What makes a photograph “good”? Technical strength, creative vision, composition? Of course all these things are extremely important, but also a huge portion of those awe inspiring images you see out there came from the photographer being ready at the “right place at the right time”. Finding that comes greatly from preparedness, patience, field knowledge, and well just plain luck. People often ask how I manage to get all these photos of places where the light seems perfect, as if it follows me around. Well, it doesn’t. Sometimes I just happened to be lucky, but most of the time I spent a lot of time at a location and knew when my chances were best to have something good come from it. Also, many people are not motivated to go out in unfavorable weather, but that can often be the key to beautiful light. In this article I will share some of my more memorable photos and the conditions that went on in the scene.
This is one of my more popular images I get asked about often. This photo was taken in western Norway on the road known as “Trollstigen”. I have many, many photos from this location, but this is the only one I have ever published. I waited in the evening where the fog had settled down low in the valley so that it would stay below the mountain peaks and the road. This effect happens often in narrow valleys when the air is much cooler low to the ground than up above. The cool air is more dense and evaporates moisture first, creating fog that sinks below the warm air.
To find highly reflective shorelines you need two things: a sandy shoreline and a low tide. When you want to get those mirror like seascape images, just check your local tide charts. The tide is effected by the moon phase with it being the most extreme during a full or new moon. To get this photo, I waited until there was super moon phase at my local beach in California and went down on the extreme low tide. The tide was so low it created an ultra flat shoreline for the water to sit on calmly and make a perfect mirror.
Surprisingly some people don’t know how to find rainbows. Rainbows are formed by rain! When a rainy area gets struck by sunlight the light reflects, refracts, and disperses making the spectrum of light. The best time to find them is when it is a rainy day, but short periods of rain with breaks in the clouds. If it’s raining and you see sunshine somewhere, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a rainbow nearby. Find the sun, then look in the opposite direction putting it to your back. This photo is from my time spent on the island of Dominica in the east Caribbean, where rainbows happen often.
High winds can create dramatic and beautiful scenery. I am not much of an animal photographer, but you don’t go to Iceland and not photograph the Icelandic horses. On a high wind day I spent the late afternoon shooting some of the local horses so I could get their manes in full movement for more impact.
High winds can create some dramatic conditions, so seek them out! It can be a challenge to shoot in, but very rewarding. I was in Utah during some serious wind storms so I headed out to one of my favorite spots, the Bonneville Salt Flats. The high winds created massive dust clouds over the area. Once they passed over the flats and in to the mountains, I got some really beautiful and unique moods.
Lightning is always beautiful to photograph, just use discretion for safety. When in an area that has lightning storms, keep on eye on the weather forecast. I took this photo in Fethiye, Turkey during Fall. Two nights were scheduled to have some lightning storms so I sat out in the rain and was rewarded with some beautiful lightning to photograph over the Mediterranean Sea.
Always wait for that decisive moment. These photos came from some beautiful conditions and patience. The top image was taken in western Norway during summer, and the bottom was at Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland in summer. The conditions were almost identical with the clouds; heavy cloud cover, but a clear horizon where the sun sets. This are ideal conditions because the sun will sit in the clouds all day and it seems like it will be disappointing, but if out towards the horizon is clear, the sun will drop below the clouds just before setting and light up the clouds and mountains. In Nordic countries, the summer sun sets around midnight and takes a long time to do so as the sun passes much more horizontally to the horizon, which allowed me much time to set up my shot and wait, wait, wait for the sun to break out.
The Aurora Borealis. Want to see it? Most importantly you have to be in the Arctic Circle for your best chances and there has to be a solar storm. The Northern Lights are created by solar storm and there are multiple websites that you can google to find the days’ rating. The rating is given in KP 1-10. Anything above a 6 could produce aurora. The next thing needed is a clear, dark night. Just like stars, you need to be far away from any city light pollution and the sky must be clear. This photo was taken on a KP 8.9 in Norway. The sky danced around with pinks and greens and I couldn’t resist grabbing a selfie.
My last images show a great example of just how important light conditions are. The location is Utah’s Zion National Park, in front of the Watchman peak viewpoint. I spent almost two weeks around Zion in early 2014 with nothing but beautiful clear skies to shoot… Boring. The first image was taken on a clear day at sunset, it’s pretty, but also very boring and lacks a lot of excitement or uniqueness. The second image was taken at the same spot and at the same time, except the conditions were completely opposite. A heavy rain storm had been sitting in the park all day long, pouring rain. As the sunset time approached, the clouds were beginning to blow out just as the sun was getting low to the horizon. The now distant rain and clouds lit up with color by the setting sun and created some beautiful light over the peak. This just shows what a lot of luck and patience can do to photographs.
Of course you won’t always have the time to put in sitting at a location, but with some knowledge you can look out for those advantages to being at that right place at the right time. It does have a lot to do with luck, but you can increase those chances by knowing what to look for. Take advantage of those extreme weather condition, check forecasts, and look out often. Always be patient, if you show up at a location and it looks bad, wait for an hour and see if it changes at all. Good luck!
Sean Ensch is an travel, landscape, and underwater photographer from California, currently spending a year living in Norway.