Extraordinary Light

Learn to use the subtleties of illumination for dramatic landscape images
This Article Features Photo Zoom
Reflections
Reflection

You know the difference between frontlight, sidelight and backlight. You’ve heard about the need to capture the “magic hours” around sunrise and sunset. But to master light, the essence of photography, you have to move beyond these basics and learn the nuances—the subtleties that can make a dull image brilliant.

 

Reflections
Reflections

Reflections

The best reflections show sunlit objects mirrored in shaded water. Sunlight glaring on the water’s surface kills reflections. Look for mountains, hills or trees that catch late

Smooth, mirror-like water is great, but not essential. Ripples, reflecting a kaleidoscope of hues, can be interesting. A fast shutter speed freezes this wave pattern, while a long exposure (if the light is dim enough) can blur the water’s surface into a beautiful sheen.

 

Directional Soft Light Directional Soft Light
Directional Soft Light

Directional Soft Light

Backlight penetrates translucent objects like leaves, flowers or grasses, making them glow. Hard backlight—the sun shining from behind—creates strong contrast. But some subjects, like flowers, look better with gentler light. Try putting the flowers in the shade, but keep most of the light coming from behind. This soft backlight makes the translucent flowers glow without making the image too harsh. Sidelight brings out texture and form, showing the roundness of a tree trunk or the ripples in a sand dune. Sunlight cutting across a forest scene might be too harsh or produce a confusing pattern of shadows, but soft light coming from the side highlights form and texture without the complexity.

Soft frontlight, where the subject is in the shade, but most of the light is coming from behind you, is the flattest, most even light you’ll find in nature, which makes it perfect for showing pure, vivid colors.

 

Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro
Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro

This painting style is often associated with Rembrandt. His theatrical use of light and shadow produced paintings with drama and a sense of depth.

In landscape photography, broken sun and clouds create chiaroscuro. Sunbeams highlight some landforms while others are thrown into shadow, creating strong contrast. Of course, you want the light to highlight the most interesting points. This takes timing, patience and a little luck. "Waiting" and "photography" are synonyms in my dictionary.


This Article Features Photo Zoom


Light Against Dark

Light Against Dark

Every photograph needs contrast (except when it doesn’t, which I’ll come back to). Images without either color contrast or light-and-dark contrast look flat. When you view a photograph, your eye is naturally drawn to the brightest areas. So it rarely works to have your main subject in the shade, with bright, distracting spots next to it or behind it; this creates a visual tug of war between your subject and its surroundings. The opposite situation—a bright subject against a dark background—is often striking.

This sounds simple, but can be hard to find. Look for sidelight, or three-quarters frontlight, where the sun rakes across your subject but leaves the background in shade. Larger subjects need a sunbeam to highlight your main focal point—that chiaroscuro effect.

Low Contrast
Low
Low Contrast

Low Contrast

Every rule has exceptions. Sometimes a deliberate lack of contrast can be exquisite. Think of a tiger’s stripes blending with tall grasses or a lichen-covered tree disappearing against a lichen-covered rock. Fog is the perfect device for softening contrast. Sometimes I hear photographers complain about fog: I was down at the coast, but it was too foggy "I couldn’t see a thing." Hearing this makes me want to scream or smash an expensive lens. Okay, maybe a cheap one. Fog literally adds atmosphere to a photograph, and it’s the perfect chance to create striking, low-contrast images.

Frontlit Silhouettes

Frontlit Silhouettes
Frontlit Silhouettes
Frontlit Silhouettes

Some silhouettes have become visual clichés. Think of a dark tree against the sky or a sailboat before the setting sun. These classics are always backlit; for something different, use frontlight. Keep the sun at your back and look for a shaded object with an interesting shape. If you can place this object against that bright, sunlit background, you’ve conjured a frontlit silhouette and an image that transcends the cliché.

 

Creative Color Temperature
Creative Color Temperature
Creative Color Temperature

Creative Color Temperature

Digital cameras have made us all familiar with white balance and color temperature. While some photographers become obsessed with capturing perfectly neutral whitebalance,I prefer to use color temperature as a creative tool. An overall tint—like blue or magenta—can add to the mood. Sunrise and sunset provide vivid contrasts between different color temperatures: anything lit by the sun turns orange, pink or red, while everything else is blue.

Shooting in RAW allows you to delay these decisions. Later, while sitting in front of your monitor, you can choose a neutral, cool or warm cast. For sunrises and sunsets, keep the white balance around 5,000 K (daylight)—unless you’re trying to be really creative!

Bounce Light

Bounce Light

While Yosemite photographers hope for storms and interesting weather, their Utah cousins look for clear skies. In the Southwest, sunlight bounces off red canyon walls and casts a beautiful amber glow on objects in the shade.

But desert photographers don’t have a monopoly on bounce light. In cities, light reflects off glass buildings, adding a surreal glow to the streets below. The sun can rebound off snow or sand to illuminate the underside of a tree or a person’s face. And Yosemite Valley is really a canyon, with gorgeous light bouncing off the cliffs. Sunny days don’t have to be boring.

Michael Frye has written previously about Mount Whitney and Ansel Adams for OP. To see more of his work, visit www.michaelfrye.com.

6 Comments

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