The art of photography is the capturing of light – never more so than with landscapes. It is the shadows and highlights that bring a scene to life; it’s why many photographers stalk their images at dawn and dusk.
In landscape photography, light makes the scene. But how do we work out which light is best?
Outside the studio, nature rules, so it becomes a case of using whatever light there is to its best advantage. A photographer’s focus should be to craft an image with whatever the light suggests, rather than imaging the ideal framed scene, hoping it will be lit adequately. At dawn and dusk, landscapes come alive. It’s not only the myriad of wildlife that is out at these times; the wonderful golden light allows a keen eye to capture beautiful portraits of our world.
Some photographers only shoot their images at certain times. At day’s beginning, sunrise offers many chances for breathtaking shots. The light increases as dawn breaks; each moment in time brings a new scene as shadows fade and colour emerges. In the last of the pre-dawn, the predominant hues are blue, as most light comes from the sky.
Of course, this assumes you’ve a country location away from the all-pervasive orange glare of city street lights. Shots in this half-light can be very expressive, suggesting rather than illustrating.
What happens next depends on weather patterns and good fortune. In a clear sky, the east will glow warm, perhaps with a red-gold cast on cloud, should the angle be right. But the light is still from above, so exposing for the sunrise will leave the foreground in shadow or silhouette.
Multiple images at bracketed exposures leave a chance to merge the images in processing. A graduated neutral-density filter may be your best weapon to allow for the sky and foreground to end up the way you want them. You’ll likely need a filter holder for one of these, as they are usually rectangular filters, designed to be slid across the lens front.
If the day is overcast, there’s no dramatic sunrise, just a gradual lightening that reveals a grey-white sky and washed-out colours. There’s no drama to capture here. But your picture-taking possibilities may not be over, unless you are only looking for sunrises. That grey even light means a lack of harsh contrasts, so under-tree scenes are easier. In the forest, a glow of light through leaf cascades gives a soft touch to the scene. There’s no flare of sun piercing the canopy to be worked around.
In street-walking mode, architectural detail is photographed more clearly when half of a facade is not either dazzling bright or in deep shadow. In this lesser light, an auto white-balance setting may over compensate, and need an override. Later, when full daylight has come, everything is well lit, but the bright light of day gives it all a sameness.
It’s perhaps good to recall the words of Mies van der Rohe: “God is in the details.”
There may be as much interest in shot of a beetle crawling on bark as in a panoramic shot of a mountain. The wide shot, used to capture that full landscape, as seen by the eye and admired in the real world, will often disappoint in print. This is because the image becomes flattened, and probably includes a good deal of bland sky. A smaller piece of the whole scene may give a more forceful image. Lie down, or climb up a little, if it’s possible. A new viewpoint can change everything.
If there is no immediate time pressure, there’s a chance to view many different shots when in the field during the middle of the day, as the light changes slowly. This is when attention to the light’s play on individual landscape surfaces can reveal details to you that your camera can capture. Weather works wonders. If you’re in tune with it and ready to see beyond any disappointment at the lack of a clear blue sky. Scowling cloud; imminent storm; the extremes of nature, or her benign state seen in a still pond all make for exciting shots
Your novel point of view; a low light, extended exposure shot of a swirling frowning cloud may be the start of a new discovery of how to use light.
Go and experiment!
By Anthony Smits. Reproduced for educational purposes.