Imagine a spring landscape. What comes to mind? Most of you probably think of scenes of fresh green leaves, newly bloomed flowers, and a verdant landscape coming to life.
Those are accurate but only partial representations of the spring season. What spring really is, is a time of transition. Where I live, in interior Alaska, spring is a time of melting snow shifting to bare ground, to new growth, and eventually, summer.
Wherever you live, the change may not be as dramatic as here in the sub-Arctic. But I also doubt that every spring day is full of greenery and flowers.
Spring, to me, is a time of change. And in photography, we can embrace that with our images. This article is full of spring landscape photography tips to help you make the most of this season.
Gear for Spring Landscape Photography
The best lenses and best camera for spring landscape photography are… whatever you own. When it comes to gear, seasonal landscape photography is no different from any other type of landscape photography.
That said, it’s a good idea to be able to cover focal lengths from wide-angle to moderate telephoto. For most of my work I prefer lenses in the moderately wide range, around 24mm or so. But I’ve used 14mm and even 500mm lenses to create landscape shots during the spring.
Really though, if you have a wide-angle zoom and a mid-range telephoto, you’ll be set.
Early Spring Landscape Photography—Embrace Creativity
Here in Alaska, we refer to the early days of spring as “breakup.” The term refers to the way the ice on the rivers begins to crack and melt. Eventually (and sometimes catastrophically), it breaks into chunks and floats down the river.
Rivers aside, this is not a colorful time of year. As I sorted through my Lightroom catalog looking for images to accompany this article, I found I had very few shots from the early days of spring. Because, frankly, it tends to be brown.
However, there are stories in that muddy landscape, full of newly melted snow. Of the few images I found, I was surprised to see some old favorites in there. These were images made in creative moments when I was playing with textures, details, and blurs.
And there is my first piece of advice for photographing the days of early spring: be creative. A mud puddle of recently melted snow may not be particularly interesting at first glance. But if it holds reflections, suddenly, that puddle gets a lot more interesting.
Experiment with your camera settings. Try for a long shutter speed that will allow you to blur an image by moving your camera. A shutter speed of 1/4 or 1/2 s is often about right for purposeful blurs.
Done right, purposeful blurs will create painterly images or abstractions of color and light from an otherwise bland, brown landscape.
In the early spring, when the world looks a bit sad and brown, you need to break away from the typical formulas of landscape photography and create new things.
Early spring is also a time of drama as spring storms roll through the landscape. When the meadows and forests are still brown, you can often look to the skies to find drama.
Last, using a remote shutter release, shoot one shot after the other and cross your fingers that lightning pops while your shutter is open. The image below is a five-second exposure stopped down to f/22 at ISO 100.
Mid-Spring Landscape Photography—Find the Color
Here in Alaska, spring comes late and happens fast. One day, it seems the world is still half covered in snow, and the next, wildflowers appear from the ground in a wild burst of color.
Spring is also a finicky season that comes on strong with warmth and sun, followed by a late snowstorm covering all that new life in a layer of half-frozen slush.
This constant change is a blessing and a curse when it comes to photography. Some of my best spring landscape images have been made during the crazy weather of the season.
I once guided a wilderness photography workshop in far northern Alaska in early June (that’s spring in the Arctic), and my group and I were hit by a late-season snowstorm.
We woke after a cold night to 10 cm of snow on our tents and the surrounding tundra. But the sun had emerged, and the landscape was bright and beautiful.
I quickly grabbed my camera and headed out to take images of the spring wildflowers juxtaposed in their blanket of snow.
Even when the weather hasn’t taken a turn, mid-spring is still a great time to make images. New growth starts on the plants, and flowers emerge from the previously brown and muddy ground.
Use those new, colorful elements as the subject of your photographs, then place them into context.
Step Forward, Step Back
In my landscape photography workshops, I have my students do an exercise I call “step forward, step back.” In short, you find a detail in the landscape—a flower, a new leaf, a stone, etc., and photograph it close up.
Then, you step back and put that detail into the context of its surroundings.
This exercise is particularly effective in spring when there is new and interesting subject matter emerging everywhere. Concentrate on a detail, and then use that detail to set the stage for a larger landscape.
Late-Spring Landscape Photography—Summer Is Coming
I spend a lot of time in the mountains during this time of year. Walking across an alpine meadow or a tundra can take hours because I am constantly distracted by a new wildflower or singing bird. It seems the landscape is erupting with life.
This is the time of year to embrace color. Allow your images to become awash with it. But how?
Wildflower meadows, to our eyes, look amazingly colorful. Flowers of red, white, yellow, green, blue, and purple erupt from every corner of our vision. And yet, images often struggle to show that same vivid scene. But why?
Our eyes will select those points of color as our focus. But in images, the flowers become specks of color in an otherwise green space.
The second method is to get low. From a standing position, an image of a wildflower meadow will appear mostly green. But if you lay down in that grass, the colors emerge.
Flowers stand a bit higher than the surrounding vegetation. And by getting low, we can make more of our frame include elements of color.
By combining these two tools, getting close and getting low, you can create a mosaic of spring color within your landscape.
Experiment with different apertures. Try a wide aperture to narrow your depth of field. This draws attention to your subject while blurring other areas of your frame.
Alternatively, when you have a greater landscape that warrants attention from your viewers, select a small aperture for a deep depth of field so most or all of your image will be in focus.
Both strategies can work, so experiment with your scene to see which you prefer.
Consider the spring season and the changes it brings to the landscape. These are the stories of spring and the stories you need to portray in your images.
While there is a lot of discussion elsewhere on the technical aspects of photography—the camera bodies, settings, and lenses—those are not the essence of photography. Good images emerge from how you choose to tell the stories of the places and seasons you photograph.
Spring is a great time of year to practice because nature’s stories are obvious. They are right there, happening before your eyes. You just need to pick up your camera and find some amazing spring landscapes to photograph.