Light in the Landscape

My winter online talk, Light in the Landscape, went out live on Zoom in early December, and you can watch the recording here. Below is also an article that encapsulates the talk’s content. I hope you’ll enjoy both!

During the talk, Nigel broke light in the landscape down into a number of components to help overcome the potentially overwhelming myriad of different components.

Firstly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the subject and the photographer, something that is relevant at all times. Secondly, there’s the angle of the sun relative to the horizon, something that varies with time of day and year. Finally, there’s flat light, caused either on a cloudy day, or because the sun is below the horizon.

We’ll start with light relative to the subject.

There are essentially three main angles to consider:

  • Frontal lighting
  • Side lighting
  • Back lighting

In frontal lighting, the sun shines directly onto the front of the subject facing the photographer, the lighting coming onto it from roughly behind the photographer. It is the simplest form of lighting to shoot in, almost guaranteeing worthwhile images. However, such images often lack much by way of atmosphere and creativity. The subject will also often look flat and two-dimensional, as the frontal lighting won’t create any shadows that give an indication of three-dimensional shape.

Side-lighting is when the sun shines onto the side of the subject, coming in from the right or left of the photographer. This lighting angle will often pick up highlights and shadows on the subject, giving a strong sense of surface texture and three-dimensional shape. This lighting angle gives a greatly increased possibility for atmospheric images that really highlight the nature of the subject.

Back lighting is where the photographer is shooting directly into the light. It is the hardest lighting angle to manage well, but when done correctly will result in the greatest creativity and the most atmospheric, impactful images. The silhouette is the most well-known product of this photographic technique.

Light in the Landscape
Back lighting is the most creative photographic angle – but also the hardest to manage well.

The angle of the sun relative to the horizon of course varies with the time of day and the time of year, as well as latitude.

Generally speaking, for landscape photography a high sun – in the middle of the, in mid-summer and/or in the tropics – is the worst form of light. Its high angle creates short shadows that don’t pick out 3D shape well, the light is often quite blue, and colours can be rather desaturated.

At the other end of the scale is a low sun at the beginning or end of the day, in winter and/or at a high latitude. Such lighting is often rich in ‘warming’ orange or reddish colours, resulting in very moody images, and when combined with side-lighting is very effective in creating shadows and highlights that emphasise 3D shape and surface texture.

Light in the Landscape
Side lighting when the sun is low.

Of course, there are many occasions when light in the landscape doesn’t have any particular angle. The light is quite flat, resulting in few shadows or highlights. This is what we have on a cloudy day or when the sun is blow the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset).

Many photographers are tempted to put their camera away in these conditions, but flat lighting can be highly useful. It is simply a matter of choosing the appropriate subject matter for the conditions.

The subjects that work well here are those that can’t handle the bright highlights and deep shadows created by bright sunlight. These include woodlands, fast-flowing streams and waterfalls, as well as close-details of landscape elements, such as cliff faces. The white water generated by a fast-flowing stream or a waterfall is notoriously difficult to shoot well in sunlight, the large amount of white water usually burning out and losing all detail. Similarly, woodland scenes shot in sunlight typically break down into a confusing mass of bright highlights and deep shadows. Photograph under a cloudy sky and all becomes clear, with no burned-out highlights or impossibly deep shadows.

The problem is simply contrast range. In sunlight it is huge, and although our eyes can accommodate such a contrast range easily, the digital sensor (and film too) is not so clever. It is able to handle only a much more limited contrast range. Shoot under a cloudy sky, or at dawn or dusk, and you will get that reduced contrast range.

Light in the Landscape
When the light is flat due to cloud cover, woodland is a great place to shoot.

Of course, out in the real world, when we’re busy using light in the landscape to capture our landscape images, we don’t have the various components neatly broken down for us. They all work together in a myriad of ways to create a multitude of different lighting angles and opportunities. So let’s put all the above components together and see what we can create.

Frontal lighting: As I’ve already said, this is the easiest to shoot with but is likely to result in the least atmospheric images. This is certainly true in the middle of the day in summer, when the sun is high and quite rich in blue light. But even this is in itself a kind of mood, telling us about summer, its warmth and its light.

But can frontal lighting be atmospheric in other ways? It certainly can. At sunrise or sunset, for example, when the light is rich in red and orange, your subject can be illuminated in a way that is enormously atmospheric, more than compensating for the lack of three dimensionality resulting from the frontal angle.

Then there is the ever-popular rainbow. A rainbow will only ever become visible to a photographer when it is shining more or less from directly behind them: no side or back lighting here. Use either a wide-angle lens to capture the entire rainbow, or a telephoto to home in on just a part of it and to great magnify its apparent size.

Light in the Landscape
Rainbows are only visible when the light is shining from behind you.

Side lighting: With the ability of side lighting to create shadows and so pick out 3D shapes and surface texture, it can be quite effective even when the sun is quite high in the sky. However, it becomes truly effective when the sun is low, the 3D shadows and surface textures becoming really very strong, resulting in hugely moody images. This is so whether the subject is an entire mountain, or a solitary tree.

Back lighting: This is where the lighting angle becomes absolutely critical in creativity and the generation of stunningly effective images. It does, however, only work well when the sun is at least relatively low in the sky. The style can be split into two: where the sun is not inside the image frame, but is somewhere just above it; and secondly where the sun is actually in the image frame, usually at least partially visible. In both forms one of the biggest challenges is the risk of flares getting into the image as a result of sunlight pouring into the lens. A small amount of flare can enhance the mood of some images. Too much, however, and the image is ruined.

To reduce the risk use either a lens hood or shield the top of the lens with your hand. This can usually be quite effective when the sun is outside the image frame. Of course, this doesn’t usually help greatly when the sun is in the image. In this situation, flare can be reduced by partially reducing the sun’s strength. This can be achieved by arranging the composition so that the sun is partially hidden behind, say, part of a tree or a rock, a technique that can result in the sun being visible as a very beautiful starburst effect. Alternatively, you can wait for a cloud to partially diffuse it, though this of course depends on there being just the right amount of cloud.

Most well known among the back lighting skills is the silhouette. A silhouette is all about the subject’s outline, so it must have an extremely good one – no big solid blocks here, please. It must also be black with no detail visible in it. Otherwise, it just isn’t a silhouette. More often than not the silhouette is created with the sun directly behind the subject, maximising the contrast between the subject and the background sky. It is often very effective to have a small amount of the sun visible around the edge of the silhouette, resulting in a stunning starburst.

Flat lighting: As already mentioned, a cloudy day can be fantastic for photography of woodlands, as well as situations where there is a lot of fast-moving white water. The flat lighting seen at dusk or dawn should not be used for woodland photography as it is rich in blue light, something that will ruin the greens of the vegetation. Such dusk light can, however, be very effective in photography of water, both in terms of waterfalls and coastal scenes.

Light in the landscape
A spectacular silhouette is all about the subject’s outline shape. Especially effective when there is a starburst created by the sun behind the subject.

I’ve already mentioned the problem that the digital sensor sensor has in being unable to handle the huge contrast range that the human eye can manage. In landscape photography this will frequently create problems for the accurate rendition of such high-contrast scenes as a landscape view that contains a bright sky but a dark landscape. This is particularly so on cloudy days when the sensor is quite unable to accurately capture detail in both the landscape and the sky.

This is where the neutral density graduated filter (or ND grad) comes in. A rectangular filter that fits on the front of your lens via a holder, half of the filter is clear while the other half is darkened. Line the filter up so that the darker part of the filter is over the brighter part of the scene and you will greatly reduce the contrast range down to something much closer to what the sensor can handle. In the above landscape example, the result will be a darker sky and a brighter landscape, more closely resembling what the eye is able to see.

Such filters are hugely important in photographically handling the light in the landscape, greatly enhancing any landscape photography. They’re available in a variety of strengths, and also as ‘hard’ or ‘soft’, referring to the sharpness of the dividing line between the dark and clear areas of the filter.

Light in the Landscape
The power of the ND grad filter to create great landscapes on cloudy days.

My regular online photography talks are held every three months and are free to attend. The next talk will be on 20th March 2024, subect still to be confirmed. To find out more and to sign up, click on the links below.

Back to top

Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.