Courting Luck: How to Take Advantage of Special Light and Weather in Landscape Photography

Half Dome and the Merced River, late afternoon, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and the Merced River, late afternoon, autumn, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Ansel Adams used to say that “chance favors the prepared mind.” His point was that photographs like Moonrise Hernandez and Clearing Winter Storm weren’t lucky accidents; he was able to capture those moments because he had honed his eye and his photographic technique, and was able to apply those skills when a special opportunity presented itself.

Last night a private workshop student and I had an opportunity to test our mental preparation. We got lucky, as the sun broke through a layer of clouds late in the afternoon. For 45 minutes we watched and photographed a spectacular light show, with beams of sunlight first illuminating the cottonwood trees along the Merced River, then moving upward to reach the Royal Arches, North Dome, and Half Dome itself.

Every landscape photographer hopes to get lucky and capture a beautiful light display like that. But when it happens, will you be prepared? Will you be able to do justice to the gift that’s presented to you?

The first part of that preparation comes with being in the right place at the right time. Luck plays a role here, of course, but so does the ability to anticipate and predict the weather.

I’ve become a student of the weather. To me that’s part of being a landscape photographer—to have some idea of what the weather might do, and try to put myself in the right place to take advantage of interesting weather conditions, whatever they might be. I don’t always get it right, but this kind of preparation increases the odds.

I’m frequently looking at satellite and radar images online, and correlating that with first-person observations. Yesterday, the skies were overcast in Yosemite Valley in the afternoon, but satellite images showed that the cloud bank was moving eastward, and there were clear skies to the west. That meant that as the sun set it might crawl underneath the clouds and light up the cliffs and the underside of the clouds. You never know for sure about these things, but based on that information it seemed like a good idea to put ourselves in position to capture that kind of light.

Once you find yourself in the right spot when the light gets interesting, you have to apply your eye and technique to capture the photograph. This means, first and foremost, finding a composition that emphasizes the light you’re presented with. I often see photographers set up their camera on a tripod at a viewpoint and never move it, even though the light and clouds are constantly changing. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, but I think it’s always more productive to adapt your composition to the light and weather, rather than hope the light and weather adapt themselves to your composition.

Then, of course, you have to get the exposure right and make sure the image is sharp. It’s easy to panic when a special opportunity presents itself, so it helps to be thoroughly familiar with your camera and tripod. You don’t want to be fumbling with controls and thinking, “now where is that exposure-compensation dial?” as a rainbow is fading. Develop good habits under less stressful situations so they become second nature—habits like using a cable release and mirror lock-up (on a tripod), always checking the histogram and blinkies, and zooming in on just-taken photographs to check sharpness.

Also, know how to use your camera’s auto-bracketing feature. Many of the most interesting lighting situations are contrasty, making exposures difficult, or requiring you to blend exposures together later to retain detail in both highlights and shadows. Auto-bracketing can be invaluable in these situations. If you don’t know how to set up auto-bracketing on your camera, go find your camera manual right now and figure it out. And then practice using it.

If you’d like to learn more about exposure, histograms, and auto-bracketing, I explain these topics thoroughly in my ebook Exposure for Outdoor Photography (it’s only $5 from Craft and Vision), and also in these blog posts here and here.

But there’s no substitute for practicing good technique in the field, with your camera, in a variety of situations. If chance favors the prepared mind, then get prepared.

— Michael Frye

P.S. As you might be able to tell from this photograph, there’s still fall color in Yosemite Valley. The cottonwoods are beautiful this year, and are near peak right now. Some of the dogwoods and oaks also still have nice color.

P.P.S. Ansel was probably paraphrasing Louis Pasteur, who said, “In fields of observations, chance favors only the prepared mind.” Photography is nothing if not a “field of observation.”

Related Posts: Photographing Sunbursts; Zone System Article in Photograph Magazine; Digital Photography Basics: Reading Histograms; Digital Photography Basics: Adjusting Exposure

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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26 Responses to “Courting Luck: How to Take Advantage of Special Light and Weather in Landscape Photography”

  1. Bryan Stokes says:

    Excellent topic Michael! As always, you hit the nail on the head in your teachings. You’ve taught me a lot in regards to adapting to the conditions presented to us at the moment we’re in.

    I just returned Monday from a trip to the Valley. Like you said, there is a lot of beautiful subtle fall color left. As a newly planted resident to northern California, I am amazed at the many different personalities of Yosemite and I can’t wait to experience more. Thank you again for so openly sharing your knowledge and love of photography!

  2. Jack Kirchert says:

    Love your blog and great advice. I also like to that spot. Keep up the great work.

  3. Daniel Leu says:

    Nice article, Michael. Couldn’t agree more. Luck is out there and once in a while it will find you, but you got to be ready for it.

  4. Kevin Reilly says:

    I keep thinking I’m going to upgrade my camera, but I know mine so well now, I can adjust it in the dark. It’s like an old friend and I’m afraid I’d miss shots like this with a new, unfamiliar camera. However, I’m not sure I could capture this scene as well as you did with any camera. Really, really nice.

  5. Eric says:

    Doing mostly large format photography, I can’t really “chase the light”, so I have learned that it is imperative to scout locations thoroughly and I’ve gotten pretty good at gauging weather and how the sunrise or sunset will look.

    I have had many spectacular failures, especially early on when I’d set up my camera in one direction only to find that the incredible light show is happening just out of frame. No way to recompose a large format camera under those conditions, but it is all part of the fun, and I’ve also learned that when something like that happens, it is okay to just sit back and enjoy the beauty that is unfolding in front of me.

    I also have learned to keep a medium format camera handy for those occasions :)

    • Michael Frye says:

      Eric, I’ve never used large format, but I know some 4×5 photographers who are quite quick at setting up the camera and changing lenses and compositions. Maybe something to work on… ? :)

      • Eric says:

        Setting up the camera quickly isn’t really the problem.

        The problem is that when the sunrise or sunset colors happen it is too dark on the ground glass to see anything (at least 2 stops darker than a mirror viewfinder), so at best you can guess at the composition, eyeball the ND grad filter placement, and do some quick hyperfocal calculations to hope you get it all in focus.

        I’ve been in situations like that and have walked away with some keepers but I would definitely not want to make that a standard practice.

        But as you said, there is always room for improvement and I’m always working on getting better :)

        • Michael Frye says:

          Hmm… not being able to see the composition, that’s a serious problem! One thought is to get a really bright battery-powered spotlight to illuminate the foreground and help you compose. I use a spotlight for nighttime compositions for just that purpose. Cumbersome, yes, but it might help.

  6. Jack McBride says:

    I followed you out of Valley View on Nov. 12. When you headed east I knew you were going to Parking Lot D. I went to Tunnel View and that was good too. El Capitan really lit up nicely and the low clouds eventually reflected quite a bit of color too. Overall for a day that started poorly, it ended well.

  7. Kevin Brown says:

    Great topic Michael! The last time I was in Yosemite I scrapped my original photo plans as I saw broken clouds and wonderful light approaching the valley. I headed for the light and got some great shots using my Yosemite Photo Guide to select a couple of spots. I think that was the same day I ran into you shooting dogwoods at Valley View.

  8. mARTin nunez says:

    Superb this is Michael. When I saw you and your private workshop student on Monday 11th, at Glacier Point, I said to my self, “something good is going to happen, and it did”. Half Dome was petty good that day. Good light and the view was fantastic! I am having problems on getting my pictures sharp; however, I am working on it and getting better every day. I had some keepers, however, some just could not save. Your blog is really good….thanks!

  9. After seeing your morning light shot of this spot in the AA Gallery last week, my friend and I decided to give it a try ourselves. It was a pleasure to see you there doing a private lesson. The light was epic! It was an honor to have met you.


  10. Excellent post Michael! I will quote what i think is the essence of your post. “I’ve become a student of the weather” probably that’s the first thing every landscape photographer must have in mind before leaving their doorstep. We must learn to adapt to the weather.

  11. [...] sunset on Half Dome that I described in my last post is a good example. The light show lasted for about 45 minutes, and during that time I was [...]

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