Landscape Lighting

Start with the basics and your images will keep getting better

Black Oak, Autumn, Yosemite National Park. Backlight for drama.Black Oak, Autumn, Yosemite National Park. Backlight
for dram

The most challenging aspect of teaching landscape photography is that of helping students find a creative voice. One way to think about improving your creativity is to ask yourself, "What do I want to say with my photographs?" It’s important to have something to say, to have a theme or concept within which you can organize the imagery about which you’re most passionate. Think of your favorite photographers, and I'll guess that you can immediately recall what they’re trying to say with their work. As regular readers of this column know, I’m passionate about the subject of pushing ourselves creatively.

Yet none of the philosophical ramblings, by myself or by others, can solve the need for sound technique and of understanding the basic ingredients for an excellent landscape photograph, such as the quality of light. For those of you who are beginners, here are some basic guidelines for understanding what to look for in terms of lighting conditions. For the more advanced, it’s always good to review the basics!

Landscape Lighting Basics
Let’s think about some basic ways light can affect the landscape:

Where is the light coming from?
Is the light coming from the side or toward the lens or perhaps from over your shoulder? The angle of the sun will make a big difference. Low-angled light, like early or late in the day, will cast more shadows and show more texture.

What color is the light?
The color temperature of light on the landscape is an important factor in the mood and impact of a photograph. Midday light tends to be fairly neutral, as opposed to the light at sunrise or sunset, which is much warmer. Is the sky clear and blue? If so, bluish ultraviolet light is reflected into shadows.

What effect does the light have on the contrast of darks and lights?
When light is cast across a landscape, the space within the viewfinder is broken up into shapes of dark and light. These shapes, depending how they’re arranged in the frame, will form the design and rhythm of that image. It’s important to remember that light and composition are usually interrelated in a photograph—the lighting conditions affect the composition, and the way an image is composed affects how light is perceived in a landscape photograph.

Is there a more optimum time to photograph this scene? How often do we arrive at a great place to photograph at just the right time? If you’re making an exposure, then hopefully you feel that the light is good. But it’s useful to consider when the light might be better, such as a different time of day or a different season.

I’ve included two examples of lighting conditions that work well for photographing autumn foliage. Example number one is a photograph taken in Yosemite Valley. Taken in the early morning, the sun had just come over the cliffs, lighting the oak trees from behind while the cliffs remained in shadow. The combination of backlight and a dark background gives a strong contrast that accentuates the autumn color.

The photograph in example number two (see magazine) was made in soft light in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The conditions were excellent for capturing the intense colors and the busy composition of autumn foliage. There was no wind and no shadows. With the shadowless light, I could record all the detail, including the highlights in the birch trees without the low values going to black. This kind of contrast issue is less of a problem with digital capture than with film, but this doesn’t mean you stop thinking about the quality of light!

I hope that my thoughts have been helpful. Learning to see the light is a never-ending process. Keep looking, and then look again!

To sign up for newsletter updates on his Landscape Essentials course with or for information on his books, portfolios, new images and more, visit William Neill’s web page at


William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.

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