10 ingredients of great landscape photos part 3 - understand light
Updated: Jul 20
Welcome to the third installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of great landscape photos'. I hope that over this series I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography.
Did you miss the previous editions of this series? If so, you can find them here:
The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the importance of building a focal point into your photos.
Photography is all about light
As the artist, Miroslav Tichý once said, “Photography is painting with light“, and although in traditional landscape photography you can't control that light, having a greater understanding of it can greatly increase your chances of capturing great photos.
If you’ve ever been to a favourite spot many times, you will know that it can look very different every time you visit, as light is constantly changing. It changes with time of day; with the seasons, and even from minute to minute as a storm passes and the sun reappears.
Understanding the key qualities of light, and how they can affect your photos, is therefore critical in the search for a great photo. So, in this blog we will look briefly at some of these key qualities including the direction of light, how the colour of light changes throughout the day (and night!), and how light changes with the weather.
The direction of light
Facing the sun
Shooting directly into the sun can be rewarding, but is also potentially technically challenging as the dynamic range (the range from dark to bright) is so great that you camera struggles to capture the scene, and you will end up with large areas of the photo either over-exposed (completely white) or underexposed (completely black). As a result I see many photos taken into the sun where the sun is just a huge white blob! It becomes a little easier if the sun is low on the horizon and especially if it's partially shielded by cloud, but for beginners shooting into the sun is generally avoided. There are techniques to allow you to properly capture perfect sunrises or sunsets (such as in the photo below) but this is a topic for another day!
Having the sun behind you
Taking photos with the sun behind you also has its challenges! If you're taking photos of people, they will be looking directly into the sun and probably squinting. For landscapes, the main problem (especially when the sun is low in the sky) is that you will end up with a huge shadow of yourself in the photo, which is not great!
Having the sun to one side of you
The easiest and most flattering light direction for landscape photography is when the sun is roughly to either side of you. When this is the case (and assuming it’s not cloudy), the sun will throw shadows across the scene, adding visual depth and interest to your photos. So, in simple terms, if you can keep the sun to either side of you, this will make taking photos easier until you have learned techniques to deal with shooting into the sun.
How light changes through the day (and night)
There’s a reason that as a landscape photographer I all too often find myself setting my alarm for horribly early times in the morning or I find myself staying out late into the evening; there are certain times of day when the light is simply nicer for photography! So in general, if you like sleeping, being a landscape photographer may not be for you!
The middle of the day
There was a time when I only ever went out with my camera on sunny blue sky days, but now these are the days that I stay at home and do something else. The simple fact is that during the middle of the day (especially in summer) when the sun is high in the sky and very strong, the quality of the light can be both very white and very harsh, and this makes for poor landscape photos. The situation in winter is a little better, as the low sun angle means that the sunlight is less harsh, and gives more shadows for a larger proportion of the day.
The golden hours
The time around an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunrise is called the ‘golden hour’ and is a sweet spot for landscape photography. As well as the low sun giving lovely shadows on the landscape which adds depth, the light is also softer and more diffuse, and has beautiful golden colour (hence the name!). Photos taken during this time are simply nicer to look at than those taken in the daytime.
Don't forget to check out my ten tips for stunning sunrises and sunsets here
The blue hours
But the change of light during the day doesn’t stop there; there is also a time called the ‘blue hour’ which is around half an hour or so before dusk and after dawn, when the light tends to have a lovely blue hue and this also lends itself well to landscape photography. As light levels are much lower in the blue hour, it is often necessary to have more technical knowledge to take good photos, but the hue of the light itself is worth the effort.
Even when there is very little light around there is no need to put your camera away and head for home. Taking photos in the dark can be great fun and very rewarding, although you will definitely need decent technical skills to make the most of after dark photography. From firework photos to pictures of the Milky Way, and night-time cityscapes to car light trails are all fantastic night time subjects.
There are other aspects of light which affect the quality of photography, but just having a working knowledge of where the sun is in relation to where you’re taking the photo, and trying to take more photos in the golden hours, will immediately start to improve the visual quality of your photos.
How light changes with the weather
The simple truth is that bad weather can make great photos! In fact the sort of weather that usually makes people rush for home to sit by the log burner, is the sort of weather that gets me rushing for my camera bag! Below are just a few of my favourite weather types, for the way they affect the landscape and the quality of the light....
There are few types of weather that change the landscape and the light as much as a foggy day, and foggy days provide endless possibilities for great landscape photos. One of my key ingredients of a great landscape photo (number 7) is all about simplicity, and fog simplifies the landscape like little else. On foggy mornings, woodlands can be great places to be, as the usual cluttered background is softened and simplified by the fog. An alternative to being in the fog, is to try and find high ground and get above it, to capture photos of a landscape hidden by cloud with just a few landmarks poking through.
Fog doesn't happen that often, but it can be magical. I've been trying for years to get a shot of Haytor, hovering just above a layer of fog, but the conditions to produce this are so rare that I'm still waiting!
Although rain is not great for camera equipment (or for the photographer staying dry), showery days can heave real drama that can produce fantastic landscape photos. As a big storm cloud approaches, the sky can be pitch black, and the light can be amazing. As a storm recedes and the sun comes out, you could be lucky enough to capture a rainbow and the light hitting the freshly wet landscape can also be amazing. If you're really lucky, and storms arrive at night, you might even be lucky enough to capture some lightning before the rain arrives (although this is something else I have been trying to capture for years without success!). All in all, as a landscape photographer, I much prefer a stormy day over a sunny blue sky one!
Another weather type which transforms both the landscape and the light is snow. Who doesn't love a picture postcard scene of a beautiful landscape covered in snow. As well as simplifying the scene, by covering all the imperfections in a blanket of white, the snow can also transform give light a sparking feel. It's always best to capture the snow straight after it stops falling when it will look its best, and preferably first thing in the morning when the light is softer. The ideal is to have an overnight snowfall which clears to sunshine as the sun comes up. Standing on a Dartmoor Tor looking at a white landscape with beautiful morning light is my idea of heaven!
Frosty mornings happen a lot more often than decent snowfalls (especially down here in balmy Devon) but can also provide a beautiful landscape with great quality light. You will need to have an early alarm call, as the best time to photography a frosty landscape is as the first golden light of the day lights up the frosty landscape.
Searching for the light
I don't think I ever really thought about light until I became a landscape photographer, but now I realise that light, and the drama that it can create, is fundamental to the best landscape photos. Although in traditional landscape photography you can't change the light, having a better understanding of when you may get the best light increases your chances of getting a great shot hugely. So the next time everyone else is running for cover because of 'bad weather' grab your camera bag and get out there! In next week's edition, we will move on to the fourth ingredient of what makes a great landscape photo, and look at some of the key skills you need to master in using your camera.
Want a learn more about my ten ingredients?
I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my Devon photography training courses, and my courses consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to East Devon and want to learn the art of landscape photography, check out my range of local photography courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my residential photography workshops - either my beginners landscape photography masterclass for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography masterclass for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.