Landscape Photography Tips: 5. Working with Natural Light

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This article is the fifth instalment of my Landscape Photography Tips. If you have not had a chance to read my previous articles on, Equipment, Landscape Photography settings, Planning a Landscape Photography shoot , and Composition, then you might like to have a read of them as well. For landscape photographers just starting out, it will help to read them in order. If you are more experienced, then you should find it easy to dip in and out of them. All the articles in the series can be found here.


Essentially, photography is the simple act of controlling light falling on the sensor. It is no coincidence that photography is often described as ‘chasing the light’ or ‘painting with light’. Landscape Photographers often work with natural light. We have no control over the light (the sun!), at its source, so it is even more important that we understand all the tools at our disposal to control how the light reaches the sensor. A deep understanding of these will also allow you to take advantage of every lighting condition, meaning that two-hour climb is not wasted because the conditions are not what you expected, and you still leave with some beautiful landscape photos!


Natural Light to create beautiful landscape photos
Undertanding how natural light works can help you create beautiful landscape photos!


How you expose your images has a significant impact on the atmosphere of your landscape photography. There is no ‘correct exposure’ as such, but generally, you want to try and capture as much information on the sensor as possible. Doing this will give you more room for manoeuvre when you come to editing your images. By ‘information’, I mean as much detail in the highlights and lowlights as possible, in photography, we call this dynamic range.

Of course, there will be times when you are looking for a particularly light or dark mood in your image, in this situation, you might not mind sacrificing detail in the highlights or the lowlights, as is shown below.



Shooting for the Shadows
In this image, I knew that I wanted to loose detail in the snow to create a uniform white foreground so I pushed
the exposure towards over exposure.



shooting for highlights
In this image it was more important to preserve some detail in the background, and I knew I wanted the deer
to be silhouetted, so I deliberately pushed the exposure towards underexposure.



For landscape photographers, the light meter used to be the most important tool for to measuring light, but now all digital cameras have inbuilt light metering. Your camera will have several different modes that you can select, each measuring the light in a slightly different way. It is important to understand each of these and how they differ.


These are:
1. Centre-weighted or average metering
2. Spot and partial metering
3. Pattern, Evaluative (Canon), or Matrix (Nikon) Metering


1. Pattern, Evaluative or Matrix metering

Pattern, Evaluative or Matrix metering is probably the most useful mode for landscape photographers. It takes in to account the focus point and which areas of the image are in focus, giving more importance to these areas when deciding the overall exposure of your frame.


2. Spot and Partial metering

Spot and Partial metering are two different modes that you can select. However, they are just variations of the same thing. They both take their measurements from a small circle at the centre of your frame. Spot metering uses a smaller circle (2% in Canon cameras, 5% in Nikon). Partial metering is a Canon feature; all it does is increase the circle to about 10%. Spot and partial metering can be great for wildlife or sports photographers.


3. Center-weighted or average metering

Center-weighted or average metering assumes that the most important part of your photograph is always in the centre of your frame. It takes the whole frame into consideration, but as the name suggests, most emphasis is given to the centre of the image. Centre-weighted metering was the first type of metering introduced on DSLR cameras and has changed little since then. For the most part, it has been surpassed by the two other metering modes, and there are very few situations when you would want to use centre-weighted metering over the others.


Metering Modes for Landscape Photographers


Other Tools

While the exposure meter is a useful tool, you should never make the mistake of trusting it blindly. There are two other tools in your camera that, while needing a little bit more knowledge, can be much better in helping you achieve your desired exposure, and thus beautiful landscape photos.


The Histogram

The histogram is a diagram of your image’s exposure. The chart shows the number of pixels present at each tone. The light tones are represented on the right of the diagram, and the dark tones on the left. If you have a very dark image, you will see a bulge to the left of your histogram and visa versa. This is illustrated below.



Histogram pushed to the right



Histogram pushed to the right
Because a lot of this image is white and bright the histogram shows a bulge to the right of the chart



Histogram pushed to the left
Because a lot of this image is dark the histogram shows a bulge to the left of the chart


If you are aiming to have an evenly balanced image, then the histogram will show as a bell curve with the highest point in the centre. This does not necessarily mean that all of your landscape shots should be exposed in this way. There are many occasions when for artistic reasons, you will want to push the exposure further to the left or the right.



Using Google Maps for Planning
In this image, because there are both light and dark areas of the image largely spread evenly,
the histogram show as a bell curve (shown by the red line)


Unless you are confident that in your edit you want to push the exposure to the extremes of over or underexposure, and you don’t mind losing detail at the other end of the histogram, then you will want to aim for this bell curve of evenly spaced exposure on the histogram.


For landscape photographers, some common sense is needed when assessing your exposure from the histogram. If you are photographing a lone tree in the snow, your histogram will be skewed to the right, in dark woods it will be skewed to the left and so on.


Exposure Warning

Exposure warning can be very useful out in the field as well, many landscape photographers use it as a final check when they review the image on the back screen. You can set any areas that are over or under-exposed to flash black,red, or blue when you check the image on the back screen.


Over-exposure warnings for Landscape Photographers
The areas that are too light for any information to be saved are shown in red



Under-exposure warnings for Landscape Photographers
The areas that are too dark for any information to be saved are shown in blue



The most important thing to remember is that no camera has been made, and I doubt ever will be made that can cope with the extremes of exposure our eyes can. So as you become more experienced, your first tool will be your eyes and judgement to assess the scene and decide how best to expose. You can then use the tools mentioned above to finetune that exposure creating those beautiful landscape photos.


Understanding Natural Light

Three main properties of natural light affect your photography; colour temperature, direction, and the strength of the light. Let’s look at the first two of these below. For landscape photographers different strengths of light will mean adjusting ISO, Shutter speed, or aperture for more explanation of these, see my article on Landscape Photography Settings.


1. Colour Temperature or White Balance

Colour temperature in photography is measured in degrees kelvin. It can be a help to your landscape photography to have an understanding of how Kelvin works. You don’t have to be able to look out your window and know the exact colour temperature of the light outside, but it can help to be able to give a rough estimate.

Colour temperature is also known as White Balance as you are selecting at what colour temperature white will be white in your image.

Warmer, more orange, light such as a traditional incandescent light bulb in your home will be around 3000 kelvin, whereas cooler or bluer light on a cloudy day might be around 6000 kelvin. The table below illustrates this, however be aware that these are just estimations and each lighting source will vary in colour temperature.


Color Temperature for Landscape Photographers


Notice that confusingly the ‘warmer’ light is a lower temperature kelvin and conversely the cooler, bluer light is a higher temperature kelvin.

Colour temperature has a great effect on the mood of your landscape photos. If you are shooting RAW, you will be able to finetune the colour temperature in post-processing; however, you want to try and match the mood and colour temperature that you want as accurately as possible.

Throughout the day, the colour temperature will constantly be changing. Starting with the blue of early morning dawn, slowly becoming warmer as the sun nears and crests the horizon, this is often known as ‘Golden Hour’. Throughout the middle of the day when the sun is high in the air, the colour temperature will increase again as the light becomes ‘bluer’. Notice it does not follow that the stronger the suns light the ‘warmer’ or lower the colour temperature.

For the most part, the White Balance settings on your camera will help you get the right colour temperature setting for the conditions you are experiencing. I have tried to give a brief, simple to understand, explanation of colour temperature here, but if you want a more in-depth explanation, Wikipedia has a great article here



2. Light Direction



Backlighting can be extremely effective if done correctly. When landscape photographers talk about backlighting, we are referring to the light source (the sun in our case) being behind the subject that we are photographing. This will mean that the sun will be in front of us with its light coming towards us.

Ofter this will give a bright, halo-like outline to the horizon or the subject that we are photographing. Depending on how we expose the photograph, the subject might be in silhouette, or if we retain some detail in the shadows, just darker than the sky. With the amount of dynamic range available in modern cameras, it is often possible to achieve this backlit effect but still bring most of the detail in the shadows back when it comes to editing the image.



Back lighting - Landscape Photography
The deer in this image is ‘backlit’ as the sun is coming towards me.



If you allow the suns rays to point directly into the camera lens, they will bounce around on the inside of the lens, creating an effect that is called flare. Flare can be an annoyance that you want to avoid by using a lens guard or some other shade, on the other hand, it can be something that you look for, and want to incorporate into your photograph. Many landscape photographers use flare to create a very appealing soft light, almost like a haze. Practice with it when you are next out and about. The effects are a little difficult to predict, but the more you practice, the better idea you will have of what can be achieved.



Flare - Landscape Photography
Can you see the ring of orange light that crosses the woman’s dress? That is flare, caused by light bouncing
around the inside of the lens


Rays and Halos

When shooting into the sun, looking to achieve a backlit effect, sometimes you might see rays or even halos around the sun. These are formed by dust, or ice particles, hanging in the atmosphere and catching the suns rays. If you are able to expose them correctly, they can look stunning. This will mean underexposing the image as much as possible and then bringing the rays back in postproduction.



Antarctica - South Pole, 22 degree halo
This ring around the sun is known as a 22 degree halo or Sundog



Another 22 degree Halo in Antarctica
Another 22 degree Halo in Antarctica



Sun Rays, Landscape Photography
You don’t always have to travel to Antarctica! Here are sun rays in Kent, UK


Light Painting

This does not strictly count as natural lighting, but it is an effect that I love using in my landscape photography, and I see some other landscape photographers using too. When shooting at night using long exposures, I will often use the beam of my head torch to paint light on to the subject. As you have a long exposure, you have time to paint the light on the subject. Again it is best to practice this, but you can even do it indoors. Turn the lights out and set your camera to take a long exposure, then while the shutter is open use a torch beam to light up different areas of the image. If the beam of the torch is strong, you might only shine it for 3 seconds of a 20 second exposure and that will be enough, keep playing around and practising!


Painting Light
This is a 30 second exposure during which I have ‘painted’ light onto the tree with a head torch.


I hope you enjoyed this article, the next and last article in my Tips for Landscape Photography series will be on editing, so stay tuned. If you sign up to my monthly newsletter at the bottom of the page, I will let you know when it is published.


Paddy Scott