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Landscape Photography Lighting: A Comprehensive Guide

landscape photography lighting guide

By understanding lighting, you can instantly improve your landscape photography portfolio.

It’s true. The quality and direction of the light dramatically affects your landscape photos, which is why it’s essential to master lighting as thoroughly as possible. Unfortunately, landscape lighting can be a tricky topic. Lighting quality, direction, color; it’s enough to give anyone a headache, right?

Well, in this article, I aim to break it down for you – so that, the next time you go out for some landscape photography, you know exactly what to do. I’m going to discuss my favorite types of landscape photography lighting and how to work with them for beautiful results, plus I’ll give plenty of tips along the way.

Let’s jump right in.

Lighting quality and direction

Landscape photographers talk about two essential lighting characteristics: the quality and the direction.

Lighting quality refers to the hardness or softness of the light, where soft light produces limited shadows and saturated colors, while hard light adds lots of contrast and heavy shadows.

And lighting direction refers to the direction at which the light strikes your subject. For instance, noontime sunlight hits the subject from above, evening sunlight hits the subject from the side, etc.

Generally, lighting quality is the bigger deal here. Because while it’s possible to experiment with different directions for beautiful results, if you fail to understand lighting quality, you’ll capture consistently mediocre (or just bad) photos.

At the same time, you should understand how to work with different lighting directions – it’s how you can add depth and dimension to your photos, for one – which is why I dedicate several sections to the topic.

Reflected light

Reflected light, also called bounced or diffused light, occurs when direct sunlight reflects off an adjacent surface. It can make for stunning photos, thanks to its soft, even, beautiful effect.

The canyons in the Southwest are perfect for this type of light, as the sun beams against the rocks and is reflected all around, creating a gorgeous warm glow:

landscape photography lighting Zion

To work with reflected light, you’ll generally need a bright surface such as pale rock walls, a white beach, etc. – otherwise, you’ll fail to get a nice reflection effect. You’ll also need bright sun, ideally toward the middle of the day.

Overcast light

foggy, overcast lighting Morro bay

Light on overcast and foggy days is soft, subdued, and bluish. Shadows are negligible, and light directionality essentially disappears.

While cloudy light can work great for landscape photos, thanks to the flattering, soft effect and lack of harsh shadows, you need to be careful; a cloudy sky tends to look boring, so do what you can to block it out with trees, mountains, and other landscape elements.

Cloudy days are also great for colorful landscape scenes, such as fields of flowers. The soft light evenly illuminates your subject and gives colors a subtle, saturated glow.

Backlight

Backlight refers to any light that comes from behind your subject, like this:

morning light seascape

Note that you can have partial backlighting, when the sun comes from roughly behind the subject, and you can have total backlighting, when the sun beams out from directly behind the subject.

Backlighting is a landscape photography favorite, especially when the sun is just above the horizon. Why? Backlighting is dramatic, whether it’s combined with HDR effects (such as in the image above), or whether you use it to capture stunning silhouettes.

One tip: Pay careful attention to the position of the sun in your frame. You generally want to partially block the sun with a solid edge; that way, you can capture a beautiful sunstar. Alternatively, you can keep the sun out of the frame or position it behind a solid object, like a tree or a rock, to prevent a blown-out sky.

Direct light

direct light sand dunes

Direct light is strong, harsh, and very unforgiving; you can generally find it a few hours after sunrise to a few hours before sunset, though as the sun moves higher in the sky (i.e., closer to noon), the light becomes more direct and even less flattering.

Because direct light produces such a harsh effect, some landscape photographers avoid it completely. I don’t go that far myself, but I do recommend you shoot in black and white, which works quite well with high-contrast lighting.

Also, if you’re shooting in direct light and your photos keep turning out dull and uninspiring, try looking for subjects that offer significant tonal range (that is, subjects that stretch from deep black to bright white). That’s what I did for the photo above.

Morning and evening horizontal light

Morning and evening horizontal light refers to light in the hour or two after sunrise and the hour or two before sunset; it’s warm, it produces soft shadows, it looks super flattering, and it’s prime light for landscape photography, thanks to its combination of low contrast and beautiful tones.

Photographers often refer to this time of day as the golden hoursbecause the light looks amazing and, well, golden. Check out the photo below, which I took during this special time:

landscape photography morning light

While you can shoot subjects from any angle, I highly recommend sidelight, which will sculpt your subject and add plenty of depth and dimension. In fact, I used sidelight in the photo above to give the mountain plenty of texture and volume (notice how the right side of the peak is in shadow, while the left side is in sun).

Also, quick tip: The golden hours are often followed by another wonderful time for landscape photography, the blue hour – which is when the light starts to fade from the sky, the world becomes ethereal, and you can capture some stunning photos. So don’t pack up when the golden hours are over, even if it seems like the light is gone!

Open shade

In landscape photography, open shade consists of areas not lit by direct sunlight. The light is soft, and you’ll often find it in forested areas, along with steep valleys and mountainsides.

The best part about this type of light? You can shoot all day without stopping, since the light never really declines in quality.

But you’ll need to stay firmly in the shade; step out into the sun, and your shots will become harsh and likely unpleasant.

shaded light waterfall

Combination light: direct and diffused

Combination light refers to situations with both direct and diffused light. You’ll rarely find this in intimate landscapes; instead, look for it in broad, sweeping vistas, especially those with lots of elevation differences (i.e., mountains).

You see, you’ll sometimes get situations where part of the landscape is covered by clouds, but the rest is lit by beautiful sun. I’ve included an example below so you can understand the beauty of this effect. It was shot on Mt. Whitney in the Eastern Sierra, and there were rays of morning horizontal sunlight shining from behind me while a portion of the mountain was shaded or diffused by the clouds overhead. The result? A gorgeous spotlight effect on the mountain peaks!

partially lit landscape mountain peaks

This was the result of several hours of waiting for the light, and we were greatly surprised and rewarded for our efforts.

Human-made light

Most landscape photographers don’t think about human-made light…

…but it can actually be helpful, especially if you like creative effects in your photos.

For one, you can use the lights of cars to create beautiful light trails. In the example below, taken on the Big Sur coast at dusk, I captured a row of car lights with a long exposure and a sturdy tripod.

Big Sur light trail highway

You can also use human-made light to carefully illuminate subjects with a flashlight (this technique is known as light painting).

Landscape photography lighting: final words

Well, there you have it:

All the fundamentals of lighting a landscape photo. Start by committing the different light types to memory – and get in the habit of looking at the light, evaluating it, and determining whether it works well for photography.

Pretty soon, you’ll be a lighting master!

Now over to you:

Do you have a favorite kind of landscape light? A least favorite? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Holly Higbee-Jansen
Holly Higbee-Jansen

is photographer, trainer, blogger, and workshop leader who enjoys teaching and the creative process.
Her passions include teaching photography workshops in beautiful locations in California, Iceland, Costa Rica and the American West with her husband Mark. Holly also teaches online classes on Lightroom, Photoshop and photographic technique.
Get Holly’s Free E-Book on “Landscape Photography and the Light” and find out about her newest workshops at Jansen Photo Expeditions.com.

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