Capturing Light: Achieving Perfect Landscape Lighting

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Most writing about landscape lighting places much of the emphasis on the golden hours of sunset and sunrise. From reading the available wealth of information on this subject it might almost be tempting to think that it’s hardly worth bothering with photography during the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest. However, there are natural canopies and diffusers of light available during the brightest part of the day too, most notably in the form of cloud, leaf canopy, buildings and a host of other reflectors and refractors.  But the golden hours cannot be overlooked because, without doubt, they are the best time to shoot landscapes so before moving on it’s worth paying some attention to its inherent advantages.


Dawn and sunrise are not the same thing. Dawn is the hour before sunrise when the sky starts to lighten, whereas sunrise itself is considered to be the moment that the very edge of the sun appears over the horizon. From dawn then, until an hour or so after the sun has risen presents the photographer with  the best opportunity for delicate, atmospheric photography when things are lit with more grace and softness than the the full glare of the sun offers for the rest of the day.  Of course if there were no atmosphere between ourselves and the sun, then our nearest star would appear bright white (and, fry us like eggs) but during these times of the day the light has its longest distance to travel and is broken up by molecules suspended in the atmosphere into the component parts of the visible spectrum. Only the colours of longer wavelengths (the  ambers, orange and reds) can reach us, leaving many of the short wavelength colours absent or scattered.

During the golden hours shadows are much longer and the light is diffuse rather than direct because light from the sun is able to bounce off the dome of  the sky, creating a more even cast.  The light is also much warmer.  There is no denying that these hours are the best time for landscape photography but let’s not write off the rest of the day (and night) just yet because it is not simply a case of what the light does to the landscape but the effect that the landscape itself has on light and how this can be used to your advantage.

Students of theatre lighting are taught that while top-light (or down-light) and front-light (or key-light) might illuminate, it is sidelight which gives the three dimensional nature to an actor or a stage set by providing depth and scale.   Landscapes are no different; simply put, three dimensional spaces require an equilibrium of lighting to present them effectively.  It is for the reasons of depth and scale that having good sidelight during these golden hours of the day produces superior images.  While you might get great speed from the camera when something is lit harshly with only down-light and key-light, areas that are not lit are in such contrast to the areas that are that exposure often becomes a major issue.

Glaring light sources can, in some instances be advantageous; as I have said strong light means faster speeds, higher contrast.  For studio and portrait photography, intelligently placed, direct, strong light gives definition and contour to subjects but a different sort of light is needed for landscapes.  The multitude of colour, shape and texture in nature is vast, and high, direct light does very little to flatter or bring out these elements in the landscape.  In fact, strong daylight will do more to flatten rather than flatter.

In other genres of photography the light can be carefully controlled to produce a desired effect but with landscapes we have no control over the source of light so any natural distortion or diffusion of light is a good thing. Light photons needs to flail around wildly to create interest in a scene and the best that a landscape photographer can hope for is to have the light from the sun reflected, refracted and diffused in a number of ways. The golden hours may only be a short period of time but we can take what it teaches us about lighting and use these lessons during the rest of the day and night.

Obviously there is no light you could find stronger than natural sunlight to illuminate the larger landscape but foreground, mid-ground, close-up and abstract elements of the landscape can be lit using unconventional, artificial means.

We can imagine the atmosphere working like a slowly rotating prism, changing the visible colours throughout the day.  Why sunrise and sunset are important is because landscape photography is at its best when light is disturbed.  This is also why mist, cloud and pollutants produce more interesting landscapes, because the beams of light are more pronounced but the overall quality of the light is from the softer end of the spectrum.  Nonetheless, there are ways of colouring and altering the nature of light in an outdoor environment that are not immediately obvious when we think of landscape photography. Shakespeare said that all the world is a stage and as we know, most stages are more dramatic when beautifully backlit and filled with smoke and dry ice.  Landscape lighting does not simply have to be a case of working with what nature provides, so in what way is it possible to manipulate and control light in an outdoor environment ?


So, the main advantage of the golden hours is that light is able to travel evenly in more directions, avoids high contrast, and provides a far better lighting ratio. Cloud, when it is covering the majority of the sky, acts as a fantastic diffusion medium, softening the light and taking out some of the directional ‘sting’ (which often leads to high contrast).  As well as providing a softer illumination of the physical earth or the abstract objects upon it,  the clouds themselves can lend a more atmospheric quality to the image.  There are a large number of cloud types each bringing their own meaning and mythology to the photograph.  Single cumulonimbus clouds can give a fairy-tale look whilst darker thunder and rain clouds can provide a dark brooding intensity. When backlit by strong sun the clouds possess their greatest depth and can form an important part of the landscape or entirely dominate it.  In fact, even on a relatively cloudless day just waiting for that one moment when one single cloud will obscure the harsh directness of the sun can make all of the difference.  Cloud offers the chance to experiment with black and white shots and if the light is still too bright you could always compensate with a dark ND filter.  Alternatively try photographing the sky from a reflective surface like a still lake or puddle using a polarising filter.

Foggy days (in essence; low cloud) are also a good time to get out and shoot offering real break-up of light and helping define shafts of strong light.



Leaf canopies are excellent diffusers of light.  In the strongest of daylight finding the thickest part of a forest or wood where light doesn’t penetrate provides an good canvas where beams and shafts of light can provide colour and interest.  The leaves themselves have a transparency and act in much the same way as a filter might. Forests are particularly good after a rainfall because the residual water droplets and vapour disturb the direction and colour of light.

Cities and urban areas provide their own architectural canopies in the form buildings which provide shadow and neutrality and there is a far better light ratio in shadow because any available light has to reflect from from  the various surfaces.  Making the areas in shadow the goal of your composition whilst using the high key areas outside of the shadows as framing can work well.  Areas of bright sky above the urban landscape can be polarised or filtered to create some equilibrium of exposure.

The city also offers the opportunity to get up high and take shots from above. The midday sun provides perfect lighting conditions for this.


If you start to seek out smaller sections of the landscape during the brightest parts of the day you will begin to discover so much to photograph where there is not the problem of high contrast.  Look to photograph the larger sweeping vistas during the golden hours but search out more creative opportunities and abstracts during the day rather than bemoaning the the bright daylight.  After all, a wave crashing against rocks is still a landscape and is an equally valid way to document the physical world as any wide open space would be.


Using flash is always an option with landscapes, particularly useful for foreground objects in the low light hours of morning and evening.   Remember that there is no law against using flash for landscape photography or even placing a coloured filter over it to produce warmer or colder key-light.  If you are using flash to fill foreground objects during a sunrise or sunset then the contrast of colour can be incredible.  Rather than the general wash of colour that a filter on the camera or post production gives you, a filtered flash still leaves sidelight and back-light colour intact.

Reflectors can also have their uses bringing some natural light to objects that are only top-lit or backlit by the sun. Reflectors, traditionally used to fill areas in portrait and studio photography do not always have to be used for the foreground but can be placed any distance from the camera to reflect natural sunlight to highlight a particular object or area.  The only proviso is that they are able to be hidden behind an object, concealing them from the camera.  There’s no limit on the amount of them you could use.  Portable disc reflectors can cost as little as $10 or less.  In some situations you might even get away with using aluminium wrap, for example if you just require some simple side-lighting on a foreground object.


Expensive lighting systems are available but it’s worth looking a few basic options if you just want to experiment with outdoor lighting. When you are shooting at night or require some illumination in low key areas, then where possible and practicable your car headlights can provide great illumination.  Of course this method can be used in a variety of ways but the true beauty is the relative inexpense.  Car headlights generally use either xenon or halogen bulb technology.  Xenon has the closest colour cast to natural daylight whereas halogen tends to give off a cast towards the green/blue end of the spectrum.  Halogen to daylight conversion filters are available for video purposes but they can command quite a high price.  However, of you were planning on backgrounding the shot with stars or moonlight then flooding the foreground with light akin to natural daylight may seem somewhat odd.  For more natural and atmospheric images clever use of colour correction filters can yield much more interesting results with blue working particularly well at night.

If you plan to shoot any landscape at night-time or if you would just like a little extra key light for a particular scene then there are three filters well worth the investment.  A theatrical supplier should be able to get the filters for you for just a few dollars and keeping a few sheets handy in the trunk of the car won’t hurt or break the bank. They can simply be taped or attached to headlights (or any other lighting) using LX tape or even magnets

The first to consider is a diffusion filter because car headlights usually have a fresnel type lens, meaning small circular patterns on the lens so that the light can be broken up.  This causes some areas to be lit more heavily than others and large streaks of stronger light can be apparent.  In the past I have used a Lee theatrical filter: 404 half-soft-frost because while it diffuses the light effectively it does not diminish the light power.  For colour filters a good starting point for lighting dark areas during daylight would be something in the range of a 102 Light Amber.

Lighting scenery during moonlight usually looks best with a blue colour cast in the range of 117 Steel Blue.  Of course if you have any portable lighting that can be used via a generator then fine but you can use any other lights you have via the car battery using a DC to AC power inverter. If you decide to light up the night then any of these filters would be useful.  For holding the filters onto  portable lighting, simple crocodile clips can be used although filter frames are available for most commercial light sources.

Rather than buy expensive photographic lighting heads, 2 or three sodium floods (usually used for garden security lighting) will only pull a couple of hundred watts in total.  The advantage over headlights is that you can light from 3 or 4 directions and avoid heavy shadows.  Obviously more top-end portable lighting will be dimmable but if the lights can’t be dimmed then a further filter investment is a sheet of  Lee A209, A210 or A211 (Neutral Density Acrylic Panel) which will stop light down by one, two or three stops respectively without altering colour.

One thing to bear in mind if you are using sodium bulbs is to use a HT (High Temperature) filter. Order a swatch book from Lee or Roscoe to see the full range of diffusion, colour, ND and HT filters available.

Even if you are not using any artificial light source for your photography, having a sheet of diffuser with you is always worth it.  It can be especially useful (when you have close-up foreground grass or flowers) by constructing a simple 3 sided frame with diffusion sheet tacked or stapled on.  When you place this over the foregrounded area then the diffusion sheet will do two things,  First it will soften strong sunlight and lose high contrast  but, more than this, it can act as a great wind protector meaning that flowers or grass in the foreground will be unaffected by wind meaning that you can incorporate  elements that you might usually leave out because it would mean shooting at higher speeds.


Not an everyday piece of kit but a mirror can be a useful occasional tool.  Before looking at the uses of a mirror it’s worth pointing out that the mirror, in this instance, is one where the reflective surface has been coated to the glass rather than behind it or sandwiched. It must also be kept incredibly clean.

The idea is that you can look up towards the sky through a low foreground object such as fungus or flowers and get in lower than it would be possible for the camera to go.  By placing the mirror on the ground at a sufficient angle you can photograph the mirror while in the foreground you are able to show some of the translucency of close-up objects, getting beneath and behind them.

A mirror can serve the further function of reflecting strong sunlight onto a very small object in the frame and can allow you to focus the shaft light on an area where you might wait forever for nature to do the job.  It can be worth experimenting with any reflective surface you have available and even a metal bowl can be used to direct sunlight onto an area in the frame where you want to draw particular attention.

Try also thinking about how the landscape is reflected in distorted surfaces: a car hub cap, a wing mirror, the reflective glass on buildings and a whole host of other surfaces can allow you to experiment with light and shape


Smoke machines are portable, inexpensive and many can now be operated off-power.  On a still day the smoke can have a one and a half hour hang time at 20 degrees although outdoors it’s more along the lines of one and half minutes.  Most are also water based and will cause no harm to any environment or wildlife.

For a one-off shoot they can be hired cheaply and come in useful where sunlight is broken up by leaf canopy or over water.  Of course you are not going to fill a full wide angle traditional landscape with smoke but for more isolated areas they are an easy way to change the nature of the light by creating some safe atmospheric disturbance.  The colder the temperature, the more the fog will have a tendency to stay low and hang.

The fog is best dispersed using large, stiff sheet of cardboard and having somebody else do this is useful so you can stay with the camera to choose your moment but if you see a landscape you think could benefit from fog or mist then it is an option available to you and one worth exploring.  Film makers have used this technique for years and created some iconic sequences and shots so along with gels and portable lighting try to think theatrically about staging the landscape for some remarkable images. If you plan to use this method then let the relevant authorities know your intentions (forest rangers, fire-service etc….) or you might cause a bit of panic !




It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that landscape photography is all about large, sweeping vistas, canyons, mountains and expanse.  This is understandably the most common form because we are photographing the landscape with an entirely human perspective but identifying smaller worlds within that world and smaller landscapes within the landscape can be equally exciting and a great way to get up close and explore the finer details and textures.

When you were a child playing with action figures, low down in the undergrowth then your imagination was able to create enormous landscapes in just a metre square of earth.  Often people or animals are able to give a sense of scale such as when we see one lone figure stood on top of a mountain ridge.  Similarly smaller wildlife and insects can give a sense of scale to the macro landscapes we spend more time standing on than actually thinking about as a world or landscape in its own right.

It may not be your cup of tea, in which case fine but if you are the experimental type then getting down low and small can give you incredible control over the light conditions with luminaires as small as MAG lights, whilst still maintaining the sky or large distant objects to add even greater scale and depth.

In conclusion, everybody has a camera these days and photographs are produced every day, in their millions.  The only thing that will separate your photography from the rest of the pack is by not simply accepting light conditions but getting active  and creative and making your work stand out.  Playing with light and understanding how it can be manipulated and used to best advantage is the best way to make your photography original, exciting and different.

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