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Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Mastering Light In The Landscape

Set your scenic photography apart by learning to use light for better photos

1. Paint With Light
Night photography can be interesting without any tricks, but it's the sky that usually draws our attention, as so many details of the landscape are lost. One way to light up the landscape for night photography is to use a standard flash, but have you considered "painting" with light? Use a flashlight during a long exposure to selectively illuminate landscape elements, particularly in the foreground of your composition.

Photographer Michael Frye is an expert at the technique, which can offer a new perspective of a familiar scene, as in this example of the often-photographed Delicate Arch in Utah. This image was made in two separate exposures with the camera stationary on a tripod. The first exposure was about four seconds at ƒ/16, taken at dusk. The second exposure lasted about 10 minutes at ƒ/4. During the second exposure, Frye "painted" in the details of Delicate Arch, moving the flashlight beam around the rock to evenly expose it.

This technique is more art than science, so try painting with light in your backyard or neighborhood park to get a feel for exposure times and aperture settings.—WP

2. Backlight For Emphasis
Because of challenges with flare and exposure, many photographers often avoid using backlight. However, a sun shade, a graduated neutral-density (ND) filter and a digital camera can make a difference. Backlighting causes colors to glow and separates forms and textures. In this image of scrubland along the California coast near Los Osos, the clouds broke long enough to light up the bushes dramatically, allowing viewers to appreciate the texture, form and color. The digital camera's LCD provided a check of light and exposure.

Backlight is always dramatic because of its contrast, which is why you see many pros use it, but that contrast can be difficult to manage. In this shot, two exposures were made—one for the bushes, then one for the sky—and the shots combined in the computer for a truer rendition of the scene than would be possible from a single exposure (a graduated ND filter would give a similar result).—RS

3. Use "Bad" Weather
Inclement weather can create dramatic light on the landscape, especially at either end of a storm when direct sunlight breaks through. Heavy clouds and fog can add atmosphere to a scene that might otherwise have little of interest in it. Stormy skies also act as a natural diffuser, casting even light across the scene. In this image, dense clouds are a graphic contrast to the verdant landscape and break up what might otherwise be a monotonous view.

When gearing up for rainy weather photography, remember your polarizing filter to help control reflections and reduce glare. Also, become accustomed to experimenting with white-balance settings if you're using a digital camera. Try a variety of white-balance modes and see which works best to capture the mood of the moment. For example, you may find you like the "cooling" effect of shooting in Tungsten mode or perhaps the warmer look created by a Cloudy white balance.—WP

4.Use Natural Shadows
Create strong, contrasty images by making compositions in which part of the scene is naturally shaded. Look for shadows caused by cliffs, boulders or a big bush. You'll most likely find these shadows in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is lower and the shadows are longer.

Clouds are a terrific source of shadows, too. Even on a bright, sunny day, one strategically placed cumulus can create an interesting dark patch on the landscape. If you wait, it may blow into position for you. You'll need to shoot more quickly with clouds than with cliffs because the lighting patterns can change rapidly and they won't be repeated. If you're shooting transparency film, and especially if you shoot digital, make certain the shadows don't cause the metering system to overexpose your photos. While an extra stop's exposure is okay for color negatives, it's a problem for slides and a disaster for digital. To avoid this, meter from the brighter areas, and bracket if you're unsure of your exposure.—ZS


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