Friday, April 17, 2009

The Light and Landscape Photography

With landscape photography, the vast majority of the time we get to shoot using sunlight. This light can vary dramatically depending on time of day, time of year, atmosphic conditions, latitude, and very importantly, which way you are facing. Beautiful or dramatic lighting is the other key to a great and truly memorable photograph (along with good composition and getting the technical bits of focus, exposure, white balance etc. right).

Where or when do you get beautiful or dramatic light? Most commonly around sunrise, sunset and the edges of storm clouds, but there is limitless variety to the light and conditions you can get, and different light suits different subjects, or can create new and interesting versions of the same subject, so you just have to keep your eye out for great light when it happens, and even better, try to predict it and be in the right spot at the right time.

Here are some of the effects of the direction of the light on your subject:

Sidelight: this is where the light comes from the side of your subject. Sidelight is great for giving your landscape shots a real sense of contour and dimension, because you see highlights on one side and shadows on the other for every object and curve in the landscape.

Frontlight: this is where the light is behind you and shining on the front of your subject. While it's not so good for creating a sense of depth and dimension, it's great for bringing out intense colours in things and usually makes getting the right exposure pretty easy because everything is evenly lit and of similar brightness.

Toplight: when the sun is directly overhead you can get fairly flat looking landscapes with harsh shadows. On the other hand, this light is great for shining down into the bottom of narrow gorges or showing all the bright colours of a beach scene.

Backlight: This is one of my favourite kinds of lighting. Backlight is when light comes from behind your subject, and it creates wonderful highlights around the edges of things and shines through leaves making them look bright, saturated and glowing. Like sidelight, it's great for making things look very 3-dimensional. However, it can be tricky to work with getting the exposure right and stopping the light shining on the lens and creating a hazy-looking image or bright spots across it.

Qualities of light - colour and "hardness":

Light from the sun is typically yellow, while shade is blue, but the colour of your light can vary dramatically with different times of day, year and atmospheric conditions. In the early morning and late afternoon the light is typically a warm gold colour, although morning is usually cooler and bluer light than afternoon. Sunrise and sunset have lots of wonderful warm colours that subtly light the landscape and not-so-subtly light the sky. Sunset or sunrise light on clouds can be particularly colourful, dramatic and beautiful, and this reflects from the clouds onto the landscape.

Direct sunlight in the middle of the day is considered to be "hard" light. The shadows are very dark and the lit areas very bright, so there is a lot of contrast, sometimes more than the camera can cope with, resulting in blown-out highlights or black detail-less shadows. Towards either end of the day the light becomes softer and there is less contrast and more detail in both highlights and shadows.

Diffuse or indirect light happens when there is shade, reflected light, clouds (or mist, dust or smoke) across the sun or the sun is just below the horizon. While it doesn't create strong highlights or shadows to give your landscape shape, it is very soft and suits some subjects very well. Rainforests are great in mist or on cloudy days for example, and the soft light after sunset looks good on lots of landscapes. Sunset or sunrise light on clouds can be particularly colourful, dramatic and beautiful.

Next: Landscape Photography and Exposure