There is a lot of talk about lighting and photography, and specifically how learning to use light can make you a better photographer. This is true, of course, but is also a notion that’s more often applied to working with artificial lighting, such as for portraits or products, where you can work in a studio with a strobe or LED to fine-tune how your shot looks. When it comes to landscapes, on the other hand, most likely you won’t have the ability to or just won’t want to use artificial lighting for your scenic shots. This is part of the challenge and enjoyment of landscape photography: learning how to look at natural light and use it to your advantage.
Just like using a strobe or LED in a studio, photographing a landscape and using the sun requires planning. The difference is that timing is also a large factor for outdoor, natural-light shooting. Your control over the light is often limited, which means you need to do your research, so you don’t miss the window of time to get the shot you want. This is a skill all photographers should learn, and it’s a skill you’ll hone over time. With a little guidance about what to look out for and some tools you can use, that learning curve can be reduced a bit to help you work with natural light.
Before getting into the specific types of light to be on the lookout for, it’s always worth acknowledging some tools that will help the process of planning and shooting. The key tool, aside from your camera and lens, is a light meter. This lets you pinpoint your exposures, save time on unnecessary test shots, and helps you begin to recognize lighting a bit more easily since you’ll be examining conditions with your own eyes rather than through your camera’s viewfinder/via an EVF or LCD.
The second tool to have handy is a tripod. Everyone hates using a tripod, but if you’re going to invest in getting better landscape shots, you’ll need to suck it up and get used to working with this trusty tool that helps to reduce camera shake and opens up the range of usable shutter speeds. There’s nothing worse than making it to the perfect lookout just in time to photograph an epic sunset and then realizing you need a ½-second exposure to get the shot you need, but you don’t have a tripod to help keep things stable.
The third tool a landscape photographer should have is a polarizing filter, and the fourth tool they should have is a neutral density filter. Natural light is unpredictable and sometimes it needs a little help to look as special in photos as it does in real life. Polarizing filters and ND filters are a couple of the few tools around that give you some control over how the sun affects a picture, and are perfect choices for landscape applications.
Specific Types of Light
There are a number of descriptors used for the types of natural light you’ll run into, ranging from the “golden hour” to the “blue hour,” along with common assumptions about how photographing at certain times of day or certain times of the year can affect the look of your photographs. This is a given for most landscape photographers, but it’s also something I think is underappreciated by many. Referring to the opening of this article, light is everything, and if you don’t have interesting or appropriate light in your photograph, then it’s probably not a successful one—especially in the landscape genre, where nature is often the main subject.
The golden hour refers to a time during the day when the quality of natural light is warmer and a bit softer. There are two golden hours every day, occurring just after sunrise and right before sunset—the times when the sun is closest to the horizon.
The blue hour refers to a time when the quality of natural light is cooler and a bit softer. It happens during twilight, in the morning or evening, when the sun is below the horizon but still illuminating the sky a deep blue. Also, it’s worth noting that since there isn’t any direct sunlight, shadows won’t be a usable element to break up a scene.
Splitting the difference between these two is the magic hour, where there is still some perceivable warmth from the just-finished sunset or oncoming sunrise, but there is also the dramatic blue since the sun is just beneath the horizon. The magic hour usually doesn’t last a full hour and is much more fleeting than the golden or blue hours, but can be one of the most pleasing times of day to shoot, due to the mixture of colors and overall soft light quality.
Contrasting these three specific times of day, midday lighting is commonly thought of as the enemy of photographers. Partly true, but partly misunderstood, midday lighting is the harshest type of natural lighting you’re likely to experience, especially if there are no clouds in the sky. The sun functions as a single point of light, beaming at such a strong angle, it causes harsh shadows and immense contrast. It’s not the most flattering light, but it is a distinct quality of light that has its time and place in photography for certain subjects.
Cloudy conditions are also some of the most misunderstood conditions for photographers. Often, they are written off for being boring and non-transformative with respect to how a subject looks. The light quality adds very little to how a subject is seen—no shadows or highlights for drama, duller colors, subtler tones, and so on. As true as this may be, keep in mind that some subjects don’t require the drama associated with golden hour. Sometimes a gloomy day can be used to convey a more brooding and subtler mood.
Additionally, seasons also determine light quality, as well as your location. During wintertime (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), the sun is at a lower angle of incidence to the horizon and light is often softer in quality compared to summer. This results in a transitional type of lighting during spring and fall. There should also be some consideration given to the amount of daylight in each season: days are much shorter in the winter, so the time between blue/gold hours is much shorter, too.
Understanding and recognizing these different variables in natural lighting can have a profound impact on your landscape photography. Not only will it make your shooting better, it will make you a more efficient photographer, too, and enable you to plan for when and where you need to be to get the shot you want. Being cognizant of how a west-facing scene receives direct golden light during sunset can help you plan for a day of shooting by visiting this location last and focusing on other subjects during different times of day.
Do you have a favorite time or season in which to photograph? Do you already consider lighting before you go out and photograph? Do you let the light dictate where and when you’re shooting? Let us know your thoughts or tell us about your experiences and favorite gear in the Comments section, below.