The Art of Luminosity, Part 2

Learning to see, compose and expose for the type of light in your scene

“It’s all about the light!” How often do we hear this refrain when discussing photography? But, there are many times we don’t see the light for what it is.

Art of luminosity rainbow over mountains

In part one of this article series, we talked about how light is recorded and translated into a digital image. We also reviewed the concept of dynamic range and how to read and use histograms to maximize the dynamic range in your photographs. Part two is about learning to “see” the light and understand how a scene will translate to a digital image.

Capturing perfect light in your images depends on two things: your ability to see it accurately, and your ability to capture the light within the limits of the dynamic range of your camera. The light falling on a landscape can be a complex mix of both direct and indirect light. It is critical to understand how to balance complex lighting patterns in a single image.

Including the light source in a scene increases the contrast ratio, makes it more difficult to calculate an accurate exposure and often results in a photograph that is less appealing to our eye. Trained photographers often work with reflected light or “luminance” light, excluding the source in their compositions.

In nature, the atmosphere enhances the quality of the light. Clouds and moisture in the sky scatter the light, diffusing it. This scattered soft light results in lowering the contrast in the scene, typically creating the ideal dynamic range for your digital camera.

Capturing light isn’t just about how much light exists but also about considering the source and quality of light. Light comes from three directions:

  • Direct light
  • Back light
  • Side light

In addition to these types of directional light, there is the quality of light, often described as soft, hard and low light.

Art of Luminosity: Example of hard light

Hard light is typically direct sunlight from about two hours past sunrise to two hours before sundown. However, this rule of thumb varies based on latitude. As you move away from the equator, the angle of light becomes lower, and that can make it softer.

Art of Luminosity, example of soft light

Soft light is light with minimal contrast, or less difference between the brightest and darkest points. High, thin clouds create very good soft light.

Art of luminosity, example of low light

Low light is very dim light at the limit of what our human eyes can perceive. Most low light occurs at night. The best way to see into dim light is to use your camera to capture it with a long exposure.

Art of luminosity, example of specular highlights

Specular highlights are regions that are too bright and will never hold detail, because they are outside of the dynamic range like the sun. In nature, we often see direct sun reflecting off water, and most of these highlights are specular. Specular highlights are not to be considered when evaluating a histogram because there is no way for them to contain any detail. This scene of the crocodile in backlight shows how hard backlight with many specular highlights can create interesting images, even though some detail is lost in the specular highlights.

Art of luminosity, example of natural lighting effects

Natural lighting effects. Two of my favorite natural lighting conditions are spot and accent light. The only way to see these conditions is during mostly cloudy days. When holes in cloud layers open up just enough to reveal a beam of light, this becomes either spot or accent light.

Art of luminosity, example of transitional light

Transitional light. The moment between sun and shade can happen quickly, requiring you to anticipate this particular light and click the shutter at just the right time. There are two ways this occurs. The sun must be obscured by a cloud or a distant mountain. If the clouds are moving fast, the timing is even more critical. This can be quite exciting on a spring day when small cumulus clouds are blowing by. This image was captured while the sun partially illuminated the foreground. I had more time to calculate this moment because I could watch the shadow line approach for 15 minutes before capture. This partial sun created nice soft shadows from the bushes in the foreground while lighting up the distant dunes with bright direct sunlight.

Art of luminosity, example of using shadows in a landscape photo

Shadows. In most images—especially landscapes—darkness is equally as important as the lit areas. When there is a less essential detail in the shadows or if the outline of the shadow creates a distinguishing shape, let the shadows remain dark.

Art of luminosity, example of bounce light

Fill or bounce light. These tall cliffs are lit from behind by direct sunlight. The sunlit cliffs are also bouncing back that same direct light onto adjacent cliffs. Look carefully at the darker cliff on the left. You will see a nice warm glow on the angled faces of rock catching that bounce light from the opposite side of the canyon.

Art of luminosity, example of starlight

Starlight. Because of the amount of light pollution typical in most locations, there are very few places in the world where you can notice starlight. Light from cities as far away as 100 miles affects the atmosphere, causing a color cast on the horizon. One dark sky location is the salt flats in Bolivia, a remote location surrounded by hundreds of miles of rural Quinoa farms and high arid desert. On a moonless night with no interfering light sources, your eyes will begin to observe starlight. Created millions of years ago, this ancient light will be all you see.

Pre-Visualizing Post-Processing Potential

Let’s face it, the light is not always perfect. In these more common conditions, there are still many pictures to be created, and with an understanding of editing, you will be able to pre-visualize the potential. What helps me understand the light in these situations is to divide the scene into regions of similar densities. I first consider all the darker regions, then the midtone regions, and finally the highlight regions. Any value between 30 percent and 70 percent is a midtone. Above those values are highlights and whites; below are shadows and blacks.

Art of Luminosity, example of sunset light

Sunset, Santa Ynez Mountains, California.

Most landscape photography occurs during sunrise or sunset. When I plan to photograph either, I sometimes break the rules and include the sun itself, but I carefully capture the moment when the sun is barely showing above the horizon. I capture this exact moment for three reasons. First, the sun will create a special type of lens flare (called a “star”) with all the rays pointing downward rather than pointing in all directions. Second, the sun will add less contrast to the scene of the landscape in front of my camera when it is partially obscured by the horizon. The third consideration when photographing a sunrise/sunset is focal length. If I use a very wide-angle lens, 24mm or wider, the sun itself will be tiny. By using a wide-angle lens, I am revealing more around the sun than the sun itself, a combination of the backlight, reflected light and soft shadows. Over the years that I’ve photographed the sunrise and sunset, I’ve become more interested in this light surrounding the sun itself. Eventually, many of my favorite scenes captured at sunrise or sunset were looking away from the sun.

As I became more intrigued with reflective light, I found myself working on cloudy days. The cloud cover forced me to observe non-directional light and color. We acknowledge color the way our eyes perceive it, and moreover, the way we personalize it. Not only do many of us see a particular hue of color differently than others, but this also has an effect on our perception of the image we’re viewing.

Contrast has a way of overshadowing color. For example, if you look at a grass lawn on a sunny day, it looks green. If you look at that same lawn on a cloudy day, you will most likely notice all the different shades of green, some with yellow and some with darker greens. This low-contrast light helps us acknowledge subtle nuances in colors. Acknowledging subtle differences in the color of light, especially ambient light, is critical to understanding light itself.

Art of luminosity, example of foggy light

Polar bear, Svalbard.

On this cloudy day in Svalbard (above), a fog bank arrived, scattering the harsh sun into a soft cast. Notice the blue light in the fog being reflected up from the surrounding ocean. Also, notice the yellow in the bear’s coat. Polar bears often get seal oil stuck in their coats. This seal oil grows algae and gives the coat a yellow-green cast. All these colors would not be as apparent in full sun, and the coat of the polar bear would appear white.

Blue hour is a great example of a natural color cast. During this time of dawn and dusk, the sun is just far enough below the horizon that the sunlight’s blue wavelengths dominate the spectrum because the longer reddish wavelengths are absorbed in the Earth’s ozone. This blue cast of light is natural and must be acknowledged. And once you do, you see that it’s creating a blue cast on everything around you.

When you become aware of color casts, you’ll begin noticing similar subtle differences throughout the day, for example, at sunrise versus an hour later. As the sun rises through the Earth’s atmosphere, the color of the sunlight becomes closer to white and less red.

However, you can determine how much of that blue cast you want showing in your final image by setting a manual white balance in your camera or changing the white balance in your post-processing software. The color cast can be described using the Kelvin color scale, in which the higher numbers are bluer and the lower numbers more yellow. You can reference a Kelvin color scale to view all the potential options. The temperature on a sunny day is 5,500 Kelvin. The temperature of an incandescent light bulb is 2,700 Kelvin, and the temperature of blue hour is around 10,000–15,000 Kelvin, depending on your latitude. Most editing software includes a tool to adjust the Kelvin white balance in an image. The tool in Lightroom is in the Develop module and is located at the top of the Basic Panel and called Temp and Tint. These two sliders are designed to compensate for a color cast. For example, if you move the slider to a lower Kelvin number, you compensate for an image captured in a setting with a much higher Kelvin setting. Two sliders give you the opportunity to move the white balance point within a color sphere. This allows you to move that point up and down as well as back and forth.

Art of luminosity, example of sunset color with auto white balance

Captured with auto white balance.

Art of luminosity, example of manual white balance

The same scene with manual white balance to achieve true color.

The images above were captured in the early morning during a pink cast. The sun was still below the horizon and reddish sunlight was striking the high clouds, which were reflecting that same reddish cast onto the entire scene. The top image was captured using the auto white balance in the camera. The image on the bottom shows what happens when a manual white balance is set on the white wall of the church on the hill. Notice how much pink is removed from the scene. The bottom version has an accurate white balance set for this scene. The subjective decision every photographer must make is how much of this natural cast they should leave in the final image.

Direct, middle-of-the-day sunlight is difficult to photograph. Shadows are dark, and there’s usually little contour in the landscape and lots of haze. There’s often so much haze that it’s difficult to see through. These conditions are definitely not something I look for, but despite all that, there can be some interesting photographic opportunities. First, I often think in black and white. I do this because the colors are typically oversaturated with all of the light, and the haze is easier to remove in black and white processing. This all depends on where you are and if there is enough visibility. Wildlife, interesting geology and dynamic shadows can all have photographic merit.

During these times, I find several aspects of the light intriguing. A cloudless sky becomes a blank canvas to be used as a background. Subjects can be placed compositionally against this backdrop and profiled. Shadows can be used as graphic elements to lead the eye where no detail is needed.

We’ve talked about different types of light and ways to learn to pre-visualize how the subtleties of light in a scene will be captured by your camera. In part three of this series, we’ll bring all of these concepts together as we work through the post-processing steps to help you realize that vision. 

This three-part article series is excerpted from The Art of Luminosity by Marc Muench, available as a free download at