I've always been a little envious of painters. If you're trying to capture a scene and the clouds aren't quite right, a painter can just make them right. Photographers have to make do with what nature provides — at least at that moment. As one grows as a nature photographer, however, the act of creating an image becomes more like creating a painting. And I'm not talking about the use of Photoshop.
Photography does involve being in the right place at the right time, but that doesn't mean it's always entirely left up to chance.
One of the biggest differences between beginning and experienced nature photographers is how they approach a scene for the first time. Beginners immediately start snapping away frantically, believing they are capturing the best the area has to offer. The advanced photographers immediately start considering possibilities, wondering if the scene would be even more striking at a different time of day or different time of the year.
All of the photographers I know have developed through three stages of seeing:
In the first stage, they have trouble seeing the whole scene. If they were to set up their tripod where Ansel Adams took one of his famous pictures, they would have trouble seeing how their photograph was different. If it's a view they discovered themselves, they may be surprised to find power lines running through the image when they look at it on their monitors back home. They tend to concentrate on one element of the view, letting their minds fill in the rest. And they don't realize that their minds and their cameras are seeing different things.
In stage two, they learn to see what the camera is seeing. They realize sometimes the light is better than it is at other times. They may realize the scene will be much more beautiful if they wait an hour for the sun to set. When setting up the camera, they scan the entire viewfinder to look for any possible flaws. They have the technical skills to use filters and other means to bring out the best in the scene that is in front of their eyes.
At the final stage, the photographers have grown to the point where they can imagine what a particular scene could be. They can imagine what the scene would be with light coming from a different direction, different weather, more or less snow, more or less water in waterfalls and rivers, different colored or no vegetation, and so on. And they have the experience and research skills to determine when the ideal time would be to capture that image then. They will take a picture today, but they will also be back at the time when they visualize the scene will be even better.
The stages of artistic development are not a new discovery. Galen Rowell, one of the highest regarded landscape photographers of the 20th century, once wrote about growing as a nature photographer to the point where you can see things that haven't happened yet.
There are not many short cuts in this process. To grow as a nature photographer, you need to grow in your awareness of the world around you, realizing that there are an infinite number of variables that affect the scene before your eyes. If any of those variables change, the scene is different. Maybe the changes result in a better image. Maybe they don't.
Education can help you with this process. I took a weather class in college and it's has proven to be one of the more useful subjects I studied.
Personal observation can be even more helpful. Pick a view near your home and photograph it at different times of day, different times of the year, and in different years. Study the images for differences. Treat this exercise like one of those puzzles where you're presented with two nearly identical-looking drawings and you have to spot all the changes.
All of the images in this post are of Mount Si and Borst Lake. My tripod was set up in nearly the same place for each image. But each image is dramatically different. In the image at the top of the post, notice how the fresh snow and clearing storm changes the appearance of the mountain. Notice how in winter there are no lily pads or algae on the lake.
In the images below, see how the amount of vegetation on the lake changes through summer and into fall. Notice how a different type of storm can completely change your perception of the mountain. Or how the moon impacts the feel of the image.
For every scene, there are infinite possibilities. To grow as a photographer, it's important to understand all the possibilities so that you can select the one that best matches your vision.