Finding the Right Light for Landscape Photographs

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Good landscape photographs usually have an interesting subject, a good composition and good light. Of those three ingredients, the right light may be the most elusive.

How do we find it? It requires thinking, persistence, and a willingness to get up early and stay out late.




We may get lucky and find the right light the first time we visit a place. I can't recall it ever happening. It didn't happen with this image.

I had photographed this ruin about two years earlier, about an hour after sunrise. The result wasn't bad, but I knew I could do better with better light. This particular ruin sings to me. It was worth a second try.

What kind of light did this scene require? I thought the question through. The ruin faced east. That meant a morning shot, so the ruin wouldn't be shadowed. I wanted the background mountains in the image, and that meant including an expanse of sky. The sky would be more interesting with clouds—perhaps colored clouds at dawn. My thinking led me to the conclusion that I had the best chance of finding the right light between first light and sunrise.

When I was back in the general area, I got up one morning at 3:50, drove as close as I could get, and then walked to the ruin. It was barely light enough to see. I took this photograph a few minutes before sunrise.

My thinking about the right light for this image led me to get up earlier than I'd like. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon. Many landscape photographers prefer the so-called Golden Hours, which consist roughly of a half hour on either side of sunrise and sunset. I wish I could disagree with that consensus and sleep later. I can't. At least 90 percent of the time, when I think about what light I want for photographing a particular spot, the answer will be during the Golden Hours.

The next image was taken earlier in the morning than the first image, at 5:20 AM to be precise:

This was my third attempt to photograph this place. My first attempt lacked any foreground interest. I decided to include wildflowers, which offered the only foreground interest available. As for the light, I knew that I wanted a somewhat colorful dawn sky in the background. That would require some clouds, but not too many. On my second attempt to photograph the scene, the overcast was too heavy and the dawn sky was what we technically call a dud. This image reflects my third attempt. I had to use a three-stop graduated neutral-density filter to darken the sky and make the dynamic range manageable.

The right light can be a very fleeting thing. The next image was taken about fifteen minutes before sunset:

The scene was deep in a canyon. As the sun sank, the pattern of illuminated and shadowed areas kept changing rapidly and unpredictably. I thought this scene might offer a good photograph, but only if the right parts were illuminated and the right parts were in shadow. I watched and waited for about ten minutes until the lighting conditions that you see here occurred, and then I took the photograph. I didn't know the topography well enough to predict when or if this scene would offer the right light. About all I knew was that the best chance of finding the right light would occur as sunset approached.

The first two images were taken when the sun was down. The third was taken while the sun was up. Which lighting is better? It depends entirely on the scene and on your intentions. When I was photographing the ruin, I kept taking photographs after the sun rose. The presence of direct light and shadow made those photographs more dramatic. The image from before sunrise, however, had a sense of tranquility to it that was lost once the sun rose. By contrast, when I was photographing the canyon, I liked the pool of light surrounded by shadow, and that was only available when the sun was up. It's sometimes difficult to decide at the time which light will look best in an image. That's one reason why, when I find a composition I like, I tend to keep photographing that scene as the light changes. That way I can decide later what light I prefer.

I've taken some landscape photographs I like, outside of the Golden Hours. Some were taken in deep canyons that are in shade for much of the day. A few were taken during unusual weather conditions, such as storms. The rest are virtually all black-and-white images. This one was taken at mid-morning:

The light suited the treatment I had in mind. I'm not suggesting that any light will do for a black-and-white image. That's certainly not the case. But such images rely on tonal variations, and the best combination of those may well be available outside of the Golden Hours. As Jason Odell recently pointed out, we can often take good black-and-white photographs when the light isn't conducive to color images.

My comments are those of an amateur. Jack Dykinga, a master landscape photographer, has said that he will sometimes camp at a place for a few days before photographing it, so that he can get to know the moods of the weather and the light. His is an excellent approach. It shows in the stunning quality of his work. It's an approach that isn't practical, though, for most of us with day jobs. That said, we should still plan our outings as carefully as we can to maximize the chances of getting the right light. 

Being picky about light can be a lot of trouble. It involves getting up earlier than I'd like. All too often, it means going back to try again. It's tempting to settle for adequate light. When I've done that, though, I wind up looking at the result and thinking: I could do better. Avoiding that feeling is worth the extra effort. 

Don Peters' photographs can be seen at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/