Landscape photography is made up of two halves: light and composition. Understanding both how to recognize light and how to define your subject, will help take your photography to the next level. It will allow you to begin to take more creative landscape photos that connect more personally with you and your viewers.
Every landscape photograph taken, past and present, is only a simple combination of composition and light (and colour, but that’s an article for a different day). Of course, that’s not to say that every landscape photograph uses light correctly or has a compelling composition. Quite the contrary, many fall short in one or both, which leaves us and our viewer unsatisfied with the image. The purpose of this guide is to help us understand what types of light exist and how that understanding, combined with a good grasp of the subject, can create compelling landscape imagery that speaks to yourself first, and ultimately, the viewer.
It is important to first define image composition in landscape photography, it’s chief aim, and what makes a composition successful. Image composition is how the photographer arranges the chaotic natural elements of a scene within the four edges of a photograph. The principal goal is to capture the interest of your viewer and move them on a visual journey through your photo. Successful image composition occurs when the photographer organizes the chaotic nature of a scene in a way that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also connects with the viewer emotionally and tells them what it felt like to be there. Great image composition can share a narrative greater than the sum of the parts of a photograph, and represent a part of the human experience in an abstract form.
Image composition in landscape photography begins by answering the question, “What do I like most about this scene?”. The answer to this question is fascinating in that, most people will have a different answer. That answer is generally shaped by unique interests, personalities, and experiences. If art is an act of expressing feelings, thoughts, and observations by the artist, then it is vital that every photographer, who wants their imagery to become a personal expression, answers this question. The answer will direct you to what you want your photo to be about; the subject.
Now, what role does light play in this conversation? There wouldn’t be many landscape photographers that would argue that it’s the pursuit of great light that draws us into nature. For many, this means getting out during those periods at the end and beginning of the day, called gold hour. When I started landscape photography, I was told, as I’m sure many of you were, that the best photos came at those times. That meant getting up early and staying out late to chase dramatic colour and dynamic light, capturing different landscape elements under colourful skies. The underlying belief is that more colourful conditions yield a better photograph.
After a year of this, my younger brother asked me why I kept taking the same, formulaic photograph over and over again. He indicated, in no uncertain terms, that great landscape photographers take advantage of light in all hours of the day, and challenged me to see the photographic potential outside of those golden hours. Initially, I didn’t see his point and honestly wondered why he would insult my ‘groundbreaking’ landscape photography.
Looking back though, I can see that he wasn’t trying to ruin my colour high, or insult my work, but point to the fact that there is so much more to landscape photography than photographing during golden hour. I began to realize that I was doing my art a disservice and that I wasn’t as creative as I could be when I ignored other hours of the day. I was missing out on photographing subjects that moved the viewer to examine the image, and themselves, more emotionally: connecting on a level deeper than base aesthetic appeal. Landscape photography, as an art, is a means of expressing yourself. So, it’s important to become a student of the different types of light, so you can find the freedom to express a piece of yourself in your landscape photography.
Now, I love burning red skies as much as anyone and I will continue to chase them. The purpose of this article is not to guilt you out of chasing a dramatic sky. Instead, it’s purpose is to ask what other types of light exist, what kind of subjects work best in that light, and how a clear understanding of your subject can connect with your viewer at an emotional level.
Lately, I’ve found that my favourite type of light in landscape photography is flat light. There are a couple of versions of this light, and it’s important to understand the distinction. The first type of flat light is when there is no direction or dimension to the light. Typically, this occurs when there is a high percentage of low altitude clouds and the sun is blocked, unable to illuminate the scene. The result is that there is virtually no contrast in the landscape.
The second kind of flat light is a directional light. This occurs when the sun is above the horizon but is covered in medium or high altitude clouds. The benefit of these lighter clouds is that they create a softbox type of effect one would achieve in a studio. There are no harsh highlights, but there is enough contrast to create depth and dimension in the landscape.
There are two reasons that flat light has become my favourite type of light in landscape photography. The first is that I don’t have to wake up early in the morning to greet a 4:00 AM sunrise. At times it feels crazy to be waking up when people are just getting back from a Friday night out, just for the chance of amazing colour in my photograph.
The second reason I love flat light is that it can lead to a more contemplative approach that can foster more creative landscape photography. Simply, subjects in the middle of the day under flat light, are things that you would never dream of photographing under a burning sky. And because the sky isn’t doing anything exciting, you can forget the sky and focus instead on photographing smaller, more intimate details in the landscape with a telephoto lens.
In flat light I often find myself wandering through a forest, along the creek’s edge, inspecting the ground, or at the base of a waterfall. Once you’ve found the answer to the question, “What speaks to you about this scene?”, you can take your time composing and think more creatively because flat light doesn’t move quickly. This contrasts with the reactionary approach taken with a burning sky when there are mere minutes to capture a photo at peak colour.
In theory, this light is fairly straightforward. Simply, it is when the sun is shining directly on your scene. This either means sidelight (when the sun is shining in from the side of your photo) or backlight (when you are photographing facing towards the sun). Unlike flat light, which normally occurs outside of golden hour, direct light can happen at any point after sunrise and before sunset, including the golden hour. I find that when I’m planning for landscape photography during sunrise or sunset, I’m looking for subjects that receive direct light, and aren’t just backlit with a colourful sky above.
Golden hour, by definition, is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. Direct light during these hours will be softer, with more pleasing contrast, than direct light in the middle of the day. It’s generally a warmer tone that viewers find more pleasing in a finished photograph, as opposed to the cooler tones that occur nearer the middle of the day. This golden hour light is easier to manage in post-processing because there isn’t that harsh contrast that occurs when the sun is high in the sky.
Direct light can be on your subject, or it can be your subject. If the light is doing something particularly amazing on just one layer of the landscape, you can draw your viewer in. The highlights (or brighter parts of your scene) always capture the attention of your viewer first. So, ensure that the light is aiding or illuminating your subject or, if the light is your subject, that there aren’t other landscape elements competing with it for your viewer’s attention.
You’ve probably noticed by now that there are a lot of potential compositional directions one could go with flat light and direct light. Reflected light is much more straightforward. It happens when light bounces around and is absorbed by different elements in your scene. Think of how a studio photographer would use a reflector in a studio. That photographer uses a reflector to bounce light onto a subject to soften shadows or illuminate them. The same happens in landscape photography when light bounces off elements in the landscape. The principal difference between a studio’s reflector and reflected light in nature is the latter often creates beautiful contrasts in colour.
When light reflects off a red canyon wall, for example, it provides both light and the warmer colour tones of the canyon wall to other elements in the photo. We can see a beautiful contrast in colour when photo elements that are in shadow, reflect the ambient light from the blue sky above. You can see this mix of cooler and warmer tones in this photo by photographer, Bryce Mironuk.
Snow also has wonderful reflective qualities. Being white, it’s going to reflect any light that hits it, much like a studio photographer’s reflector. So during those golden hours, the quality of light on snow and ice is incredible. You see that same beautiful contrast of colour. The colourful morning light that skims the snow or ice, will contrast with frozen elements in the shade that reflect ambient light from the blue sky above. One of the more interesting parts of landscape photography in winter is that you rarely get deep shadows in snow or ice, the light is bouncing around too much. So, you’ll never see those dark shadows and harsh contrast that occurs during the middle of a summer day.
The last place I look for reflected light is when I’m photographing in an area with a lot of clay. Clay is very absorbent and, before sunrise and after sunset, will reflect the ambient light in the sky. If the sky is full of reds and blues the clay will take on a purplish hue. If it’s the blue hour, you can expect the clay to absorb ambient blue light. So spend some time looking for subjects that can benefit from the contrast in colour that only reflected light can give.
A word of warning before we move forward, ensure that the light in your scene does not battle against your subject. The light in the landscape should always support your subject. As I’ve mentioned, your viewer will be drawn to the brighter parts of your image so ensure that the light is interacting with what you want the photo to be about in a way that can communicate the narrative of the photograph clearly to your viewer.
So, we’ve established our subject, and we now understand how the light will affect our scene: but how do we compose our landscape photography? The next step in image composition is to support your subject. It is helpful to think of image composition in landscape photography in terms of visual hierarchy; starting with the determined subject of the photo and working backward. This hierarchy can be established using a myriad of approaches such as balance, leading lines, layers, isolation, framing etc. These approaches aid in the visual flow of the photo, leading the viewer through the photo to define the primary point of interest.
It would take too long to explain each of the approaches here which is why I’ve assembled a free 6-week eCourse on image composition in landscape photography which you can sign up for here:
Download this FREE, 5-week landscape photography course on image composition in landscape photography. Learn, via email, about image composition, the importance of a subject, how to arrange successful images, and my 5 favourite approaches in the field.
I hope you found this tutorial helpful. More information on these topics can be found in the videos at the bottom of the page. If you have any questions that you think I can answer, drop me a line! If you want to share these tips with your friends then use the share links right here.