Though clear now, the skies of Washington State, and indeed most of the Pacific Northwest, have been very smokey almost the entire month of August. The smoke is from wildfires, both in the United States and Canada. I fear, with climate changes, this may be our new “normal” for August, as smokey skies have been prevalent in August the past several years.
As long as the smoke is not too thick, smokey skies can have some advantages to landscape and travel photography. Though I tend not to, some people like the sunsets provided by smokey conditions. I do, however, appreciate that smokey conditions can soften light and can extend golden hour conditions by changing the color of sunlight. On the other hand, they can also dim sunlight so that the light during the actual golden hours is weak.
In my opinion, the disadvantages outweigh any advantages gained. I am fond on blue skies and wide vistas. Smoke can suck the blue out of the sky and obscure views with haze. I also like to use telephoto lenses to pull in distance subjects. Obviously, this does not work so well if there is a lot of smoke.
On my trip to the Palouse last month, the skies were quite smokey. Not smokey enough to totally ruin the trip, but I certainly did not have ideal conditions. The Palouse is known for its blue skies with great clouds. On my last trip, the sky, though clear, was more of a dusky gray. It was also cloud free on except for one day. So much for the wide sky shots I often favor, such as this one I posted on instagram. I found myself following several techniques to minimize the effects of the smoke.
1. Limiting distance in my compositions – instead of including distant hills and vistas in my compositions, I selected relatively close subjects, or chose compositions where the distant background was less important. For example, on my August visit to the Palouse, I did shoot one evening from Steptoe Butte. However, with the smokey haze, I chose one of the lower viewpoint instead of going to the top, and I mostly shot compositions with subjects relatively close to the butte rather than subjects thousands of meters away.
2. Eliminating or limiting the amount of sky in my compositions – with the sky not the blue color one expects, in many cases, I tried to either totally eliminate the sky from my composition or at least limit the amount of sky in the shot.
3. Processing using the Dehaze slider in Lightroom – I often use the dehaze slider in lightroom, and not just to remove haze; I like the microconstrast it adds to images. However, smokey conditions are what the dehaze slider was made for. While processing images from the August Palouse trip in Lightroom, I found myself adding more dehaze than I normally would.
4. Adding blue back into the sky in Lightroom – I typically do not do selective color corrections in Lightroom. Typically I’ll set the color balance for the entire photo and let well enough alone (saving selective color adjustments for Photoshop if I want to do them at all). But with new masking tools for the gradient and brush tools, I found it relatively easy to add some blue back into the sky in Lightroom. Typically, I’d make a fairly tight gradient (or perhaps the brush too) and apply it to the area of the photo containing the sky. Then, using the range mask tool in color mode, I select a wide portion of the sky. This usually masks most of the non-sky areas, but to be sure, I’ll check the Show Selected Mask Overlay checkbox (which uses a red tone to indicate where the gradient is effective). Depending on the image, I may or may not need to do some cleanup of the mask with the eraser brush). To correct the sky, I’ll move the temperature slider toward blue, typically move the exposure slider down about 1/2 to 1/2 a stop, and move the clarity slider down as well. Depending on the image, I may also increase the dehaze slightly. Sounds complicated, but it is fairly easy with a bit of practice. This technique does a nice job on restoring sky color (see the examples below).
Earlier I wrote about stepping toward greatness in your photography, concerning a 10-step approach outlined by Steve Simon in his book The Passionate Photographer, Ten Steps Toward Becoming Great. That post also discussed step one: working on personal projects, and I described several personal projects I’ve been working on.
Step two is volume – shooting lots of images to improve your craft. Not just shooting for shooting’s sake, but shooting volume with a purpose. By taking lots of shots, you can learn from your successes and mistakes, such as which compositions work and which don’t, as well as making sure your subject is covered from all angles.
To illustrate these concepts, I give you 24 images I took of the Freeze Community Church outside of Potlatch, Idaho from my trip last week to the Palouse. While at the church, I made a conscious effort to really try to cover it from all angles (at least the angles where I thought the light was good enough). Since leaving the site, I’ve thought of at least five or six additional compositions I’ve should have tried – obviously I need to keep working on this step. On your next photo shoot, try to really cover your subject and let me know how it goes; do you think of any shots you should have taken but didn’t?
In his book, Simon mentions that rarely is your best image of a subject the first one taken. How true this is. In travel photography in particular I’ve noticed this. When I finally reach a particular site I’ve been itching to photograph, I’m excited by the scene, and hop out and start taking pictures immediately. That’s fine, but rarely are those images any good. Further, those images are almost never unique. They typically are the same tired images that every tourist with a point-and-shoot or camera phone takes (no offense to those of you that only shoot with point-and-shoots or camera phones; I’m just trying to illustrate my point).
To get that great shot, that unique shot, I need to investigate the subject and cover it from multiple viewpoints and with multiple compositions. I admit, even though I typically shoot a lot of images (see this earlier post), I get lazy and don’t cover each subject like I should. And I know better; if you are like me, how often do you find your best image of a particular subject is one taken near the end of your session rather than at the beginning? I think this is true of other forms of photography besides travel; I’ve found it true in portrait photography as well (at least until the model gets tired).
Taking lots of shot also opens your mind to angles and compositions you may not have seen earlier – both earlier in the particular session and earlier in your photographic career. Several photo clubs I belong to have an annual scavenger hunt, where each participant is given a list of topics to shoot. Later, at a club meeting, the images taken by all the photographers for each topic are shown. I’m always amazed how other photographers, given the same subject as I, come back with some incredible images that I did not even come close to seeing. I’ve found that when I practice shooting a subject with as many compositions as I can think of, my mind becomes more open to potential shots. In other words, I’m training myself to see more potential images, and all it takes is practice – the practice of shooting, shooting so more, and shooting until it hurts (mentally that is, when I can’t think of one more composition).
It’s really quite easy to do, but something most of us don’t because we are either lazy or just unconsciously trained by today’s fast paced society to get it done fast and get on to the next thing. You need to fight the urge to settle for immediate gratification (common in today’s social media driven world), i.e. hopping out of the car, grabbing a quick shot, and then heading on to the next spot on your list. If you want to improve your photography, take time to cover subjects in detail. You will come home with better images, and you will train yourself to see better images. Give it a shot, well actually, lots of shots.