Get a free year on Tuts+ this month when you purchase a Siteground hosting plan from $3.95/mo
My favourite landscape images don’t grab my attention purely because of the place they capture, but because of the way in which they are represented in the photograph based primarily upon the available light and the compositional structure, so here are a few tips on how to understand natural light in your landscape images.
Light is Everything!
Light is the fundamental element of photography, so it’s essential that we understand how it works and how best to utilise it to get perfect results. Leaving the lighting in our images up to chance can make the difference between a good photograph and a great photograph. I’ll go through a few points in order for you to make the right decisions about the available light when on location.
The Golden Hours
The golden hours are no secret, any serious landscape photographer will have utilised the warm sunlight at dawn and dusk, but unlike many photographic techniques, it’s not yet become tiresome and over done. Making the most of the warm early morning and early evening sunlight would be one of the best tips I could give to any aspiring landscape photographer.
Admittedly, it can mean early starts and a great deal of patience, but if you do your research, find out when the sun is rising and setting, then the light offered will add not only warmth, but depth and colour to your images that just couldn’t be achieved if shooting in the middle of the day.
When I first started out with photography, sunsets were my favourite thing to photograph. At every available opportunity I was out with my camera trying to capture this unique collection of colours and light being cast across fields, countryside, lakes, the sea, mountain ranges, until I had so many similar looking shots, I didn’t know what to do with them!
Photographing sunsets is a good place to start, they’re a daily feature and will aid your understanding in how crucial it is to get the timing right and to be patient as the colours and light evolve and change as the sun goes down.
Using light to shape your photographs isn’t all about ensuring that something is bright and clear, elements such as shadows can play a huge part in the structure and interest within an image and are of course, constructed by the available light.
Shadows are more prominent when the light is low, so near the start or end of the day and also during the winter months when the sun doesn’t get very high. The lower the sun, the longer the shadows, so consider your timing and also the angle at which you’re shooting at to maximise the impact of the shadows in your images.
One of the absolutely key things to understand about working with natural light is that you have no control over it. This might sound obvious, but it can often be frustrating when on location, waiting for an age for a certain area of the scene before you to be bathed in light, so patience is absolutely key.
There are photographers that not only wait hours or days, but weeks and months, consistently returning to a location to wait for the light to be just for the shot that they’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to wait for just that extra while to see if the light moves or changes, it doesn’t always do what you expect and it can make a huge difference to the scene before you.
Utilising Flat Light
The winter months can mean hibernation for some photographers, the natural light isn’t as readily available so often and it can make for dull feeling landscapes, however, this doesn’t rule out opportunities to make some engaging images.
If there’s significant cloud cover and the sun is covered up, then look for detail shots, textures and reflections that will benefit from low contrast and even lighting. It can also be a good chance to try some silhouette shots.
Highlighting the Seasons
The available light will vary from season to season, and as I’ve mentioned previously, when it comes to natural light, you need to work with what you’ve got, so it’s a good chance to highlight the differences between the seasons.
In a winter scene, the light will reflect from the white surfaces and the low light will cast long shadows, offering you the chance to highlight some of the elements within the winter scene. In a summer scene however, you may feel more inclined to use the warm evening light to portray seasonal elements such as crops, flowers or wildlife.
There’s not very much you can do to ensure you’re timing is spot on to see the sun’s rays pouring through the clouds onto the landscape before you, but if you are lucky enough, make sure you’re ready to make the most of the opportunity.
A good viewpoint is essential, somewhere high is preferable, so you can not only see the rays, but also the light falling on the land below. As you’re essentially photographing the sun, you'll need to be very very careful with your exposure. Try exposing for the highlights and then the shadows and compare the results.
Filters are your Friend
No landscape photographer’s arsenal is complete without a set of filters. They come in many shapes and sizes, but a good place to start would be a graduated neutral density filter, which will be of great advantage when looked to correctly expose a landscape scene, as it has one end with a darker tint, that blocks some of the light from the sky and evens out the image so you don’t have overexposure in the sky or an underexposed scene below.
Try It For Yourself
So there we have it, hopefully a selection of useful tips on how to make the most of the available light in your landscape photography. Why not find a location that you love visiting and schedule in four visits throughout the year, each in a different season.
You’ll not only be able to capture the landscape as it changes through the year, but each occasion will offer different light and it will give you a chance to work with different conditions, hopefully offering a variation in results each time.