Landscapes Exposed!

How to handle tricky lighting situations in the field
landscape masters

How often do you have your camera standing by for that elusive shot, only to realize it may take you a few extra moments to get that exposure properly recorded? This is one of the key reasons why it’s imperative to know your camera as well as possible. Some moments last only a fraction of a second—and you have to be ready.

I’m a big fan of Adobe Photoshop and use it quite often, but the instances I discuss here are accomplished in the camera with very little help after the fact. High Dynamic Range (HDR) is fantastic in that it allows multiple layers and exposures in order to have mile-long depth of field or both the background and foreground properly exposed. But there are times when you can’t take multiple exposures, don’t have access to a tripod and must capture the image quickly before it disappears.

I like to call these images great compromises because usually you have to compromise something—lighting in the clouds or the landscape, silhouette versus blown-out subjects or what part of the frame must be in sharp focus. In each of the examples here, some compromise has been made to capture an interesting photograph. Obviously, digital images have a slight edge in that you may see the fruits of your labors almost immediately and make the necessary corrections, but if you truly know your camera, these situations soon become second nature.

Send In The Clouds
1 Shooting into the sky poses its own set of problems, but if you’re fortunate enough to have the sun behind a cloud, backlight can be your best friend. When exposing any image, try to find as many natural reflecting sources as possible. On a beach, waiting until the sand is drenched with highly reflective ocean water will brighten your shot. This moment won’t last long because the sand soon will absorb the moisture, and damp sand offers no fill lighting.

With the sun behind a cloud, I was forced to expose for the surrounding landscape. Waiting for the sun to almost peek from the edge of the cloud allowed the rays to extend from all sides and lighten the exposure. Wanting the landscape in the rear to be in silhouette, I opened the aperture just enough (ƒ/13) to get detail in the sand, water and cloud. The water mirrors what’s seen in the sky. If I opened the aperture to ƒ/11, I’d lose detail in the clouds but gain it in the background. This compromise of exposure told enough of the story without dwelling too much on any one area and still gave me enough detail in the clouds.

landscape masters

Into The Sun
2 On the East Coast, sunrises are colorful events without the need to boost the saturation of the image. With the color temperature hovering somewhere around 2000 Kelvin, the reds and oranges will be the most pronounced. As a lobsterman began his early-morning ritual, I captured the moment with a long lens and set the color balance to daylight (5600 K). Because the sun was so low, the ambient orange light appeared redder in the digital image.

Wanting to focus more on the sky and ocean, I let the boat go into silhouette. Taking a spot exposure reading off the ocean kept it and the sky properly exposed. If I wanted more lighting detail on the boat, I could have exposed for it, but the water and sky would have been too overexposed. Again, you must make a choice or compromise—I chose the sky. In Photoshop, I also could have selected the boat and lightened it, but that’s not the way I wanted the shot. It’s the beginning of a new day, and therefore the boat still should be slightly dark, with the brilliant dawn being the backdrop.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
landscape masters

Blinded By The Light
3 Sometimes you’re forced to shoot into the sun and live with the results. This isn’t always a bad thing, and you can make it work for you. Wait until the sun is low in the sky, almost to the point of it being on the horizon. Take a reading off the surface of the sand, in this case, ƒ/13, and sky, ƒ/14. I opted to expose for the sky and let the sand go slightly dark. Because the sun is so low in the sky, it won’t throw off the exposure of the rest of the sky. The sun itself was ƒ/22—if that was my exposure, everything would be dark except the sun.

Just the tiny area of the sky that the sun occupies will be brilliant, and the deep sapphire blue of the sky will dominate the image. We can’t look at the sun anyway, and a photograph of it peeking between some houses in the distance is far more interesting. The wide angle of the shot accentuates the vastness of the beach, and the small reflective pools of water help the exposure.

landscape masters
landscape masters

Feeling Moody
4 There are other times when the sky is so dark that very little color is present. As with shooting black-and-white, the absence of color intensifies the mood. In a situation like this where the sky is black, you want to expose on the slightly lighter ocean to preserve the blackness of the sky. The monochromatic intensity of this kind of image is heightened by freezing a moment in time when the waves are about to crash on the shore, but the blackness in the distance is a foreshadow of what’s to come. You could use a fill-flash to illuminate the rocks, but it might be better to illustrate that the darkness and lack of color in the distance is what’s coming.

Play Misty For Me
5 When cold water meets warm air, mist is created. If not shot carefully, mist can appear as just a blurry haze on the water. To the naked eye, the mist slowly rises, curls and then vaporizes. Expose for the steam, and the water beneath will be underexposed, making it stand out more. Getting the clouds into the shot also helps to highlight the mist in the image. Some might prefer to zoom in, just getting the phenomenon, but I found that shooting wider painted a better picture with much more contrast.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
landscpae masters

Into The Woods
6 When deep in the woods, the larger trees will naturally block out most of the sun’s light. Try to frame the shot with the sun seen off in the distance so the viewer’s eye may be drawn toward it. It’s natural to have the darker trees in the foreground and the brighter objects more toward the back of your images.

landscape masters

Getting Some Sun On The Beach
7 A circular polarizer cuts through the natural haze in the sky and darkens the blue, better reflecting the color of the ocean. Here, because the sky is the dominant image, underexposing by a half stop brings out more detail in the flotsam and rocks on the beach.

Final Tips
None of the images seen here has been manipulated in Adobe Photoshop, with the exception of some sharpening. Nuances may be brought to light using this software, but if you take the time to properly expose (average between the lights and the darks), choose the proper lens for the situation (a wide-angle allows for greater depth of field and a telephoto more narrow), frame accordingly (vertical versus horizontal) and wait for the right moment, you’ll create a lasting memory.

Professor Chuck Gloman is an avid photographer and the program director of the TV/Film Department at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. He may be reached at


    This is truly the art of outdoor photography.

    Setting up exposure in a lab environment is under your complete control.

    But you cannot control the sun and must be quick to adjust.

    I still have a lot to learn.

Leave a Reply

Main Menu