Great landscapes are made up of 3 elements: light, composition and subject, or as I prefer to think of them: form and color. Let’s take a look at some of these in a strategic manner as a way of managing your photography. This blog will examine light.
Certainly we all know that the most optimal times for making landscapes are just before and after sunrise and just before and after sunset. Doe this mean we cannot create interesting and exciting landscapes during other times? Certainly not! However, we must learn when the light is truly usable and then understand how to manage it. Around sunrise and sunset the light is warmer as the sun is closer to the horizon and disperses and diffracts the longer cooler rays of light leaving us with the warm tones we all love so well.
However, we can still continue to shoot throughout the day when we have clouds overhead or even intermittent clouds to break the sun. During these times using the best directional lighting is critical to making fine images. Though we can use front light during the sunrise/sunset golden hours, the flatness it creates becomes much more of a problem during the remaining daylight hours When photographing a subject with the light directly behind us it will hit the subject and bounce directly back into the camera lens creating undesirable contrast and flattening the subject by eliminating any dimension. During these times sidelight or backlight are more preferable. Sidelight will add depth and dimension to your subject while backlight will create strong highlights and often a wonderful rim light that can be a fine additive to the image.
When using sidelight during the day I strongly believe in the power of the polarizer. It can add depth to your color and spark some contrast particularly in the sky to help “pop” the image. With water or plants that are wet the sun reflecting off them will create specular highlights (those little white specks you see in images). Are they good or bad? Depends on your artistic esthetic, so you decide. If you want to eliminate them then by all means use your polarizer.
Though paying attention to the histogram is important, I think that the highlight indicator available on most cameras these days is a much more critical indicator of good exposure. Unlike film, when digital highlights are recorded as overexposed there is almost nothing to be done with them to bring them back. When photographing skies with clouds this is critical as without the appropriate detail the clouds become washed out losing their structure and becoming a major distraction for any landscape and consequently eliminating the possibility of making great landscapes.
When you find yourself out photographing during cloudy days I use one of two strategies: if the clouds have character include them as a part of your composition. If they are flat, dull and lifeless, then try and minimize them or eliminate them. At the same time, always remember that these same clouds that we decry as making our photography more difficult also allow us to make wonderful images of plants, forests and other objects that will really come to life in the soft light of a cloudy day.
Light: it’s what we have, so use it well and wisely.