The Use of Light in Landscape Photography

By Ricardo Da Cunha
Along with composition, the quality of light is perhaps the most important factor affecting the success of a landscape photograph. Whilst composition can be completely controlled, good quality light on the other hand cannot. We can however control the direction of the light and therefore use the optimum angle of light to enhance the appearance of our main subject and ultimately the success of our landscape photograph. There are four main types of lighting; top, side, front and back lighting. Consider how your envisaged scene will appear under each type of lighting and then choose which type of lighting will best portray your subject and shoot at the specific time and in the specific position to capture your subject in this light.
Occurring during the middle hours of the day:
Top Lighting
Generally speaking for landscape photography, top lighting is to be avoided as it does not cast any shadows and therefore does not convey texture, form and shape which are so important to emulate dimension in a landscape photograph. The only exception to using top lighting is when you wish to capture water at its most turquoise colour which occurs when the sun is positioned directly above.
Occurring leading-up to sunset and a short time after sunrise:
Front Lighting
Similar to top lighting front light also does not produce texture, form and shape and even worse your shadow will more than likely appear in the scene. Try and avoid this lighting in any situation.
Back lighting is difficult to shoot in not only because of the extreme brightness between the subject and background but also because lens flare becomes an issue. If you do choose to shoot in back-lighting conditions then it’s recommended to use a lens hood to shade the top of the lens in order to prevent flare. The only exception to using back lighting in landscape photography is when you wish to create a silhouette of your subject which is only possible using back lighting.
Side lighting
Side lighting is the ideal light source to reveal a subject’s texture, form and shape as it casts beautiful subtle shadows to provide a sense of dimension of the subject and therefore creating a more ‘life-like’ image that the viewer can better relate to. As creating a three dimensional image is often one of the main goals of the landscape photographer, strive to capture your subject using side lighting.
To control the direction of light simply change where you stand and capture the image from!
Finally an interesting note is that shooting during the different times of year can actually produce different results under the same lighting conditions and angle. For example the colour of water is different depending not only on the angle of the sun but also the time of year. For example trying to achieve turquoise water is best achieved right in the middle of the day as the top light penetrates straight thru the water. However the same image taken at the same time in winter compared with summer will result in the water not becoming as turquoise because the sun does not completely travel overhead during the shorter winter days and instead only rises up as far as ¾ during the middle of the day. Interesting yeah?
I hope you found this information helpful and feel free to share it with others who you think might benefit from it.
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