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Patience Under a Clear Blue Sky

Many people would consider a clear blue sky to be perfect weather for outdoor activities. Without a cloud in the sky, success is assured. But if you're a nature photographer, dull, empty blue skies can be a bit of a pain.

Let's face it. Weather and the variability of conditions prevent everyone's photo of Yosemite Valley from looking the same. There are only so many places to stand and landmarks available to photograph. I spent Christmas week in Yosemite some years back. A fresh coat of snow certainly added to the proceedings every few days, but the beautiful lighting conditions gave it a run for its money. It's the same at every major destination. It's fun to push myself to find new ways of shooting Rainier, Olympics, and the other natural big-name parks near where I'm fortunate enough to live.

Catch a shot at the right moment to create a unique image and stand out from the crowd. Otherwise, there's always the option to stop by the gift shop for a postcard and save the trouble. A big part of what makes such moments special is that the sky and the lighting aren't often like that. Those are the moments to grab your camera before things return to normal.

There's a common saying in many parts of the country that if you don't like the weather, wait a little while, and it will change. There is a grain of truth in this idea, no matter where you are. Summer turns to fall and winter, and day turns to night: seasons change, and all that. But that's hardly helpful in most circumstances. Like it or not, you have to play with the cards mother nature has dealt you.

Occasionally, I have found myself sitting on the ground, waiting for that one passing cloud to block the sun and create some shadows and contrast for me. After a while, I start to have passing thoughts of, "what am I doing here?" Sometimes, things work out, and other times they don't. There's been more than once when it began to dissolve and dissipated before it reached the destination I set out for it. It shows who's really in charge out there. But when things work out just so, the difference can be dramatic. Instead of a flat, dull landscape, I get to photograph an image with some life to it. Patience is a virtue.

But what do you do when faced with a clear blue sky with no hope of reprieve? You might consider adjusting your framing to crop the sky out entirely. But there's still no escaping that uninteresting, featureless light, bathing everything. Everywhere you look, the light is consistent, and the shadows are harsh. Everything looks the same.

Sometimes, your best option is to retreat. There are plenty of possibilities for finding better lighting not out in the open. Setting your sights to a more intimate scale, try wandering into the forest and work on macro or other small-scale photography. There's an ecosystem present on the forest floor we often take for granted on our way to get somewhere else. The mottled, diffuse light through the trees can create countless vignettes to explore. And after you tire of that, take another glance skyward. Maybe your luck will have changed. Hey, it could happen. Remember what I said about patience.

These days, technology has given the impatient an alternative in the form of software sky replacement. So far as I know, the pioneer in this arena was Skylum Luminar, but it hardly matters now. Adobe and every other software firm have joined the game, and sky replacement is all the rage everywhere. Look more closely at some photos on Facebook if you don't believe me.

But then, photographers have always lusted after better skies. Some have always been willing to take matters into their own hands when mother nature isn't on the same page with them. I remember being fascinated by Cokin filters because they had so many kinds. One that seemed to me back then as being tremendously handy was the sunset filter. It was mostly clear but with an appropriate shading and simulated horizon to create the illusion of a sunset on demand. They also had light magenta filters if you wanted to pretend you were pointing your camera in the opposite direction.

The problem was, it was all fake, or shall we call it, enhanced? Call it a distant cousin of the modern sky replacement filters. There's just no substitute for the real thing. Patience breeds rewards.

Some variability in the weather can breed such interesting images precisely because it keeps things new and exciting. They look like they do only at that particular moment in time when you are there to photograph them. It creates images that give a viewer a reason to take a second look. Wow, I've never seen a photo of Yosemite quite like that before.

Nobody wants to get caught unprepared in inclement weather, of course. So get creative, but behave responsibly out there, people. It amazes me when I see a photographer carrying a substantial metal tripod into the middle of an otherwise open field to shoot a lightning storm. There are limits. But don't just settle for a made-up sky every time. Just have a little patience. The blue skies will pass.

Date posted: September 5, 2021


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