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How to Take Stunning Landscape Photographs - CNN Travel

As a landscape photographer, I react to weather very differently from most people. A beautiful sunny day in California without a cloud in the sky would probably cause me to groan. Yes, I am appalled by clear, sunny days. If there are too many of them, I’m brought down to the level of chronic depression. The recent three-month long drought caused by La Niña brought me to the brink of a meltdown.


On the other hand, clouds exhilarate me. And certain kinds of foul weather. A landscape photographer will make incredible efforts to get to the right place at the right time, which can only be achieved by an analytic mindset and objective decision making, not to mention tenacious physical effort. Sleepless days, countless hours of driving, earning a reputation of being insane - these are all things to take in stride while chasing the perfect shot.


Here are six ways to think like a landscape photographer.


(1) Use the Clouds

Clouds are the best light reflectors in nature. Depending on the distribution and height of the clouds, the light changes and impacts your shot accordingly. Higher clouds (3,000 -7,500 meters) will give you the most intense colors but lower clouds (below 3,000 meters) will give you better texture and higher contrast. It's best to utilize higher clouds for photographing toward the sun and lower clouds for photographing away from the sun.


(2) Google Earth is Useful

Before I begin scouting potential sites to photograph, I like to use Google Maps and Google Earth to look at various topological features. Google Earth is useful because it gives you the ground level perspective and you can simulate the lighting conditions by changing the times and seeing how the light changes. However, keep in mind that it only works for large-scale features like mountains and lakes. It doesn’t work in terms of the small rocks and boulders, which are important in constructing your foreground.


(3) Be Up-to-date When Scouting Locations

Winter has been very strange this year. There is practically no snow in California and it has been particularly dry. While researching for a photo trip, I read that it was the first time since 1933 that Tioga Pass in Yosemite had not been closed off in January due to snowfall. For a landscape photographer, this kind of news means that there is a chance of finding something new. Sure enough, when I traveled to the regions of Yosemite that had been closed off around this time in previous years, I found my shot. It was a lone tree on a hill framing a lake in the background. Only around winter solstice did this tree get the last light –- since only then the sun sets in the southernmost direction and the light is not obstructed by a nearby mountain. With the intense light, the tree was on fire, in wonderful contrast with the stormy clouds and calm lake in the background. It was the kind of chance that comes along once in a lifetime.


(4) Take Advantage of Unusual Weather

Thunderstorms are the kind of foul weather that a landscape photographer can use to his or her advantage. In the summer in California, thunderstorms tend to develop early in the afternoon and weaken around sunset. Since the storm clouds are usually localized and develop periodically for as long as a week, they tend to make for more predictable conditions and consistent opportunities over a longer period of time.


(5) Your Suffering May Not Mean Anything

Despite all the incredible physical efforts you may have made, your suffering does not necessarily add any value to your work. Sometimes that is the hardest thing to accept.


(6) Start as a Scientist and End as a Gambler

This is something that I like to say to my friends when they ask me what it takes to be a landscape photographer. What I mean by this is, you have to use your analytic mindset to be as objective as possible and process all the information available to you so that you can project the conditions no matter how chaotic they get, but at the end of the day we’re talking about luck. You can do everything correctly according to your analyses but that doesn’t mean you’re going to get that shot.


Sand Harbor - Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Wind plays an important role when water is involved in your shot. Wind-free conditions often turn the lakes and ponds into mirrors and turns even the most boring views into something special. This particular day, high clouds reflected the last light from the sun and exploded with intense colors, which were reflected on the calm lake. Polarizer was used to reduce the reflections in the foreground and emphasize the underwater foreground.


Light of Sierra - Inyo National Park, California

After spending the night at Conness Lakes in Yosemite High Sierra, I was supposed to get up for a morning shoot. With heavy overnight storms, however, the weather was getting worse by the hour. Hard rains and winds had been hitting the tent all night, and it did not seem like a good idea to leave the tent. But when the wind finally calmed down I rushed down to a little creek that I had scouted the night before, and I was fortunate enough to capture some of the magic. Backpacking is definitely the best way to explore untouched nature, and a good landscape photographer will always be eager to explore.


Valley of the Fall - Inyo National Park, California

After hiking in complete darkness, I arrived at the vantage point. Walking through a forest of closely packed aspen trees, I was concerned about my timing, and the faint light from the LED lamp was not particularly helpful in distinguishing potentially beautiful colors. A flock of low clouds were moving across the sky, and with the first light of the day, I saw this breathtaking display of autumn color.


Light of Desert - Page, Arizona

Antelope Canyons are one of the iconic places in the Southwest, and a great place to study the effects of light on lines, shapes and texture. Photographing a well-known place is never easy, so be prepared for possible interruptions, since the number of visitors to the canyon has been skyrocketing in recent years. Complex surfaces of the slot canyon will confuse you, so look for simplicity, symmetry, patterns and leading lines and curves.


Impasto - Lake Tahoe, Neveda

At high elevations, the last light of the day travels a much longer distance, losing much of its blue colors and painting everything in its path in vivid red. One winter day at Bonsai Rock, Lake Tahoe, a winter storm had rolled in and left an assortment of clouds by the end of the day. This was perhaps one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had as a landscape photographer. Again, clouds are the best natural reflectors, so use them wisely.


Grand Canyon - Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

After hours of unforgiving thunderstorms, the weather finally calmed down and I could explore some new ground in the canyon. When I climbed down a few rocks to look for a fresh perspective, I could not take my eyes off of these beautiful trees. It was a little early for the best light, but when I set up my camera to check the composition, a bird flew in from nowhere and sat on the top of the tree. Moments like this are a wonderful reminder that every shot you take is, in fact, unique.


Con Fuoco - Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Well known as the largest geothermal area on Earth, Yellowstone National Park offers a great perspective on the evolution of our planet and its life forms. One summer morning, I was greeted by particularly active hot springs and a breathtaking sunrise. Unlike the previous day’s drought, water and mist from the hot springs brought the area to life.


Blue Moon Over Winter Lake - Eastern Sierra, California

Landscape photographers often gravitate to places most people steer clear of. After hours of driving through intense snowstorms in Sierra Nevada, witnessing a number of fellow drivers spinning out and ending up in a ditch, I arrived at Convict Lake, which was in pristine winter condition. Despite the harsh weather, the lake was strangely calm and beautiful. Capturing the reflections of the setting moon and distant mountains makes it easy to forget about freezing fingers and faces.


A Lucid Dream - Marin, California

A vantage point near Rodeo Cove, California is one of the better locations for coastal photography. In summer, sun sets in the northwest and lines up with these unique sea stacks. The afternoon brings in heavy fog, which is the lifeline for redwoods in an otherwise dry Northern California. The latest reports say that the climate change is leading to less fog in summer and threatening the redwood forests. On this particular day, the sky was clear beyond the low fog and I was pleasantly surprised with an amazing view at sundown.


Pathway to Light - Davenport, California

After photographing for many days in Davenport, California, I set my lens on these interesting rock formations on Davenport beach. At medium-to-high tide, waves come in and fill up the tide channel and quickly retreat, forming a momentary waterway to the setting sun. This phenomenon takes place only in early or late winter, where the sun aligns with the channel during the last minutes of the day. While photographing, I lost my balance on the rocks and fell into the crevice. Luckily the waves held back for a moment, and I struggled with all my strength to lift myself up against the slick surfaces and moss.


Moment of Light - Big Sur, California

This special phenomenon occurs two times a year and you have a fairly well exposed shot even in a completely backlit condition, shooting through a small opening formed by the top-left corner of the door and rocks behind it. The challenge here is to get the sun properly sized (by controlling the size of the opening) and capture the right water motion at the same time. I had to work my way up from the bottom and recompose the shot every 20-30 seconds as the sun was setting. About 10 minutes before sundown, the scene was strangely well balanced in light.


The Highland - Yosemite National Park, California

A photo shoot was quickly turning into a scouting trip as the thunderstorm in the high sierra began to die down too soon, with rapidly receding clouds. When I took a short stroll in the meadows, however, I was greeted by these brown-furred Yosemite natives. It took a bit of patience to get them near the pond, but they were kind enough to pose for me.