If winter is the season of monochrome, spring is the season of color. Spring, following a season of coma-like dormancy, reminds us that we inhabit a miraculous living organism. We are reminded that our planet is a colorful one. Absence, indeed, makes the heart grow fonder.
Before extolling the virtues of spring landscape photography, it is important to give a nod to spring’s predecessor, winter.
I love winter landscape photography. It is the most graphic of seasons. A blanket of snow can transform an otherwise complicated scene into a simple, minimalistic tableau. Snow and ice provide a limitless supply of textures. The low angle of the winter’s sun brings those textures to life. In short, winter is a season of monochromatic simplicity.
In spite of the fact that the seasons don’t care what we think about them, it strikes me as fortuitous that the transition from winter to spring in the Rocky Mountain West is agonizingly slow. If overnight, we transitioned from pristine winter conditions, with fluffy snow and polished ice, to the height of spring, with peak wildflower blooms and verdant hills, I think we would feel shortchanged. It might feel as though we didn’t get to photograph all of the winter scenes we had hoped to, that our last memory of winter was when it was at its glorious apex. What’s more, I suspect that we would feel visually ill-prepared to engage with the resplendency of spring’s colors. The full spectrum of colors present in a blooming mountain meadow might overwhelm us.
Indeed, in the Rocky Mountain West, we are subjected to a painfully slow transition from winter to spring. Depending on one’s elevation and latitude, the transition from the depths of winter to the height of spring can be a two-to-four-month process. During those months of seasonal purgatory, winter engages spring in a series of futile battles for seasonal supremacy. Occasionally, in Montana, my home, winter’s last stand manifests as a two-foot snow bomb in the middle of May. At that point, spring has already asserted its dominance. In a few days' time, the snow is gone, and the resulting meltwater has further boosted spring’s growth plan.
Thank goodness for this excruciating transition. Our craft, after all, as artists, seems to be buoyed by a bit of tension every now and again. In March, we are provided the opportunity to rest after a busy season of winter photography. In early April, resting becomes restlessness: the snow has mostly melted, but the landscape is still largely devoid of color, recovering from months of a crushing snow load. By the end of April, the landscape still mostly drab as its recovery continues, we consider either taking a photography trip to a location that is “in” or trading in our photography gear for a high-end full-suspension mountain bike. By early May, we are on the verge. The verge of what, I don’t know, but we are hungry to engage with the landscape through our lenses.
And, here we are, dear photographer, in the middle of May, having survived the transition from winter to spring and the opening of this article.
The world of photography is overwrought with "rules." I am a huge believer in the process of following one's nose, relying on intuition, and pointing one's camera in the direction of curiosity, but I've honed in on a few tips that I've found helpful in guiding my spring shooting. So, here we go.
1. Get Low, Really Low
Angles, of course, are a critical part of composition in landscape photography. Changing the angular relationship to the subject changes the strength of the subject in the frame. Getting close and/or low, especially with a wide angle lens, can exaggerate the size of the subject, making it larger and therefore more dominant in the frame. This is an especially effective technique with wildflowers. It's a view that most people are not used to seeing with their own eyes and possesses the novelty of a scale relationship that defies experience — flowers larger than mountains.
Taking the low-angle shot to the next level is to lay down on the ground. This perspective provides a truly unique experience for you, the photographer, and ultimately, your viewer. I love putting on my widest lens and experimenting with looking up through the flowers. This exercise provides an entirely new perspective that opens up a whole new world of unconventional curiosities. Now, before you lay down just anywhere, ensure that you are not causing harm to other flora. Scan the area and look for places where you will cause no damage to the landscape.
2. The Telephoto Scan
Second to laying down in fields of wildflowers, my next favorite thing to do in spring is scaling the local hills an hour or two on either side of sunset or sunrise, putting on a telephoto lens, and scanning the surrounding valley for interesting light and color. In Western Montana, our hillsides are the most brilliant shades of green — chartreuse, lime, fern — for much of May and June. The broken cumulus clouds of spring provide intimate spotlighting, bringing life to the new living.
What I love about "the telephoto scan" is that it is a truly curiosity-driven photographic exercise. Pop on the lens and scan over the landscape until that reflex kicks in: "Aha! That's interesting!" Snap. It is also the perfect exercise to remind us that light itself can be the subject. We can hone in on a specific area of interesting light. The power of "the telephoto scan" lies in isolating portions of the landscape. Don't forget to bring a snack and a beverage. Sit back, relax, and take in the joy of spring.
3. Look Down
Similar to the isolation technique of "the telephoto scan" is the simple act of looking down. In the spring, the ground is covered in interesting shapes and colors. From the colors of newly sprouted flowers to the patterns of the forest floor, the world is at our feet and our camera at our fingertips. These aren't the grand vistas of spring, but the unsung heroes of which the grand vistas are made of.
50-200mm is a nice focal range to work with when photographing what lies below. Of course, follow your curiosity and experiment (pop on an 11mm, a 600mm, or a macro lens). My favorite way to engage with this exercise is to go out on slow walks through the woods, tuning into the micro landscape at my feet. It often takes a minute to switch out of the typical grand vista state of mind into the miniature landscape approach. I love looking for patterns and broken patterns, an isolated flower, interestingly shaped leaves. It is all about walking slowly with a curious mind.
In closing, we’ve been waiting. Spring is here. Now is the time to engage with this, the liveliest of seasons, before the hot, rainless days of summer strip the landscape of its color. Get out there, get curious with your camera. Now, excuse me while I get up from this mountain meadow to find a Wi-Fi signal to upload this article to Fstoppers.