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Landscape Lighting - An Introduction

written by: Sean Fears•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/26/2011

Landscape photography is like other disciplines, but lighting plays a much more prominent role. Find out how to use it to your advantage!

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    All photography is about light and its interaction with matter, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of landscape photography. Unlike portraits or candid shots, the landscape does not move and is equally accessible to everyone. How can lighting transform an ordinary vista into an extraordinary one? There are a number of means, most of which involve variables not under the photographer’s control. In this realm, you need to remember your basics (yes, the rule of thirds still applies!) as well as learn some additional rules of thumb.

    Time of day and year are two very strong means of controlling the lighting of your subject, since the height of the sun is directly connected to both of these factors. When the sun is low in the sky (at dawn or sunset), it exaggerates shadows and casts a different quality of light than later in the day, both of which can make a scene appear to be far more striking than usual. The sun’s maximum altitude in the sky varies depending on latitude and time of year, which can extend or reduce your window for shallow-angle shooting. And if you’re shooting in heavily vegetated environments such as forest or woodland, significantly more light is available during late fall and winter, even if leaves aren’t!

    Another way to alter your lighting while working in nature is to use weather to your advantage. A break in a cloud layer, an overcast sky, fog, rain, or snow can serve to diffuse, reflect, or redirect lighting, changing the “visual stereotype" the viewer expects from the scene. These variables are ones you have to either wait for (if you know a “weather event" is imminent) or be ready for. The best advice I can give is to always have your camera with you.

    Dusk and night photography are not out of the question, either, with a little patience, a tripod, and long exposure times. Of course, it can be rather difficult to know what the final product will look like, so be willing to engage in a little experimentation, too!

    Your camera is not as good as your eyes at any number of tasks, most especially discerning details in both bright light and shade- you need to choose conditions or select camera settings that compensate for this fact, or employ techniques such as high dynamic range photography to compensate for this fact.