Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

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Photography is all about light. The same scene with the same composition can look completely boring under one set of lighting conditions and very dramatic under different conditions. Good light makes the difference.

But does that imply there is also such a thing as bad light? I don’t think there is such a thing. The key is to understand what kinds of images to make under the lighting conditions you are presented with when you are photographing.

White House in Arnarstapi Harbor, Iceland - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

An overcast sky creates a soft landscape with no shadows.

Understanding the three characteristics of natural light will help you use the light to your advantage and make images with an impact no matter what conditions you have to work with.

The Quality of Light

By quality of light, I am referring to how hard or soft the light is.

Hard light happens during midday when the sun is high in the sky and there are no clouds to filter the light. This kind of light is harsh and bright, but it can also create interesting shadows and contrast.

Shadow on the Dunes - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Harsh mid-afternoon light casts a dramatic shadow on this sand dune emphasizing its shape.

Soft light happens on a cloudy day when the clouds diffuse the light making it even with no shadows or bright spots. It also occurs in the shade.

Even on a day when there are no clouds, when the sun is lower in the sky the light passes through more atmosphere which softens the light. This is why golden light at the edges of the day is softer then midday light.

The Color of Light

The color of natural light from the sun changes during the course of the day. Before the sun rises, when the first light of the day appears in the sky, the light is a cool blue. During sunrise, the light is golden. As the sun gets higher in the sky, it is bright with little color tint at all.

Organ Pipe Cactus - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

During Golden Hour, the last of the day’s light casts a warm golden light on these cacti.

At the end of the day the opposite thing happens. When the sun is low on the horizon before sunset, you get the golden glow. After sunset is twilight when the light is a cool blue (blue hour).

Saguaro Cactus by Anne McKinnell - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Once the sun has set, the light becomes a cool blue and the landscape is soft with no shadows.

The Direction of Light

Front light is when the light comes from behind you and hits the front of your subject directly. Front light can be unforgiving, washing out colors and minimizing textures. So if you are going to use it, it’s best to do so when the sun is low in the sky when it is warmer and softer.

Angel Peak New Mexico by Anne McKinnell - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Front light hits the mountain, but it is a soft light since it is also at golden hour.

Backlight is when the sun is directly in front of you and behind your subject, lighting it from behind. I love backlight because the deep contrast between the highlights and shadows is so dramatic.

Backlighting is also perfect for making silhouettes when you have subjects with great shapes.

Organ Pipe Cactus by Anne McKinnell - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

The cactus is lit from behind creating an interesting silhouette during sunset.

Sidelight is when the sun is beside you, lighting your subject from the side. This kind of light is excellent for emphasizing shape and texture.

The sidelight on this saguaro cactus emphasizes it’s shape and texture.

What to do when …

So how do you use this information to your benefit? When you are out photographing consider the characteristics of the light you are presented with and use that to decide what kinds of photographs to make.

Harsh mid-afternoon light

The light is high in the sky, extremely bright and harsh with only a little color. This is a good time to look for shadows or photograph in the shade.

Shadow Patterns by Anne McKinnell - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Harsh mid-afternoon light can create interesting shadows.

An overcast day with dull light

This kind of midday light has little color, but it is soft with no shadows; think soft. This kind of light is perfect for making soft flower photos, close-ups with even light, or waterfall photos where direct light would cause unwelcome bright spots.

If there is any texture to the clouds in the sky, that is good. But if the sky is pure white, eliminate it from the frame.

Skogafoss Iceland by Anne McKinnell - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Waterfalls are a perfect subject for an overcast day.

Golden Hour

The sun is low in the sky casting beautiful soft warm light at golden hour, so it’s hard to go wrong in this situation. Think about the direction of light. Front light will create a warm glow on buildings and mountains, sidelight will emphasize the shape of hills, backlight will create dramatic silhouettes and you could create a sunburst by using a small aperture.

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

The day’s last light casts a golden glow on the edge of the canyon.

Blue Hour

The sun is below the horizon giving you soft, even, cool light. The direction of light does not apply here. Combine this type of light with a long exposure to emphasize the soft feeling if you have any moving elements like water or clouds. Combine twilight with city lights for more drama.

Li River and Karst Mountains in Guilin, China - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

There was barely any light in the sky at all during this 15-second exposure.

The best way to learn how different types of light affect your images is to photograph the same subject under various conditions. Pick something that is easily accessible to you and photograph it with front light, sidelight, and backlight. Photograph it at midday, during golden hour and at twilight. Photograph it under harsh mid-afternoon light and on a cloudy day when the light is soft.

Understanding these characteristics of natural light will ensure that you can make the most of the lighting conditions you have and create photos with impact at any time of day.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

  • Love all the shots of Arizona on this post, from Organ Pipe Cactus NM in the south to Canyon de Chelly NM up north. Very inspiring for this Phoenix-based photographer!

  • surya80

    Thank you for this article, very useful for landscape photographers 🙂

  • Tex-S

    The sunset image below the subtitle “Direction of Light” is at Angel Peak off of hwy 550 about 30 minutes south of Bloomfield NM. The area is like a photo-merge of features of the Grand Canyon and the Badlands of S.D. My image below. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/81d51d5e283a05e78e1565ca6d17e7e303fa458b862fcec32d62698db2255a23.jpg

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