How to Work with Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is a fantastic way to discover new places, learn new things, and showcase the beauty of nature. Although, most of the time, landscape photography is extremely challenging and requires a lot of planning, effort, and patience. Moreover, you’re at the mercy of the weather and depend entirely on natural light. If you don’t learn how to take great photos under any conditions, you may end up spending a lot of time and energy on nothing.

There are many tips you can use to improve your landscape photography. Finding a good location, choosing the right gear, and meticulously planning your trips are just some of them. In addition, there are tips for mastering composition, camera settings, and photo editing. But the most crucial skill you need for landscape photography is working with natural light. This means understanding its properties – direction, intensity, and color – and learning to use them in accordance with the scenery to create outstanding natural-looking photos.

How the Direction of the Natural Light Affects Your Landscape Photography

It’s important to know the scene and its position relative to the sun before arriving at the location. This way you can choose the best time of the day to visit and take the photos you want to take.

The direction of the light may affect the amount of detail you see or create shadows you don’t want. While you can’t change the sun’s position, you can change the position of the camera relative to the sun or choose another time of the day to take photos. For example, you may have to wait for the sun to rise over the mountains so that you have enough light to photograph the valley. You may have to choose to visit when the sunlight comes from the left because that’s how your subject needs to be illuminated.

Sunrise composition that uses side lighting during the golden hour. Photo by Peter Dam.

How to Position the Camera Relative to the Sun

There are four ways you can position the camera relative to the sunlight:

  • Top lighting – the sun is above the scenery, like a midday sun
  • Side lighting – the sunlight comes from either the left or right relative to your subject
  • Back lighting – the sunlight comes from behind the subject
  • Front lighting – the sunlight comes from behind the camera and illuminates the subject from the front
Graphics courtesy of Photography-RAW

The most popular choice for landscape photography is side lighting because it creates shadows and adds a sense of depth. It also increases contrast, enhances details, and delivers clarity and sharpness. You want side lighting when you photograph landscapes with iconic shapes such as hills, mountains, rocks, and forests.

The next most popular choice is back lighting, especially if you choose to shoot just before sunrise or after sunset with warm colors, soft light, and an idyllic atmosphere. Back lighting creates dramatic contrast.

Vorupoer Lighthouse, Denmark using backlighting at the end of the blue hour. Photo by Peter Dam.

High contrast, however, may be a problem if your camera doesn’t have a high dynamic range. Based on the area you use for exposure settings, you may have the rest of the image underexposed or overexposed. You can take photos with different exposures and stack them in post-processing using luminosity masking. Alternatively, use graduated neutral density filters to uniformize the intensity of the light.

Another problem with back lighting is the risk of getting sun glares. To avoid them, slightly change the position of the camera relative to the sun so it isn’t directly within the frame. In addition, it may help to have some clouds or branches obstructing the sun or a star filter to capture rays.

The least favorite choice of landscape photographers is top lighting because having the source of light above the subject reduces the shadows to a minimum and makes everything look flat. However, no shadows and a flat-looking photo may be precisely what you want when you photograph an empty field, a beach, or a large water surface. So, see how the position of the sun affects your composition and be creative. Top lighting can also work great when you have a cloud blanket diffusing the intense sunlight coming from above.

Mt. White Bridge, New Zealand. To make top lighting work, shoot when the sunlight transits a layer of clouds. Photo by Peter Dam.

Front lighting isn’t a favorite either. Like top lighting, it washes out shadows and contrast and delivers flat images with little details and depth. Yet, there are situations in which front-lighting works very well. For example, when you have an element in the foreground that captures the viewer’s attention and adds a sense of depth.

Mt. White Bridge, New Zealand. To make top lighting work, shoot when the sunlight transits a layer of clouds. Photo by Peter Dam.

Intensity

The intensity of the natural light in landscape photography dictates camera settings and affects the composition. On a bright sunny day, you can use fast shutter speeds and low apertures without compromising the ISO value. You’ll have a deep depth of field and the entire scenery in focus. To use the same shutter speeds on bleak rainy days, you have to use larger apertures (which means a shallower depth of field) or increase the ISO value.

Sunlight intensity varies with season, weather, and also during the day. For example, you have an intense light at midday and in the morning you have a softer, less powerful light.

As a landscape photographer, you don’t have just to adapt to available light intensity. You have to know how to plan your photo sessions to achieve the effects you are looking for. If you want a dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere, you may need to take photos in the morning or evening when the light allows for long exposures. Or you may want to use neutral density filters to reduce the intensity of the light.

Winter and autumn’s sunlight is less intense than during the summer. Additionally, it is sometimes misty, which creates the perfect conditions for creating dreamy, low saturated compositions (e.g., black and white landscape photos) and low-key or high-key photos. On the other hand, summer sunlight is joyful, bright, and clear, which fits with highly saturated colors, lots of details, and crystal clear photos. Take some time to observe how light blends in the scenery at the different seasons and at varying times of the day. It will help you plan to be at the right spot at the right time to capture exactly what you want.

Color

Light also has a color and — like other characteristics of light — it changes during the day. Most landscape photographers take advantage of the golden and blue hours, which are the times of the day when sunlight is soft and colorful.

The golden hours are the hour around sunrise and sunset. They provide a wide range of orange, red, and magenta shades.

The blue hours are the last hour before sunrise and the first one after sunset (twilights), when the light has very low intensities and shades of blue, violet, and purple. On the other side, midday provides almost white light — bright and powerful.

Graphics courtesy of Photography-RAW

You should consider the color of the light an active element of your composition. The color of the light can make the viewer feel emotional, angry, or joyful. It can take the viewers far beyond the photo’s aesthetic and emerge them into memories, revelations, or dreams. It can also transform the impression of a place, making it appear welcoming, secluded, or even hostile. Landscape photography isn’t just about what you see. It’s also about what you want to convey. The color of the light has a significant role here.

Sunlight isn’t a separate factor. It’s an intrinsic part of the landscape and an active element in your compositions. You should think about how the light affects the scene before pressing the shutter. Ask yourself questions about light. Should the sun be part of the composition? Will the solitude of a mountain, the bravery of trees, or the delicacy of hills be better told with side lighting or back lighting? Change the camera’s position, the time of the day, and camera settings until you reach the best natural light in landscape photography.

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