As a landscape photographer, you have no possibility to modify the light available at the location you want to go to. Since you are limited to using the natural light, you need to be able to make the best of it. So understanding the qualities of light and knowing when the best possible light is available is a must if you want to improve your landscape photography.
Light determines the color saturation, the position and depth of shadows, and the level of contrast, just to name a few of its myriad qualities. No matter what type of landscape photography you do, understanding light is an essential step towards improving your art.
Unlike in other fields of photography, we landscape photographers rely purely on natural light. Using flash, and softboxes to manipulate light is a huge component of studio photography. The process involves using specialized equipment to gain a high level of control.
In landscape photography, we don’t have that luxury. This is both a constraint and an opportunity. We can’t control the sun, clouds, or atmosphere, but we can use timing, planning, the position to the sun, and good judgment to capture the very best of what these natural conditions have to offer.
The Basics of Light in Photography
Soft and Diffused Light vs. Harsh Light
The most important thing to remember is that larger light sources give softer, more diffuse light, while more focused sources yield harsh, intense light. In landscape photography, of course, the light mainly comes from a single source: the sun. But a midday sun high in a blue sky is a relatively focused small source of light compared to the same sunlight reflected off of a blanket of clouds. Clouds act like a giant softbox that disperses the light.
The midday sun will give you washed out colors, harsh contrasts, and deep shadows, whereas the same scene on a slightly overcast day will look rich and warm. Similarly, the light is more diffused and therefore softer when the sun is low in the sky – around sunrise and sunset – than during the middle of the day.
Think About Your Position to The Sun to Find The Best Light for Photography
Take the time to think about how your subject and your camera is positioned in relation to the sun. Your orientation relative to the sun is a very important factor in using natural light because it affects which shadows you will be able to see, how the details are revealed and whether the elements will seem to blend.
Using Side-Lighting In Landscape Photography
Side-lighting – shooting with the sunlight coming from the side – is common in landscape photography because it offers interesting shadows and even lighting. Shadows adds a perception of depth in your images and is the least problematic light to work with.
You also get the most benefit of using a polarizer when using side-lighting. A polarizer filter enables you to gain more contrast and remove reflections from surfaces that bounce the sun light.
Using Back-Lighting: Ideal For The Classical Sunset or Sunrise Landscape Photo
Shooting directly towards the sun can give you issues with either blown out highlights or totally dark shadows. This is because the difference between the highlight and the shadows at the scene is larger than what your camera can handle. However, you can overcome this issue by using exposure bracketing, where you take three or more images without moving the camera, but at different exposure values.
With exposure bracketing, you create an underexposed image, to get a perfect exposure of the highlights (likely the sunset or the sky). Then a normal exposed image for the mid-tones. And finally an overexposed image, which will capture the details in the deep shadow areas. In post-processing, you can blend these three exposures together using HDR software, or you can do it manually in Photoshop. Check out this tutorial over at Lightstalking for how to use bracketing and how to process the exposures into an HDR image to learn more about the process.
If you don’t want to use bracketing, you should expose for the highlights to avoid them being blown out, since blown out highlights are more difficult to recover than the shadow areas. Make sure you get the highlights right.
Using Front-Lighting in Landscape Photography
Pointing your camera in the opposite direction as the sun means that whatever you capture in this direction will have light coming from the front. The issue with front lighting is that it light up all the shadow areas. This often results in flat-looking images where things seem to blend visually making it difficult to judge where one thing ends and another thing begins. Furthermore, texture in foreground elements becomes less visible because of the lack of shadows. However, if the sun is low enough in the horizon, it can still produce an interesting array of colors in the clouds.
Because of the lack of shadows, side-lighting and back-lighting are often preferred over front-lighting in landscape photography. These types of light will let you have both bright areas and shadow areas within your images. It creates contrast, a rich tonal range, and a feeling of more depth in your images. Take a look at the samples below. I took them from the same position but turned 90 degrees to switch between side-lighting and front lighting. Try to disregard the subject, but look at how the shadows fall (or not) in these images.
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Photography Guide to Light During The Edge of The Day
Timing is extremely important in landscape photography since natural light changes throughout the day. Certain periods of the day are more spectacular and special than other. This is especially around the edge of the day where the light changes rapidly.
The golden hours are the hours are right around sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky. They offer rich colors, interesting shadows, and soft lighting because the sunlight gets diffused through the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere filters out much of the green and blue light at this time of day, colors look warm and gentle.
The blue hours occur before sunrise and after sunset when the sun is below the horizon, but residual light still brightens the sky. The light is diffuse and very soft. Because red light passes straight out of the atmosphere at this time of day, blues and purples are the predominant colors.
The golden and blue hours are often considered prime times for landscape photography, but that’s not to say they’re the only options.
Time For The Perfect Light Conditions
People who are new to landscape photography often underestimate the importance of planning. Anyone can snap a photo opportunistically, and ever so often you might get a lucky shot that way. But if you want to make an art of landscape photography, you’re going to need to plan ahead, and be prepared to wake up early and go to bed late at night.
If possible, research the location beforehand to get an idea of the kinds of shots you might be looking for. Once you arrive, give yourself time to familiarize yourself with the area. Use days with poor lighting conditions to scout locations for shots you want to take later. This gives you better chances of arriving and setting up well ahead of your target time on a day where the light is perfect.
It takes a combination patience, practice, intuition, and luck to find just the lighting you want, but it will all be worth it when you finally get that perfect shot.
Understanding Light During The Edge of The Day
When it comes to understanding light at the edge of the day, there are different names and terms assigned to each phase and events of decreasing or increasing light. Some of these terms overlap, like civil twilight and blue hour for instance, so it is easy to get a little confused about the phases. Furthermore, the starting time and duration of these phases depend on where you are.
Below I will cover each phase and what type of photography is suited for this type of light.
Nighttime is when the sun is more than -18° below the horizon.
This period is ideal for taking photos of the Milky Way if you have the right conditions. This includes being far away from big cities, the moon being below the horizon, or during a new moon, and no or only a few clouds in the sky.
Morning twilights cover the time of day where the sun is between 18° below the horizon until 0°, which is sunrise. The morning twilight is subdivided into three phases: astronomical twilight, nautical twilight, and civil twilight.
Photography During Astronomical Twilight
Occurs when the sun is between -18° and -12° below the horizon.
In this phase of the day, you will be able to see a wide range of star constellations, but galaxies will be difficult to observe with the naked eye. If you are away from light pollution, you will still be in total darkness where you cannot distinguish objects from each other. Check this light pollution map to find areas near you, with limited light pollution.
Early in the morning, at the beginning of the astronomical twilight, you can get the last night photography shots of the Milky Way if you are lucky enough to be in an area without light pollution during new moon.
If you are not into star photography, you can do long exposure both in the city or out in rural areas.
Nautical twilight is when the sun is between -12° and -6° below the horizon.
During nautical twilight, the sky begins to brighten up going from dark to a dark blue hue in the horizon, which begins to become visible. You can still observe many stars on the night sky.
It is a great time for city photography, where the artificial light can add some really interesting effects.
If you do long exposure photography, you can take advantage of this time to do some shots without using ND filters. The sparse light is diffused and soft, which makes it also well suitable to begin the classical landscape photography.
During a full moon, you can get some great moon silhouette shots during the nautical twilight. Put on a telelens to compress the elements in the photo and you will get a nice big moon in your shots.
Civil twilight occurs when the sun is between -6° and 0° below the horizon.
Just before sunrise you often see the amazing play of vibrant yellow and orange over to magenta and blue. When the sun is not yet visible on the horizon, these colors is most intensely seen on clouds being illuminated by the sun. But even without clouds dust particles dispersed in the sky can enhance the yellow-orange and magenta colors just before sunrise or sunset.
The sky at this point is very bright, and you can clearly distinguish objects from one another. Furthermore, you can also see the horizon line. Only a few stars or planets are visible.
In the morning civil twilight you can see the orange sunlight begin to appear in the east, but if you turn and look to the West, you will see that in this direction the sky is still blue or indigo colored.
The colors change very rapidly in the civil twilight, so you need to be ready and with your gear setup to capture this magical show. It will be over within 20-30 minutes.
The civil twilight is ideal for the typical sunset or sunrise shot, because of the diffused light and range of dramatic colors in the sky. If you want to play with long exposure at this time, you will need an ND-filter in front of your lens.
Photographer’s Magic Hours
The most dramatic light occurs during the blue hour and the golden hour. Even though the terms might imply they last for an hour, but this is not exactly so. The length changes throughout the year and according to the latitude of the location. Further down below you will find links to some of the most popular apps that can help you find out when the different light phases occur at your specific location.
Using the Blue Hour for Landscape Photography
The Blue Hour occurs when the sun is between -6° to -4°. Note that this phase overlaps with Civil Twilight. Which term you prefer to use is up to you.
While the sky is still blue, a hint of orange and magenta colors can often be seen in the direction where the sun rises. Take a look at the photo below to see an example of the light during the blue hour. Because object and the horizon line is visible at this time, you can also use it to create subtle silhouettes with blue back-light.
The Most Popular Light for Landscape Photographers: The Golden Hour
The golden hour occurs when the sun is between –4° below the horizon and until the sun is 6° above the horizon.
The golden hour is probably the most popular time for landscape photographers. This is the time, where the sun passes above the horizon line. However, you will often find the most beautiful light just before the sun becomes visible. The orange and magenta colors become more intense and can fill the entire sky with almost magical light. But this only happens if the sun gets a chance to illuminate the clouds from below. This requires a small gap in the clouds in the far horizon, so the cloud cover shouldn’t be too dense.
Whenever the sun is more than 6° above the horizon line, we call it daytime. Light becomes stronger and harsher. However, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop shooting landscape photos. On a clouded day, you can continue to create beautiful photos all day. Alternatively, you can go to a forest and use the leaves as a diffuser to soften up the light.
Evening magical hours and twilights
Everything reverses towards the end of the day. Just before sunset the golden hour begins and changes into the blue hour and the different twilights. The phases have the same qualities described above.
Evening magic hours
- Golden hour (from 6° to -4°)
- Blue hour (from -4° to -6°)
Evening twilights (from 0° to -18°)
- Civil twilight (from 0° to -6°)
- Nautical Twilight (from -6° to -12°)
- Astronomical Twilight (from -12° to -18°)
- Nighttime (below -18°)
How to find out, when to be ready?
There are several apps that you can use to predict and plan when you need to be ready for the type of light you wish to catch. The most popular are PhotoPills and PlanIt. Common to both of them is that you can find any location using a map and then set the date to find out when the sun and the moon rises or sets and in which direction. They have a lot of other great useful features that are helpful in planning for a landscape photography trip.
When you begin to look at light, shadows and the colors of light, you are advancing your landscape photography skills. The next step is to go out and shoot at times when others are comfortable in their beds. However, when you do get out, and the weather conditions are favorable, you will be able to catch some of the most magical moments that nature has to offer. Always remember to combine great light with an interesting composition to create truly amazing landscape photos.
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