Nature photographers like their landscapes pristine; generally, we don’t want to see any ‘hand of man’ in our pictures but rather we want to present nature in her purest and finest form. So we venture forth in hopes of recording clean and crisp mountain, desert, and forest landscapes. When nature photographers encounter atmospheric haze it dampens their enthusiasm for making pictures like chores ruin the day of a kid on summer holidays. We know of many photographers who have cancelled trips to areas like the Canadian Rockies when they heard that forest fires have obscured the clear alpine skies. It’s a shame that our preconceptions of what’s good and what’s bad colours what and how we take photos. Atmospheric haze can offer up unique opportunities for stunning photography if we’re open to seeing beyond our expectations.
Atmospheric haze results when smoke, dust and other dry particles accumulate in relatively dry air. Most of the time we blame human activity on atmospheric haze and consider it un-natural. For example, in the fall, activities from the harvest of cereal crops stirs up dust and particulates that results in hazy conditions. Fires burning, dust from gravel roads and particulate pollution from industry also creates atmospheric haze. But atmospheric haze has been around longer than humans. Lightning strikes burn vast tracts of forest, volcanoes spew out tonnes of particulate matter, wind storms churn up dust from dunes… the list goes on. So rather than fight or avoid haze, embrace it! Haze is a natural part of nature.
Atmospheric haze does several interesting things that can be used by the creative photographer. First, it reduces contrast in the scene due to the scattering of light by the particulate matter. These low contrast scenes look moody, ethereal and even painterly. Second, haze selectively scatters light waves with shorter wavelengths, like blue, being scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why haze and smoke look blue – the blue wavelengths bounce off and are recorded by our eyes (and cameras). Red wavelengths tend to pierce through the particulate matter and so in backlit situations we see warm colours coming through the haze. Anyone who has seen the sun through thick smoke knows the sun appears as a reddish ball even at mid-day because only the red wavelengths of light are passing through the smoke. As photographers, we can use this natural filtering effect of light bouncing off of or moving through haze to add further mood to our photographs. Indeed, atmospheric haze creates incredible mood and ambience. Just ask anyone who has travelled to India or China whether haze has added to the mood of their travel photos. You’ll get a resounding yes!
And so, when it’s hazy, don’t give up. Your expectations of clear, crisp, and contrasty nature scenes has evaporated. Advanced shooters see the potential in the murky skies. Look for scenes where the blue, low contrast light works with the subject to give a dream-like mood. Or, find situations where the glowing warm backlight creates an ethereal glow. Some of my favorite images have been created when nature (or human activity) created atmospheric haze and I was open to possibilities beyond my expectations. Rather than the haze being a nightmare that destroyed my nature outing, it became a dream that allowed me to create memorable images. Happy hazy shooting!
Good stuff should be shared! The article below is reprinted from my column in the Winter 2009 issue of Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Support this great magazine and subscribe to get fresh content quarterly 😉
Beyond Documentary Nature Photography
Most nature photographers believe that their photography is purely documentary. The definition of documentary is, “a factual record or an accurate representation of reality” so if all you ever do is record what’s in front of your lens, how can you be anything but a documentary photographer?
Take a look at photos 1 and 2 below. Both photographs are of Mount Rundle at Vermilion Lakes in Banff National Park. Both of these images were captured with slide film and neither of these images were manipulated in-camera with special technique or after the capture in computer software. Both images capture exactly what was in front of the lens. And both images were made on the same evening session. But are these photos “an accurate representation of reality”?
Photo 1 above is shot with a ‘standard’ lens and represents, according to ‘visual experts’, a perspective similar to that of the human eye. Photo 2 below is shot with a 300mm lens and is a small detail shot from the foreground shown in photo 1 but shot later in the day as the setting sun warmed up the face of Mount Rundle. Many people would classify photo 1 as ‘documentary’ and photo 2 as ‘abstract’ or ‘expressionistic’. Both photos accurately show the scene that existed before my eyes, so why do we classify one differently from the other? Can only photos shot with a 50mm lens be called documentary? Does that mean everything shot with a 300mm lens is ‘interpretive’? Can we even define ‘documentary nature photography’?
An acquaintance of mine from Austria recently came to Banff and visited Vermilion Lakes. He had seen hundreds of photographs of Mount Rundle at Vermilion Lakes and thought he had a good idea of what it would be like to be there. He was blown away by how the ‘reality’ of the place differed from what was presented to him in photos. He just kept shaking his head saying, “It’s so different from what I expected!” Were all those documentary photos of Vermilion Lakes wrong? All the photos he had seen showed a pristine mountain lake environment; none of them show the reality of a lake shore paralleled by two busy highways and a shoreline trampled to death by parked cars and pounding foot traffic (photo 3).
The lesson I took from his experience is that there is only one ‘reality’ and that is your own. No one sees the world the same way you do. We all have biases and personal histories that colour the way we see the world. My representation of Vermilion Lakes will be different from yours even as we stand side-by-side shooting together. Neither result is more ‘accurate’ or ‘documentary’ than the other. And that is the beauty of photography as art.
My point here is not that we need a better definition of ‘documentary photography’ but rather we should realize that all of our photos are personal interpretations of reality – plain and simple. I now realize that part of my ‘style’ for drama and colour in photography is because I intensely feel my subjects and I want my feelings to translate to the viewer (or maybe I just see the world through rose-coloured glasses). My photos are less about the subject than they are about my feelings for the subject. Often we get too hung up about how others interpret our ‘reality’. Once you let go of worrying what others think about your photography or how they classify it, only then will your photography truly represent the world as you see and feel it. For me, that is the most interesting ‘documentary’ photography of all! Happy shooting.