Autumn morning in the Alaska Range. Colors peak in late August or early September, if you are planning to catch the fall colors, plan accordingly.
The best images rarely come together on accident. Yes, I know, sometimes serendipity will place you at the perfect spot in the perfect light with all the gear you need and you are able to click away. But that is a darn rare thing. Good images, particularly landscape photography, almost always require a bit of planning. The season, times of day, weather, and your location, should all be considered before you head to the field. Though this is particularly true on multi-day trips, planning can be useful even for shoots around your local area.
I once got an inquiry about one of my private photo workshops from a gentleman who wanted to photograph the northern lights in the mountains of northern Alaska. This is an area I know well and a place I regularly lead photo tours, so I was eager to send along the information he requested. Until I got to his last sentence; he was planning his trip for July.
A curtain of aurora over the Dalton Highway and Brooks Range of northern Alaska. If you want to see the northern lights, it’s best to not plan a visit in the summer.
In northern Alaska, far north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets in midsummer. The northern lights only come out at night. You can see the problem, right?
Though I laugh about it now, I have to give credit to the guy. He contacted me before making his plans, and I was able to set him straight before he bought some expensive plane tickets and ended up on a very disappointing (and likely mosquito-infested) trip to the arctic.
I realize that’s a dramatic example. It’s not as though endless daylight during the arctic summer is a well-guarded secret. That said, for every location you might visit, there are things about seasonality you should know in advance.
Late autumn in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska means early September.
Research your destination
Do your research. Most parts of the world have cold, wet, dry, or hot seasons and the success of your photos could depend on the season you choose. Think of the types of shots you are hoping to make, and then find out what time of year is best suited to those images. Seasonality is pretty intuitive for most photographers. We generally have a good understanding of how spring, summer, fall and winter relate to our photography. But within those seasons things get a bit murkier.
Let’s return to my aurora borealis example from earlier. Yes, if you want to shoot the northern lights, you’ll need to make your trip to my neck of the woods during a time of year when it gets dark. But there are better and worse times between September and April. Arrive in mid-January, and you may encounter nighttime temperatures of -40 degrees; not a fun photo temp. In addition to being warmer, the times around the spring and fall equinox also coincide with the usual peak of auroral activity. And in the spring, there is less chance of cloud cover. I reiterate – do your research!
Time of Day
Side light adds drama to the mountains around Haines, Alaska.
This is a big one that often goes overlooked. Most landscape photographers are happiest in the hour or two surrounding dawn and dusk. The light is low and sweet, throwing long shadows across the terrain. But those times vary based on your location.
What are the sunset/sunrise times? Depending on where you are and the time of year, that sweet light may occur late, or early (even the middle of the night here in Alaska during the summer). Long before you head out, look up these times and plan accordingly. A simple Google search will provide this information, as will many GPS devices and smartphone apps.
Morning fog lifts off the forest and pastures of Chiloe Island, Chile.
How will the light fall on the landscape? If you want to capture the mountains with a certain kind of light (backlight, sidelight, front light) then you need to know not only the time of the sunrise or sunset but where it will set in relation to your subject. More than once, I’ve been shooting in the evening and found my subject draped in bland, gray shadows and wished the light was coming from the opposite direction.
Look at maps, see how your locations are situated, and keep in mind both time of year AND time of day, since both will impact how the light falls.
Bad weather isn’t always bad. During a winter storm, a break in the clouds allowed this patch of sun to hit the mountains of southeast Alaska.
This is a short-term planning tool, but can help a few days out from your shoot. Honestly, I’m hesitant to include weather in this article because forecasts are occasionally wrong enough, and besides, thelandscape photography opportunities in bad weather can be amazing. Usually it’s best just to go out anyway and see what you can find.
However, by paying attention to the forecast, you may be able to moderate your expectations or plan around any undesirable weather. Trips I lead to go shoot the aurora are perfect examples of this. Clouds are bad when it comes to astral photography, but the weather isn’t uniform across a big landscape. Just because it is cloudy locally, doesn’t mean an hour away that it isn’t clear. By paying attention to weather forecasts and conditions, you can plan to adjust locations or change dates.
Once on your site, it’s never a bad idea to go out for a hike, or drive and check out the good compositions before the sweet light of evening hits. Sadly time, commitments, and life in general may not allow you to get out and scout. Fortunately, there is a digital solution that can help: GoogleEarth. Using GoogleEarth you can check out the places you’d like to shoot, get driving times, and (my favorite part) use the street-view function to get an idea of how the landscape will look from the ground. Using this, I’ve actually found the exact spots and compositions for images I hoped to make.
I went out for an ill-advised hike in a thunderstorm in Denali National Park, but it resulted in the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen hanging over the tundra below.
The internet is full of information, and a few well-worded searches will get you much of what you need to know. But the internet will never be better than personal experience. Reach out to photographers familiar with the area you hope to visit. Social media is a great way to find shooters who know your destination. From there it is a simple matter of sending some questions via email or a message. It’s extremely rare that someone isn’t willing to share what they know, provide advice, and point you in the right direction. This can also be a great way to make connections, and even friendships.
Northern lights over the mountains of the Brooks Range, Alaska.
Consider your photographic goals for the location you are planning to shoot, then do your research. Ask the right questions of the people who know, and you’ll have a much better chance of success when you hit the field. Plus you won’t feel foolish when you show up in the middle of the arctic summer to photograph the northern lights.
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