Gorgeous mountain scene–check. Have my photography gear–check. Found a good composition–check. Dull and un-inspiring photo–unfortunately, check.
We've all been there. This is an unfortunate example from my portfolio of photos that *almost* turned out beautiful. Examining this mistake will hopefully lead us to understand some of the most important characteristics of good landscape photography.
Look at the photo featured on this page again. What is missing? I'd say there aren't really any technical errors. Composition is good, depth of field is good, sharpness is good. Technically, it's great. What is missing is drama and impact. This looks like the kind of photo we would see on a 50 cent postcard at the gift shop. The reason this photo looks a bit stale is the light. This photo was shot at about 10:30AM at a high mountain lake in the middle of the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho. The bland mid-day lighting absolutely destroyed this otherwise perfect shot.
During the middle of the day, the light from the sun has no color. It is pure white, which makes it uninteresting. Also, mid-day lighting is extremely harsh, which puts glare on plants and water. Last, the direction of mid-day light does not cast shadows in interesting directions. Most shadows appear directly under the object.
I was recently involved in jurying a photography contest. As I looked over the photos, I saw this mistake over and over again. About 95% of the landscape photos had been shot in unpleasant lighting. The winner was easy to pick as it was one of few of the shots which had good light.
Let this post serve as a reminder to all landscape photographers that a scene might look good during the day, but the same scene will be there that evening or the next morning. It won't go anywhere. So once you find a good spot for a landscape photo, return in the early morning or late evening for best results.