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Recognizing Light in Landscape Photography
I think few of us would argue that the pursuit of great light is what draws landscape photographers into nature. For many, this means chasing those periods at the end and beginning of the day, affectionately called gold hour. When I began landscape photography, I was told that the best photos came at either sunrise or sunset. That meant getting up early and staying out late to chase dramatic colour and light, capturing different foregrounds under colourful skies. Believing that more colourful conditions would yield a better photograph and my next colour high.
However, I was doing my art a disservice by ignoring other hours of the day. Photography, as an art, is a means of expressing yourself. It's important to become a student of the different types of light, so you can find the freedom to express a piece of yourself in your landscape photography. Now, I love burning red skies as much as anyone and I will continue to chase them. I'm not intending to guilt you out of chasing a dramatic sky. Instead, I want to ask, what other types of light exist and how can you take advantage of them to create better photos?
Lately, I’ve found that my favourite type of light in landscape photography is flat light. There are a couple of versions of this light. The first type of flat light is when there is no directionality to the light. Typically, this occurs when there is a high percentage of low hanging clouds and the sun is unable to illuminate the scene, resulting in virtually no contrast on the landscape.
The second kind of flat light is directional light. This occurs when the sun is above the horizon but is covered in medium/high altitude clouds. The benefit of these lighter clouds is that they create a softbox type of effect one would achieve in a studio. There are no harsh highlights, but there is enough contrast to create depth in the landscape.
Flat light can lead to a more contemplative approach that can foster creativity. Simply, you take photographs of things in the middle of the day under flat light that you would never dream of photographing under a burning sky. In flat light I often find myself wandering through a forest, along the creek's edge, inspecting the ground, or at the base of a waterfall. Once you've found the answer to the question discussed in my landscape photography composition article, you can take your time composing the photograph because flat light doesn't move quickly.
This type of light is fairly straightforward. Simply, it is when the sun is shining directly on your scene. This either means sidelight (when the sun is shining in from the side of your photo) or backlight (when you are photographing facing towards the sun). Unlike flat light, which normally occurs outside of gold hour, direct light can happen at any point after sunrise and before sunset, including gold hour. I find that when I’m planning for landscape photography during sunrise or sunset, I’m looking for subjects that receive direct light.
Reflected light is also straightforward. It happens when light bounces around and is absorbed by elements in your scene. Think of how a studio photographer would use a reflector in a studio. A reflector is used to bounce light onto a subject to soften shadows or illuminate them. The same happens in nature photography when light bounces off elements in the landscape. The main difference between a studio's white reflector and reflected light in nature is the latter often creates beautiful contrasts in colour.
When light reflects off a red canyon wall it provides both light and the red colour tones of the canyon wall to other elements in the photo. We can see beautiful contrast when photo elements that are in shadow, reflect the ambient light from the blue sky above, giving you both warm and blue tones. You can see both in this photo by photographer, Bryce Mironuck
Snow also has wonderful reflective qualities. Being white, it’s going to reflect any light that hits it. So during those gold hours, the quality of light on snow and ice is amazing. You get that same beautiful contrast of colour. Colourful morning light that skims the snow, will contrast with snow in the shade reflecting ambient light from the blue sky above. The best part of landscape photography in winter is that you rarely get deep shadows in snow or ice, the light is bouncing around too much. So, you won’t see those dark shadows that add harsh contrast and confusion to a scene.
Now that we’ve begun to understand the types of light, we can start to be students of light. So, pay attention to the light and what it’s doing, let it dictate how you approach a scene. A final tip is to enhance the light in the scene using post-processing. Use Lightroom or Photoshop to enhance the light that is there to help support your subject and draw your viewer in. Don’t have Lightroom or Photoshop? You can enter to win subscriptions for a year and a Dell XPS 15 in Dell’s Capture the Moment Sweepstakes
This article isn’t meant to imply that great light is easy to find; it might require planning and patience. I'm also not suggesting that we stop chasing epic colours at the beginning or end of the day. The goal is to become a student of light, paying attention to what it's doing. Ultimately, this will improve our images, and help us to find the freedom we need to express a piece of ourselves in our landscape photography.
About the Author: Scott Aspinall is an award-winning Canadian photographer. The opinions in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his Website, YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook.