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There are many tools that photographers use for creating compelling landscape photography, but some fail to realize that light is the most important element. We only shoot in those magic hours when the sun’s rays hit our subject at an angle to create a warm glow.
What many people don’t realize is that there are lots of different types of light that can affect the quality of your landscape images. How you approach this light will make a huge difference in the quality of your photographic portfolio. Let’s get started and talk about a few of our favorite examples of beautiful light.
That magic time for landscapes, of course, is sunrise and sunset, but specifically what other types of light will make or break your images?
Reflected light, which can also be called bounced or diffused light occurs when there is direct sunlight reflected off an adjacent surface. The canyons in the Southwest are perfect for this type of light as the color of the canyon is bounced back and reflected giving a warm glow to the walls. The quality of this light is soft, even, and beautiful.
This quality of light is found on overcast and foggy days and is very soft and bluish. The color of this light comes from the whole sky, which acts like one big softbox and in the right situation can be very dramatic.
A typical backlit picture will have a rim of the sun’s rays around the subject, or you will be able to see the sun as a bright spot in the photograph. If you are using a small aperture, you will be able to get a “sun star” or sun flare effect like this one.
Direct sunlight is usually found approximately one to two hours after sunrise and one to two hours before sunset. It can be hot and unforgiving while casting strong shadows. This light works great for black and white but can sometimes be overly intense for color photography.
This light is warm and horizontal and is caught during sunrise and sunset. It is horizontal because the sun’s rays are cast at an angle as the sun is rising and setting. This is the prime light for photography due to its combination of low contrast and warm tones. Objects lit directly by this light may seem to glow, as if illuminated from within, with details emerging clearly. Learn to use this light on a regular basis and you will be amazed at the results.
In landscape photography, open shade consists of areas not lit by direct sunlight. This is very soft light and is common in forested areas. The best part about this type of light is you can shoot all day and still have the benefit of this soft, dreamy light.
Here is an example of combination light, both direct and diffused. This was shot on Mt. Whitney in the Eastern Sierra, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. This image depicts a highly unusual phenomenon. There were rays of morning horizontal sunlight shining from behind us while we were shooting. Only a portion of the mountain was shaded or diffused by the clouds overhead creating a spotlight effect.
You don’t really think of manmade light in landscape photography, but here is a great example!
This image was captured on the Big Sur coast at dusk. There were rows of cars waiting to get through a construction site. As the cars were let through, we captured the row of car lights with a long exposure and the camera mounted on a tripod.
Try shooting the same subject in the exact same location before sunrise and after sunset. Notice the differences in the light? Are the color and tone different? Do the details look different in the light areas and in the shadows? Comment below and let me know how you do. Enjoy!