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Better Landscape Photography

"The Importance of Light"

Article and Images by John Perriment

WOW. Where do you begin when writing a masterclass on better landscape photography? After much thought and experience I've concluded that it starts, and ends, with light. John Perriment

Light is the all important ingredient.

It's really "lightscapes" we are talking about, not landscapes. The land, or sea, or sky is almost incidental, a stage upon which light can perform. Lakes, rivers, mountains, forests, plains and ocean shores are merely props that support the real drama, the drama of light. Once we understand that, we have unlocked the secret of better landscape photography.

Let there be light!

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But light comes in many guises. What type of light are we talking about? Which light is the most suitable for better landscape photography? There is no simple answer to this, no magic formula. If we all stuck to photographing just one type of light our pictures would quickly become very boring. In truth, although some are more spectacular than others, all types of light have their merits. better landscape photography

There is always a choice of what to photograph, maybe an expansive vista with powerful foreground leading to a distant horizon and a big sky, or perhaps an intimate woodland scene with a small stream tumbling amongst the trees. The same light won't be ideal for both but unlike a studio photographer we have no control over light, we must use what we are given on any particular day. The trick is to match the scene to the light, not the other way around. better landscape photography

Of course, there is nothing wrong with anticipating light and planning a composition to take advantage of it. However, if you arrive on location and the envisaged light fails to materialize, it's always good to have a back-up plan to fall back on. Not sure what I mean? Let's look at the different types of light and how best to use them.

My favourite light and, I would guess, that of many others, is the light that occurs (if we are lucky) around sunrise. Of course, the perfect dawn is not just one event but rather a sequence, with the subtle characteristics of the scene changing as the minutes tick by like a story unfolding. It may well start with the main features of the scene represented as bold shapes, devoid of much detail in the half light that is reflecting indirectly from the sky or starting to seep cautiously over the horizon to dilute the darkness. Better Landscape Photography 02

The sun is not yet having any influence and therefore the ambience is blue, adopted from the vast blue of the receding night sky above, from which most of the light is reflected. Those bold shapes nearest the camera appear the darkest, those furthest in the distance the lightest due to tonal recession, but all represented by various shades of blue and creating tremendous opportunities for moody, atmospheric shots.
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The progressing dawn moves into the next phase with the rapidly approaching sun, though still below the horizon, asserting far greater influence. A warm glow gradually strengthens in the eastern quarter of the sky and direct sunlight is now illuminating (if you are lucky!) the broken cloud hanging just above a clear horizon, making it glow with fiery reds and a golden pallet of orange and yellow. better landscape photography

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No direct light is yet falling on the landscape and so this will be rendered as silhouettes if the correct exposure is given to the sky to capture all the wonderful colours, although any water in the scene will reflect those gorgeous colours from above and help break up the dark anonymity of the unlit foreground.
Better Landscape Photography 05 If your intention is to present bold shapes such as trees, buildings or hills as silhouettes against the rich sky then fine, job done. However, if you want detail in the landscape features whilst retaining a wonderfully saturated sky there is still work to be done. For film and digital workers alike the most direct solution is to fit a gradual neutral density filter to balance the exposure of earth and sky within the dynamic range of the media.
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These filters come in various strengths and are amongst the most useful of accessories for better landscape photography. Digital workers (and indeed film users if intending to scan their results) have the option to bracket exposures then merge images later in post processing or, if the brightness range is not too severe, adjust a single raw file to recover detail from both under and overexposed areas of the image. Remember though, there are limits!

Personally, I think it's best to get exposure right at the
taking stage if possible.

Now the sun is peeping over the horizon and it's a great opportunity to grab a few shots to include it before it becomes too intense and ruins the images with flare. better landscape photography

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Once again a decision needs to be made between silhouettes and detail and which, if any, graduated filters to use. Do consider, though, that too large an area of shapeless black, devoid of any detail, will almost certainly kill the image. Speed is really of the essence now because it's amazing how fast the sun climbs above the horizon and how quickly it builds in intensity. A few minutes at the very most is all you have so concentration on what is happening and good preparation is vital.

With all this unfolding in front of you it's easy to overlook what is occurring behind. The effect can be just as spectacular, with the low-angled sun raking across the scene, enriching everything it touches with crimson fire or a golden glow, depending on how far above the horizon it has travelled.

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Should good fortune continue, there is yet another stage of opportunity to come. If that band of cloud is still lingering just above the horizon where the sun has risen, then very soon it will start to climb into that cloud and there is another chance to capture it partially obscured before it disappears completely. Even once it has, if the cloud is broken enough there may be further opportunities for dramatic pictures.

Of course, what I have just described is pretty much the perfect dawn and sunrise, but how often does that happen? More likely you will have crawled out of bed at a ridiculous hour only to find a thick layer of cloud obliterating any chance of seeing the sun and firmly shutting out any hint of dawn colours. You sit for hours, hoping against hope for even the smallest break in the cloud before accepting that it isn't going to happen.

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So it's turned out to be a dull, sunless day and the dawn session was a non event. You can either trudge your weary way home or put plan 'B' into operation. Remember what I said about matching the landscape to the light? It's now obvious that the planned view over the lake towards the distant mountains beyond isn't going to work in this flat light with white, featureless sky but what about the woods behind?

A quick exploration reveals a delightful little cameo of tumbling stream, bubbling with enthusiasm down a series of small rocky steps beneath a canopy of green that masks the dismal sky and seems to almost glow with the soft light that gently caresses the translucent leaves. Better Landscape Photography 11

Better still, there's no harsh contrast between inky shadows and burning pools of sunlight piercing through the trees, which would bedevil this scene on a bright, sunny day and prove to be well beyond the dynamic range of either digital or film. better landscape photography

The blanket of cloud is acting like a giant diffuser, softening the light and spreading it evenly, which is simply ideal for this situation. So make the most of it and enjoy many hours exploring the micro landscape amongst the sanctuary of the trees. You'll be surprised how many miniature scenes and different compositions you find. Better Landscape Photography 12

Just keep an eye on the white balance if using digital; the auto setting may over or under compensate for the coolness of the dull light and need manual override. Film users may need to fit a warm-up filter. Many outdoor photographers fail to appreciate the unique and useful qualities of this type of light, which ironically the studio photographer will spend much time and money trying to emulate with sophisticated diffusers for his studio lights. better landscape photography

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We seem to have discussed a wide range of different light already, but in reality the dawn/sunrise scenario may have lasted little more than half an hour, maybe an hour at the most. What a glorious period of high activity and ever changing mood! Even the alternative strategy for a sunless start to the day may have taken us only until mid-morning.

The day will of course progress very differently depending on what type of light is forthcoming. Although we can categorize light into broad types there is an almost infinite scope for how it might influence our photography and what opportunities it is likely to provide according to time of day, how the weather changes and even what season we are in.

I look forward to an opportunity to explore with you some of the other types of light and how to make the most of them in my Learn Landscape Photography masterclass. In the meantime enjoy your landscape photography and don't forget, it's all about light.

More of John's superb Landscape Photographs and his advice are available in his new book - The Light Fantastic.

 Some of his images are displayed in the
Gallery of Better Photographs

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