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Understanding light in Landscape Photography

Light makes any genre of photography exist, not only landscape photography. Light is the quantity of light pass through the lens of the camera, depending on the decision we make about shutter speed, aperture, and Iso. No light, no photography.

The subject matter of this article is the quality of light which gives the landscape photograph its main essence.

About this last aspect of light, we can take a look at the three main categories of the quality of light:

  1. golden light
  2. blue light
  3. flat light

We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

Junichiro Tanizaki

The golden light is the light we get up to one hour immediately after sunrise or up to one hour just before sunset. This light has a tone that goes from red to yellow, passing through all the shades of orange. When the sun is low in the sky over the horizon, the sunlight has to pass through a lot of the atmosphere before it can reach your camera. The light in this journey through the atmosphere picks up many particles and dust that give that lovely orange glow. As the sun is low over the horizon gives you the fantastic effect of side lighting, and any texture in rocks shows up in your landscape photography. The shadows as well become so interesting with side lighting. The same does contrast.

Taking landscape photos during the golden hour, you can produce stunning shapes and textures through the shadows made by the sun’s position low over the horizon. The light during the golden hour is incredibly directional and creates a lot of patches of light and shadow. It works particularly well when the whole scene is side-lit, and it is nice when you are capturing rural landscapes with a lot of hills and texture. The contrast between lights and shadows makes the landscape photograph exciting and compelling. Your images captured using this light will have a lot of depth, adding drama and impact to the landscapes.

With golden hour, you can quickly learn how to create compelling landscape images, as this light is one of the easiest to manage.

The blue light is the light you get when the sun is just below the horizon. So it is blue light shortly before sunrise and just after sunset. There is no direct light in the sky during the blue hour as the sun is under the horizon, so there is less contrast than during the golden hour.

During blue light, there is only indirect light, and the sunlight bounces off the atmosphere around the sun below the horizon. This indirect light gives you an excellent diffuse light with a blueish tone in all the landscape you will capture through your camera.

The blue hour is during twilight when the sun has just set under the horizon or will rise above after sunrise. This light condition only lasts 20-30 mins, but you won’t be disappointed by the final result you can obtain whit such exciting light.

The flat light is the light you get during the mid-day, the sun is in the sky, but you can’t see because the weather is overcast or because you are in a place like a forest where sunlight doesn’t penetrate. The main characteristic of flat light is that it produces minimum contrast between highlights and shadows, making the image not so exciting but just dull. What is flat is not the light but the final result you get taking landscape photographs in this light condition. The image will result in a very unwanted two-dimensional look because of its lack of contrast. Even if the picture can be compelling from a compositional point of view, the lack of depth and contrast makes the image uninteresting for most viewers.

Difference between flat light and shooting in the mid-day sun. These are two completely different light conditions. In fact, during mid-day, sunlight can produce direct lightning on a subject with very harsh light and deep dark shadows. Therefore, taking images in the mid-day sun, the contrast between highlights and shadows can be huge, which is an entirely different light situation compared to flat light conditions.

You’d better practice these three different light situations to improve your landscape photography. Try different approaches to take advantage of any of these kinds of light depending on the light available and the type of subject you will photograph.

The Visualization

There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.

Ansel Adams

The term visualization concerns the entire emotional-mental process of making a photograph. Visualization is one of the essential concepts in photography. The photographer can anticipate the finished image before setting the exposure through this process. Through visualization, the photographer is decoding light, which will take him to the final desired result.

Even the most realistic photograph differs from the subject captured in the picture.

All the photographs are accurate, none of them is truth.

Richard Avedon

So a photograph is just an interpretation. An image is not the truth. And a landscape, like every photograph, is just freezing a moment of the time flowing. Your image will be just an interpretation of reality, the way you see reality at a particular moment. Again: in photography no truth, just interpretation.

So a photograph is something different from the subject captured in it, and the photographer’s work consists, through visualization, in defining if he/she wants to emphasize or minimize this separation, these departures from reality that any image has.
The first departure from reality is how the camera/lens/shutter system sees compared to your eyes. The camera sees in a way that is analogous but not identical to yours. The camera, different from the human eyes, doesn’t concentrate on the center of the field and records everything fixed.

You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.

Ansel Adams

The second departure from reality happens as the photographer records the photograph on a light-sensitive surface, that can be the film or the camera sensor with modern cameras. The sensitiveness of camera sensors and films is only a fraction of the eyes.

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed

Ansel Adams

Then the editing process, which is the third departure of the photograph from reality, is made by developing the film and printing the image. Or it can also be made on editing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom, looking at the picture on a screen or printing the same photograph on paper.

No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit.

Ansel Adams

Each step of the process will shape the final photograph giving you opportunities and control over the final result.
If you don’t understand the medium, the process will dictate how the photograph will come out at the end.
Probably the most challenging thing is how to learn to visualize the three-dimensional world as it is recorded in the two dimensions of the photograph.
By understanding the camera and lens characteristics, you will learn to visualize the optical image.

The grammar of photography

The famous photographer Stephen Shore found four ways the world is transformed into a photograph by the camera: flatness, frame, time and focus. In his famous book “The nature of Photographs” Shore shows the distinction between formal elements shared by most visual images and the grammar of photography.

Photography is inherently an analytic discipline. Where a painter starts with a blank canvas and builds a picture, a photographer starts with the messiness of the world and selects a picture […] He or she imposes this order by choosing a vantage point, choosing a frame, choosing a moment of exposure, and by selecting a plane of focus.

Stephen Shore

These four elements (flatness, frame, time, and focus) define the photograph’s content and structure. These attributes are the visual grammar of photography. Through these elements, the photographers express their sense of the world, and give articulation to the meaning of their images.

  • Flatness: the photographs are two-dimensional, so the tridimensional world is captured on a flat surface. Things that are separate in reality can be brought into a relationship quickly when flattered in a picture.
  • Frame: a photograph, differently from reality, has edges. The content in an image is contained by and in relationship with the surrounding edges.
  • Time: the flow of time in the world is frozen by a photograph. The image contains just a fraction of time, like a little grain of sand.
  • Focus: a photograph can have a shallow or a deep plane of focus. Focus helps the photographer draw attention to the main subject of the photograph.

The light and the sensor

As we said, what we see is not what the camera sees. The same happens to our visualizations (the visual images we have in mind) and the scale of values of the photograph. These departures from reality we have seen arise from the nature of light and how it is differently perceived by our eyes and by the camera sensor (or the film if you are using an analog camera).
If you don’t perceive these differences, you will be frequently disappointed by the final image. You will find out that the photograph doesn’t represent the subject in the way you want, and you failed in something, making the exposure.

Incident and reflected light

Objects you see and capture in photographs are illuminated by incident light falling on them from the sun and the sky or artificial light. An incident light meter can measure the amount of light falling on the subject to determine the camera exposure.

In most of the photographs you will capture the light reflected from the subject rahter than the ligh incident upon it.

Using the luminance of the subject (its reflected light) you can determine how you want represent the subject through your exposure.

Metering exposure

The exposure relies on the aperture and shutter speed. You can obtain equivalent exposure by using a relatively high intensity of light for a short time or less intense light for a longer duration.
Exposure = Intensity X Time
The same result will occur if you increase the intensity of light reaching the sensor and reduce the exposure time proportionally. For example, opening the lens aperture one stop doubles the power of light coming to the sensor, so if the shutter speed is reduced by one-half, you don’t have a significant exposure change.

Although modern cameras are really accurate, the porcess of setting the correct exposure always involve a considersble degree of judgment by the photographer.

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