures. This never hurts, and like you I like to mix that together to come up with a photo as I want it. And yes, in the end it is the result that matters, whether the image is pleasing to look at.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 28.11.2016
Thank you very much dear Adelheid, I am glad that you enjoyed it! Yeah that's true about the places nearby, although I started to see the world around me with other eyes since I launched Locationscout, because I was obviously searching for some spots nearby that I could add to the platform and I was pretty much surprised how many beautiful places are nearby without knowing that they exist. If you are on vacation it's definitely hoping for the best weather, but if you can plan your trips I would love to give the readers of this blog some insights within the next few months about how you can predict the weather, because that's something I learned recently and I love the idea of knowing in advance if the sunrise will be beautiful or not etc. because this saves time and gives me the opportunity to visit other places, which have better conditions during the time I want to photograph.
Lana Baker
Lana Baker 02.03.2016
Nice article Manuel!
Manuela Böhm
Manuela Böhm 01.03.2016
I believe your article is pretty comprehensive without getting tl;dr. Good work. There are two more photographers that might be interesting for you, too. Thomas Heaton (thomasheaton.co.uk), who shows and explains how he works very nicely in short, digestible videos. He does return to locations, but not compusively so. What he does add to this article is how to get the best shot you can get when you are there. He explains why he chose a location, how he wants to compose the photo, what gear he uses and why or why he doesn't use it or why he doesn't take a photo. The videos (youtube) are about 5-10 mins long and his blog offers additional information. He's based in the north of England, so at the very least he will show you some nice locations around there. Michael Kelley (mpkelley.com) is an architecture photographer. There is an intro video for a paid tutorial on fstoppers.com where you can see how he works and what difference it makes to his photos. It's mostly lighting and it does make a big difference. I found it enlightening (pun intended) to see what a little difference in light can do to a scene, whether it's by lightpainting the foreground element or by waiting for the lights in the windows of a cityscape to merge them into a blue-hour photo of the same scene.
Manuel Becker
Manuel Becker 02.03.2016
Hey Manuela, thank you very much for your great and detailed feedback! I really appreciate that and I will have a look at your suggestions for sure. Especially getting multiple shots with lights in the windows like your said improved my results a lot and also improved the way I think about the framing and what I want to have in my photo, because when the sun settles the tripod can't be moved anymore... I really like to slow down my photography and in this case wait to get enlightened ;-)

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