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  • Austin James Jackson

Finding Compelling Compositions in Less-Than-Ideal Conditions

compelling compositions with redwoods light rays
Clear skies and direct sunlight make for a good day for telephoto compositions in the forest. Wide angle compositions can often appear very busy with sunlight coming through like this. Shot at 70mm.

As landscape photographers, we all know that the weather conditions rarely provide the most ideal conditions for us to shoot. This is one of the most frustrating things about photography, especially if you find yourself making short weekend trips. Most of us don't have the time to sit around and wait for better weather to come. So... what do you do when waiting around for the ideal conditions isn't an option?

Just because the weather isn't in your favor doesn't mean that you can't create compelling images. But in order to do so, you have to think outside the box. One thing that I always teach students in my workshops is that you can't visit a place and already decide the shot you want before you even get there. Social media is both a blessing and a curse, in that often times you see a shot someone else has, and you decide that you want to shoot something similar at a particular location.

Now, it's always so tempting to shoot that wide angle shot that gives you the full scene, with the beautiful close-up foreground and tons of sky. This is a great composition at many spots, but if you have a totally blue sky, it's not very exciting. If what you're really after is compelling images, you must only include the most interesting elements in your photo.


On days where the skies are clear, you have to realize what the weather is giving you, and act accordingly. On these days, you're getting very high contrast scenes with direct sunlight, so look for compositions that shoot well under high contrast. These are great days to grab the telephoto and look around for unique compositions. Early morning light striking trees, rocks, or mountains can often be interesting. No matter your scene, be sure to leave out the boring blue sky, or busy elements with uneven light in the foreground. Rarely do I ever find myself using my wide angle lens on days like this.

compelling composition in moab, utah sunrise

On days where it is overcast, you get very soft light. These can be good days to shoot wide angle in the forest, at waterfalls, or around mountains (especially if you can get a good sunset or sunrise with the clouds). Soft, even light that is presented on overcast days like this are often ideal for shooting things like waterfalls because your eye doesn't get caught on any foreground elements that catch a bit of light.

compelling compositions at proxy falls with a long exposure
Overcast days aren't great for sunrises or sunsets, but you can see how the soft light helps my scene stay balanced. Shot at 18mm.

On foggy days, you are given the chance to shoot compositions with a lot of simplicity. Fog helps drown out all of the background noise and allows you to focus in on your subject. Look for strong subjects on days like these. Also, on foggy days, be on the lookout for rays of light, especially when in the forest.

Compelling compositions with fog in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness
Foggy days provide a great opportunity to break out the telephoto and play around with moody scenes. Shot at 251mm.


A few weeks back, I was shooting on the beautiful beaches of Bandon, Oregon. There were around 10 other photographers shooting wide angle compositions (there is a ton of wide angle shots on that beach!). I too had my wide angle lens on, but when I saw what the conditions provided, I decided to switch to my telephoto. Here's the photo I got that night:

Compelling composition on Bandon Beach
"Pyromaniac's Hat" Shot at 126mm

You can see that my photo would make the viewer think that the sky was absolutely on fire. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, just above my frame, there was not a single cloud in the sky. Most of the other photographers on the beach remained shooting with a wide angle lens, which would have made the red clouds in the sky extremely small in your frame.

By backing up and zooming in, I was able to compress my scene into the red clouds on the horizon and create what I believe to be a compelling image. If nothing else, it is more compelling than what I would have gotten if I had left the wide angle on.

At the end of the day, it just takes practice to get great photos in less-than-ideal lighting. The most important thing is to make sure everything you include in your frame is an interesting element. Don't fill the frame with boring blue skies, or cluttered busy foregrounds.

Instead, try and find compelling items to include in your frame. Remember that your viewers only know what you show them, so a relatively boring night can look like something much more to the audience, as you saw above in my photo "Pyromaniac's Hat". Thanks for checking out this week's 5 Minute Photography Post, and as always, feel free to comment with any questions you may have!

Compelling composition on a lake in Idaho.
Foggy mornings on the lake. On mornings where conditions aren't ideal, I love looking for abstract shots like this one. Shot at 72mm.