In a follow-up to a previous article, “A Study in Vision, Light, and Shadows”, I decided to share my thoughts and experiences on my most inspiring topic in photography – light. For simplicity, I decided to write about light in a narrow context from the perspective and experience of a landscape photographer, since outdoors scenes are what I gravitate to. Much of the analysis and discussion that follows is equally applicable to other genres of photography, such as portraits, macro, still-life, and commercial photography. In this article, I will cover broadly what quality of light means for me in landscape photography as well as discuss a variety of scenarios where the scenic photographer can use different properties of light to create a given effect. Please note that this discussion is based on my own personal observations and experiences, which may differ from those of other photographers. My goal is to help beginning landscape photographers understand the different qualities of sunlight and how this instrumental tool can be harnessed to fulfill the visualization process.
As visual artists and photographers, when we hear or read a reference about the “quality” of light, we may ask, “What exactly does that mean?” Visual artists (painters, sketch artists, sculptors, photographers) can talk about light at length, but a consensus on just what constitutes “good light” or “bad light” can be elusive. The short, if not nebulous, answer to this question is that the quality of light may mean different things to different photographers and perhaps hold a different meaning at different stages in their discovery process. The truth is that there may not always be a “best” quality of light that is applicable to all situations or cherished by all photographers.
What are some of the qualities of light that scenic photographers seek? Is there a common denominator? Some photographers may cherish a “warm” scene . . .
or a “cool” scene . . .
Some photographers may prefer to work with so-called “hard” light . . .
or “soft” light.
Fundamentally, I view light as the requisite physical tool and aesthetic device to translate artistic vision into an image that conveys what the artist was feeling at the time of opening the shutter. Many landscape photographers (myself included) may describe and swear by “magical” light that may be difficult to express in words, but they surely know it when they see it. One of my favorite quotes from the incomparable Galen Rowell is, “My first thought is always of light“. Mr. Rowell’s philosophy is the epitome of the technical and aesthetic imperative of the photographic process. In the video clip below, please scroll to the 1:45 mark to hear Mr. Rowell speak with passion about his approach to light.
In the creation of a landscape photograph, I approach the quality of light with two interrelated properties in mind: the directionality and the color temperature. Why these two properties? The directionality of light determines the all-important quality of *shadows*, the *contrast*, and the *textures* in the landscape. Shadows, in turn, are what create depth, shape, and dimension in the scene and may also confer a provocative mood and emotion to the photograph.
To help beginning photographers understand the various properties of light, let’s take a look at a few controlled demonstrations of the directionality of light. Consider a plain sheet of crumpled copy paper. If we vary the directionality of light, would this influence the physical appearance and mood of this subject? The following photo shows the paper being illuminated solely with an overhead incandescent ceiling lamp. The directionality of this lighting is more or less even, but not completely. As you can see, there are shadows that lend a sense of shape, dimension, and texture, but the effect is neither compelling physically nor emotionally. Actually, it looks somewhat flat because the shadows are relatively flat.
Next, let’s adjust the lighting by keeping the overhead incandescent lamp on and placing a photoflood lamp in front the subject, directly behind the subject, and from both sides. Again, the lighting is roughly even. This is similar to the light of an overcast sky, for example, where sunlight is illuminating the scene from all directions (i.e., the soft box effect) and shadows are being filled in. Compared to the previous image, this subject bears a similar physical and emotional appearance – lifeless and boring.
But wait . . . what happens if we change the directionality of the light? This is where the drama unfolds. Let’s turn off the overhead ceiling lamp as well as the lamps from behind, in font, and from the right leaving only the paper illuminated from the left side at a low angle.
Wow . . . what a difference. This particular light has created a starkly different appearance and emotion. With the source of light now being unidirectional and raking across the subject at a low angle, we can perceive longer shadows, more shape and contours, more textures, and a heightened sense of depth that were minimal in the previous more evenly lit subjects. With more prominent visual cues of well-defined shadows alternating with highlights, the mind is more inspired to interpret and “see” faces, mountains, valleys, hills, defects, and creases.
What about other forms of the directionality of light? Can the visual artist and photographer still create this dramatic type of rendition without side lighting? To find out, let’s illuminate the paper solely with a lamp from behind at a low angle (i.e., backlighting):
Very interesting . . . compared to the previous image made with side lighting, there are stark similarities and differences. For one, the long shadows remain, which means we can appreciate the same physical attributes (shape, texture, depth) as well as a dramatic emotion. The difference is that the “landscape” itself has changed because of the change in the direction of the shadows. Instead of long shadows being cast perpendicular to the axis of the lens, the shadows are now being cast towards the lens. Thus, with a new pattern of alternating shadows and highlights, the mind can now interpret a completely different scene. This rendition bears “new” faces and mountains, if not a different identity. Because the shadows are different, structures that were previously seen with side lighting may be less prominent, may be no longer appreciated, or be interpreted differently by the viewer. Conclusion? Two different sources of light . . . two different sets of shadows . . . two starkly different moods and interpretations – all by virtue of directionality of the light.
OK, what would happen if we keep the light unidirectional but illuminate the subject from directly in front (i.e., light source behind the lens)? Based on the previous examples, can you predict the directionality and “quality” of the shadows? That is, what do you think the lens will “see” from this type of light? And what physical and emotional impact would this light have on the image and therefore on the viewer?
As one would expect, in comparison to side lighting and back lighting, the front lighting delivers a starkly different rendition. Because the shadows are now headed away from the lens, they are more hidden, in much the same way the shadows were hidden in the first two examples when they were filled in by more even lighting. With the shadows now more concealed from view, predictably we lose much of the physical depth, textures, shapes, and mood that were prominent with the side lighting and back lighting. The front of the subject now appears “smoother” with loss of textures, creases, and defects. Comparatively, this effect is no more compelling than the “even lighting” in the first two examples. In essence, the front lighting is similar to the quality of light that many portrait photographers use, namely front diffused lighting (i.e., butterfly lighting) to conceal wrinkles, pores, creases, and defects on the skin of the face. By concealing shadows and thus minimizing texture, the viewer interprets a softer and smoother surface. For glamour photographers, this quality of light may be what is desired for effect; but for the landscape photographer, recording these defects is *exactly* what we desire. We want to treat our audience to alluring textures, creases, deep shadows, and maybe deliver a dramatic mood and story.
As you can readily deduce from these simulations, shadows and contrast are an essential visual cue to the human mind in the perception of shape and depth in three-dimensional space. Without these visual cues, the mind would otherwise interpret a flat scene, which may not be desirable from an aesthetic standpoint. Further, these demonstrations strongly infer that the quality of light that lends itself well for landscape photography is low angle, unidirectional light from the side or directly behind the landscape. Hence, the way in which the photographer uses the direction of light to create a photograph is essential to creating the overall physical and emotional impact of an image. This beautiful phenomenon explains how a given photographer with a given artistic vision (or two different photographers with different life experiences and artistic visions) can photograph the same subject and come away with completely different images. In my humble opinion, this is the epitome of photography as a form of art. It really *is* all about the light; the “latest greatest gear” is irrelevant . . .
Now, let’s turn our attention to real life examples of the quality of light in outdoor photography.
Table of Contents
1) Side Lighting
This is my favorite quality of lighting, as its unidirectionality beautifully creates alluring shadows, textures, and shape as well as imparts 3-dimensionality and mood to a scene:
Words really cannot do it justice – a visual artist just has to discover and appreciate this light for himself/herself. Consider the following landscape scene where the incident sunlight is coming in at a low angle nearly perpendicular to the axis of the lens.
I crafted this composition such that there would be light sweeping across the landscape creating an interplay of shadows and highlights in the immediate foreground, in the middle, and in the background. As you can see, the shadows in the sand, the foliage, and in the sandstone rocks create an illusion of depth as well as an array of interesting textures extending from near to far. In my humble opinion, assuming the composition is strong, this type of light display is one of the more enjoyable aspects of landscape photography.
In this next photo, made during a chilly but breathtaking hike through the highlands of Iceland, the light was coming in at a low angle nearly perpendicular to the axis of the lens (sound familiar?). After patiently waiting for a snow/sleet storm to pass and the cloud cover to gently lift, the most beautiful quality of light I had ever witnessed bathed the mountain. “It was glorious!” The shadows and contrast were alluring, as were the sense of dimension and the textures. The mood was peaceful, uplifting, and radiant . . . As I witnessed the beauty unfolding, I was inspired to make a photograph that conveyed all of these attributes and emotions.
I made this next photograph after a clearing winter storm in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California (more on this special case of light in a future article). As you can see, the light is raking across the mountain at a low angle and perpendicular to the lens. Please note the direction of the shadows, the overall contrast, and coarse textures in the snow and rock. Again, this quality of lighting is what really gets me excited about landscape photography!
Beyond pure landscapes, side lighting can potentially yield the same beautiful physical and aesthetic results with plants and flowers, as the following two images illustrate. Each flower was illuminated by sunlight coming in low at a nearly 90 degree angle to the lens. The textures of the petals are nicely elucidated, and once again the interplay of highlights and shadows create depth and an element of intrigue.
Next, let’s consider examples of backlighting, which is also adept at revealing textures and creating shape and dimension with additional attributes in special cases (more on this below).
In the next photo of sand dunes at sunrise at Death Valley National Park, the light is sweeping across the landscape from behind at a low angle, which casts the shadows toward the lens. As with side lighting, this quality of light magically brings out the textures of the sand and beautifully accentuates shape and contours by virtue of the interplay of shadows and highlights.
Further, in terms of creating mood and affect in a landscape, backlighting can work its magic in a number of other ways. In order to create an alluring mood, I often use backlighting to take advantage of the silhouette effect and translucence.
In the next photograph taken at one of my favorite landscape subjects, Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, the silhouetted pine trees against a radiant backdrop at sunset created a vibrant and uplifting mood. As I opened the shutter to make the exposure, my artistic goal was to juxtapose one of nature’s rare life forms (the second rarest pine tree in the world) with vibrant colors to invite the viewer into a precious and magical world . . .
Similarly, this next photo of a cloud formation at sunset evokes the same physical attributes and emotion. The mix of deep shadows and strong highlights creates depth and emotion, and the backlight skimming the underside of the clouds and the surface of the ocean creates alluring textures. As I studied and marveled at this stunning light display, I felt as if I could reach out and touch the clouds and feel the light bathing my hands . . . At the decisive moment of opening the shutter, this was exactly the emotion that I wished to convey with my photograph.
Further, the composition that the photographer crafts need neither be grand nor exotic to explore the silhouette effect. A composition that emphasizes simplicity may have an equally profound aesthetic impact . . .
Another special case of backlighting involves the elegant transmission of light through a variety of media. A classic example is the warm and brilliant glow of sunlight through foliage in autumn, as the next photo illustrates. Texture and the illusion of depth notwithstanding, this form of lighting in and of itself may well be the salient feature of such an image.
On a smaller scale, as in close-ups, translucence may also be used creatively to make an otherwise prosaic subject appear enticing, as the following photograph of a delightful pansy flower after a fresh rain illustrates.
My personal favorite use of translucence in the creative process involves the glorious radiance of sunlight through clouds (in particular near sunset). Provided the photographer skillfully manipulates the exposure/film development/post-processing to control the strong highlights, the aesthetic effect can be very pleasing.
In addition to solids and gas/clouds, translucence with water may also confer a pleasant surprise on the mood of a landscape scene. Consider the following photograph I had made during a trek through southern Iceland to photograph the “Midnight Sun”. Here at an obscure yet delightful waterfall, the sun’s radiance through the water mist had an uncanny effect on accentuating the already glorious scene that was unfolding.
5) Front Lighting
Of all the qualities of light that I have explored, this is my least preferred quality of light, for the reasons illustrated in the simulations above. Again, the directionality of light (coming from behind the lens) effectively *hides* the shadows from the lens, which for a landscape photographer is not at all desirable. Hidden shadows have the unfortunate effect of depriving shape, depth, and textures from a scene, which in turn results in a flat image, physically and emotionally. Having said that, I can think of three scenarios where front lighting can potentially be used to create a compelling landscape photograph. The first scenario is where the sunlight (in particular at early sunrise and late sunset) is illuminating a distant structure (such as a mountain), and the resulting glow on the landscape may be aesthetically rich enough in its own right to create an inviting image.
The second scenario would be photographing a rainbow, one of the more interesting (yet relatively uncommon) light phenomena in nature. A discussion of rainbows is far beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to invite our Readers to the following video clip of an interview with Galen Rowell (please scroll to the 1:32 mark to hear Mr. Rowell discuss the phenomenon of rainbows). Also, I highly recommend this excellent article, “How To Photograph a Rainbow”, authored by our very own Nasim Mansurov.
The third scenario where front lighting may appeal to a landscape photographer would be to capture the shadow(s) cast by an object that is situated directly behind the camera (such as a tree) in order to create foreground interest in the scene. Personally, I have yet to feel inspired by this type of lighting scenario, but it is certainly something that may be considered if the composition appears weak or if the photographer’s position in the field relative to the light cannot be easily changed.
6) Even Lighting
As you might already have experienced with your landscape photography exploits, even lighting (in particular from overcast skies), is not as visually or emotionally interesting as side lighting and backlighting. Because of the diffuse nature of this lighting, much of the shadows in the landscape is filled in, resulting in relatively low contrast and a flat physical and emotional appearance, as the following photograph reveals. For these reasons, I typically avoid this type of lighting in photographing landscapes, unless there is something structurally unusual or unique about the landscape itself.
However, even lighting can potentially be favorable in photographing outdoor subjects up-close, in particular trees, plants, and flowers, where low contrast and softer shadows may make the subject appear more flattering. Consider the following photograph of a barrel cactus. Here, the skies were bright overcast (approximately f/8 light intensity via “The Sunny 16 Rule”) and the lighting was predictably low in contrast. This was actually the light that I desired for this subject, because soft shadows would have conferred a more pleasant mood to an otherwise coarse subject.
Another potential advantage of diffuse even lighting in the visualization process would be to capture the brilliance of colors in plants and flowers, particularly under the illumination of bright overcast skies (between f/5.6 and f/8 intensity). I hope many of my fellow photographers have also discovered the radiance of yellows, reds, and greens in flowers under overcast skies, as the following two images illustrate.
A third scenario where even lighting may be advantageous would be in photographing waterfalls. Many scenic photographers (myself included) prefer soft, diffuse, low contrast lighting (as opposed to the direct illumination of sunlight) for these subjects, as the intense glare and reflections from direct sunlight on the water may not be aesthetically pleasing.
One notable exception to avoiding direct illumination of waterfalls would be the iconic Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park (aka the Fire Fall), where the direct illumination of sunlight on a modest stream of water falling over the eastern face of El Capitan in mid-February creates an uncanny appearance of lava pouring over the face of the mountain.
7) Mid-day Sunlight
As is the case with front lighting, the quality of mid-day sunlight makes it one of my least preferred choices of light in landscape photography. The issue with this type of non-unidirectional lighting is that the shadows it casts are relatively shorter, more abrupt, darker, and possess less textural detail than the longer, softer, and more detail-laden shadows of unidirectional light. Consider the following two schematics that illustrate this problem.
Because of the high position of the sun in the sky at mid-day (particularly during the summer months in the U.S. where I mostly photograph), the high intensity, non-unidirectional light potentially “interferes” with skylight, which is responsible for illuminating shadows in open shade. In theory, this interference may diminish the textural range of the shadows, minimizing their detail. The short nature of these shadows also blunts the 3-dimensional appearance of the scene, making it appear relatively flat. Conversely, when the sun is lower in the sky at the extremes of the day (i.e., sunrise and sunset), the light is more unidirectional and less intense and thus there should be (in theory) less interference between the incident sunlight and skylight. This translates into longer shadows that may potentially have more detail and texture.
Another disadvantage of mid-day sunlight is that the color temperature (more on this below) is more “neutral”, meaning that it is more “white” in color, which does not lend itself well aesthetically for color landscape photography. For all of these reasons, I typically avoid this quality of light for landscape photography. Nevertheless, there are a number of scenarios where this quality of light may be desirable for scenic photography. One scenario would be in black and white architectural photography, wherein the photographer can make use of the high contrast and dark shadows to create abstract photographs, particularly if lens filtration is used to block blue light. Secondly, for color landscape photography mid-day sunlight under clear skies can be used to capture the vibrant blues, greens, and turquoise in water, as the following two images illustrate. This lighting responds well to a polarizer filter to cut down water reflections and enhance the color saturation of the water.
And thirdly, the high intensity light from the mid-day sun on a clear blue sky (f/16 to f/22 intensity) has been a cherished tool for the infrared photographer, as this is the time of the day when sunlight is enriched with infrared radiation.
8) The Golden Hour
“You only get one sunrise and one sunset a day, and you only get so many days on the planet. A good photographer does the math and doesn’t waste either.” – Galen Rowell.
Ahhh . . . this is perhaps one of the most well-known and cherished qualities of light for many landscape photographers. A formal introduction is not needed for this quality of light, which is my personal favorite tool in landscape photography for all of the reasons already examined above. Finding this light is easy: shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset, although the duration of each “Hour”may vary depending on your location relative to the Earth’s equator. Close to the equator, the Golden Hour may last less than an hour, and far from the equator it may last much longer than an hour. Again, words cannot do justice to this special quality of light. You*have* to see and experience this light for yourself. This quality of light is rich in emotion, aesthetics, and beautiful warmth. It is lower in intensity and more diffuse compared to the light from the mid-day sun. Of course, the Golden Hour light boasts the unidrectionality that is essential to creating long shadows, revealing textures, and imparting dimension to a scene. For more background on why this special form of light is warm in color, I would encourage you to read about the interesting physical phenomenon of Rayleigh scattering. Near the horizon (i.e., at sunrise and sunset), light must travel a longer distance through the atmosphere. Due to selective scattering of light by gas molecules in the atmosphere, shorter wavelengths of light (i.e., blue light) are disproportionately “filtered out”, leaving a higher proportion of longer wavelength light (i.e., red light); hence, the warmer appearance of light at sunrise and sunset. As Mr. Rowell elegantly stated in the above quote, this light is all there for the taking. :)
For comparison, and to re-enforce the stark difference in the physical appearance and mood of a landscape between unidirectional lighting and even lighting, please closely examine the following photograph of the same sand dunes made minutes before the “Golden Hour” commenced. Textures that are clearly appreciated in the sunlit scene above are conspicuously absent in the evenly lit scene. The contrast, shadows, and contours in the sunlit scene are striking, whereas the evenly lit scene appears flat, as skylight alone is illuminating the scene and filling in all of the shadows. One landscape is warm, radiant, and dynamic; the other is cold, flat, and lifeless. The same subject . . . two different qualities of light . . . two starkly different photographs. Viewing tip : please click on either of these two photos and use the arrows at the lower right to toggle between the two to appreciate the differences.
9) Color Temperature
In addition to the directionality of light, color temperature as a quality of light plays a prominent role in the visualization process in color photography. Undoubtedly, many beginning landscape photographers already appreciate and enjoy how the relative warmth (or coolness) of a scene potentially confers a special mood and emotion to a photograph. Hopefully, many of the above photographs have illustrated this effect. Color temperature is an interesting physical property of light that defines the relationship between the temperature of a radiation source and the color of light that the source emits. In color digital photography, color temperature of light is often synonymous with a principle called white balance. For a complete discussion of this topic, I highly recommend our previously published articles, “What is White Balance?” and “Understanding White Balance – A Beginner’s Guide”, authored by our very own Nasim Mansurov and John Bosley, respectively.
The color temperature of sunlight cycles during the day, being low in temperature (i.e., visually warm) at sunrise, gradually escalating toward mid-day (i.e., becoming visually cooler, or more neutral), then gradually decreasing again toward sunset (i.e., becoming visually warmer), then escalating precipitously at dusk.
In color digital photography, there is not a native white balance that is used to make an exposure; this property can be altered. In color film photography, the white balance of a given film is fixed (i.e., daylight balanced vs tungsten balanced), but this too can be modified for creative purposes. It goes without saying that the most important way for a photographer to control the white balance is to choose the appropriate lighting. However, if the available light is not ideal to fulfill the photographer’s visualization process, then the white balance can be manipulated to achieve the desired effect. For example, color film photographers can easily (and directly) alter the color temperature of light before it enters the lens with the use of warming (or cooling) screw-on lens filters. Color digital photographers can easily alter the color temperature through the computer menus within the digital camera. Nasim’s article provides an in-depth look at how to set the white balance on a digital camera. Additional details on the use of warming filters can be found in these articles on visualization and film photography.
When and how much a photographer should alter the color temperature of light is a highly individualized decision that is predicated on the photographer’s artistic vision and goals for creating the photograph. There is no right or wrong . . . For my landscape and scenic photographs, I prefer a warm rendition. In many of the above color film photographs, I relied on warming filters such as the 81A, 81C, or 85C to lower the color temperature (i.e., filter out cool blue light) to create a warm and uplifting mood. Alternatively, other color film photographers may employ a cooling filter (such as the 80 filter series) to raise the color temperature (i.e., filter out warm orange light) to create a cool rendition. In several of the color digital photographs above, I preset the digital camera menu to record the exposure with a warm white balance, such as “5600 Kelvin” or “Cloudy”. On the other hand, to create a cooler rendition with a digital camera (a classic example would be winter scenes), I would typically preset a white balance by selecting a specific color temperature in degrees Kelvin. For example, in the third photograph of this article of majestic Jökulsárlón, Iceland, I manually inputted a color temperature of 4800 degrees Kelvin to emphasize the coldness of the subarctic climate.
The take home point from this article is that light is the most instrumental tool that the photographer has to translate artistic vision into a photograph. The quality of light can be described in different ways and does not always fit into neatly defined categories, and there is certainly overlap in descriptions. However one defines this quality, it certainly may hold different meanings by different photographers who have different life experiences and goals, as we would expect.
The directionality of light exerts a powerful influence on how a photographer crafts the composition and makes the exposure. The directionality of the light, and thus the quality of the shadows, literally shapes how the image is visualized in the mind’s eye and translated into a physical image and ultimately determines the emotion that the photographer wishes to convey. There is no one ideal quality of light for all photographers for all scenarios. It all depends on what the photographer wishes to construct and convey.
The color temperature of light and its relative warmth (or coolness) can be sought and/or manipulated to achieve the desired effect. Analogous to the directionality of light, how this property is visualized, crafted, and manipulated lies at the heart of the creative and visualization process.
In my humble opinion, in lieu of expending precious time and emotional energy grappling with gear acquisition and upgrading to the “latest greatest gear”, a photographer’s exploits would be far better served by learning and exploring light itself. Use whatever gear you already have to explore your artistic vision, channel your creativity, and hone your skill set. My best recommendation: scout the light . . . hunt for the light . . . and be inspired by it! As an exercise, leave your camera and lens at home and go out and study the lighting and your subject. Try going out at different times of the day to examine the “quality” of the various properties of light: the directionality, the shadows, the dimension of your subject, the color temperature, and discover for yourself how all of these attributes influence the structure and mood of your scene. Take good field notes. Pack a notepad, pen, maybe a pair of binoculars, and a few tools (e.g., a polarizer filter, warming filter, composing card) and study how the light and shadows evolve so that when the decisive moment of opening your shutter arrives, you will be in command to capture what you have visualized for your photograph. In the end, this will make you a happier and (hopefully) a more skilled and accomplished photographer. So, what are you waiting for? The light is out there waiting for you.
Please, stay tuned for upcoming follow-up articles on “The Quality of Light“, including the special cases of the “second sunset”, fog, and storms as well an essay, “Does The Latest Greatest Gear Really Matter?”, where I will examine how the oldest and most vintage tools in photography are *still* being used to create brilliant photographs and works of art as well as discuss whether perpetual gear “upgrades” have any impact on the overall quality and merit of one’s photographs.
- Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, Galen Rowell.
- Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, Galen Rowell.
- Light For Visual Artists, Richard Yot.
All of these photographs are copyright protected. All rights reserved, Rick Keller © 2016. You may not copy, download, save, or reproduce these images without the expressed written consent of Rick Keller.