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Light and the landscape


A scene can look entirely different in morning light than it does in the afternoon.
A scene can look entirely different in morning light than it does in the afternoon.

Perhaps the single most important factor governing successful landscape photography, other than the merits of the scene itself, is the quality of light falling on the scene.

Many landscapes can be compared to a truly good-looking model or a baby or a kitten, in that the subject itself is so naturally attractive that it just about can’t be photographed badly. If outstanding, beautiful scenery is photographed in full sunlight or in any conditions but heavy fog or darkness, it will probably still make a good picture. Gorgeous landscapes, therefore, present the photographer with a challenge, and that challenge is to capture the scene in a unique manner that further enhances the scene’s inherent attractiveness. Differentiating between a landscape picture that anyone can take and a great picture that really stands out from the crowd is often due to the quality of light.

The reverse side of the coin is that many landscapes are not particularly attractive all the time, and require specific lighting to bring out their virtues. The photographer who can see the potential in a scene when others simply pass it by will capture a unique landscape.


YOU CAN’T CONTROL NATURAL LIGHT; YOU CAN ANTICIPATE IT

No one can control the light that falls upon a mountain, a river valley or any extensive landscape. But, you can anticipate how the scene will be illuminated, and be ready to photograph it as the right conditions develop.

When you first confront a landscape scene that has potential, think about the direction of the light, the locations of shadows, how the sun in a different position in morning or evening will light the scene, and how it might look when there is a change in the weather. Often, a scene that appears flat at noontime will look almost magical at dawn or at dusk when the quality and direction of the light are different. A deep crevasse may be in darkness through most of the day, revealing its secrets only when the light from the sun comes from a certain angle. A scene may need a rising or setting sun to give it the right mood, or the sun may need to be in a certain position that might occur only a few times during the year. Perhaps the landscape needs a backdrop of dark clouds or an overcast sky to provide it with the drama you feel will make it look best.

Shadows in a landscape are important, too. Longer morning and late afternoon shadows can give a scene three-dimensionality, revealing the texture of rocks and foliage, and emphasizing details that aren’t evident in the flat light of mid-day.

Light is the element that contributes mood to a landscape. Photo by Karen Meeks.
Light is the element that contributes mood to a landscape. Photo by Karen Meeks.

The light at dawn or dusk, as in this picture, is generally warmer - more golden - than during the day. Many successful landscape photographers like to take pictures at these times.
The light at dawn or dusk, as in this picture, is generally warmer - more golden - than during the day. Many successful landscape photographers like to take pictures at these times.

YOU MAY BE LUCKY, BUT DON’T COUNT ON IT

You may come upon a vista at just the right time to photograph it at its best, and we hope you have your camera ready. Most often, however, you will have to revisit the location after you have assessed what kind of lighting will make the best picture. This requires skill at visualization on your part. What will the light be like in four hours or tomorrow at dawn? Where should the sun be so that this scene looks its best? What weather conditions would be ideal to shoot this scene?

Many experienced landscape photographers like to take pictures at or around dawn and dusk when the sun is low in the sky and the color of the light is warmer. (Click here to find out why the light becomes warmer.) Shadows are longer at these times of day, aiding in giving the appearance of three-dimensionality and bringing out texture that might otherwise be apparent. An added bonus is that animals can often be seen in the wild before the sun is fully up or just as it is setting, sometimes providing a landscape with a living center of interest.


Plan the timing of your landscape photography, but don’t let it ruin your holiday if you are traveling. (See Buy a postcard instead.) If you are able to return to photograph a scene when its light is at its most propitious, then by all means, do so, and capture a great image.

Shooting into the light can create a dramatic, silhouetted landscape.
Shooting into the light can create a dramatic, silhouetted landscape.


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