8 Tips for Landscape Photography Lighting

8 Tips for Landscape Photography Lighting

8 Tips for Landscape Photography Lighting

Last week Karen asked on our Facebook Page how I balance the contrast between the brightness of the sky with the landscape.

Landscape Photography Lighting

Basically by choosing the right time of day and the correct weather conditions for the scene I almost never run into this problem. This is exactly why pre-production and location scouting is so important. Let me show you some examples of how I’ve lit some of my landscape photographs.

Seascape Photography - Summer's Serenity

1. Use Really Soft Frontal Lighting

Summer’s Serenity was made early in the morning in the hour before sunrise. I know, it’s hard to get out there that early, especially in the summer months when the sun comes up at 6am and it’s an hour drive to the location, but it’s almost always worth it. The sun was rising behind a hill behind me, which meant that not only would the soft light being cast from it light my rocks, but it also meant that by shooting in the opposite direction of the sun that I’d be pointing my camera at the darkest area of the sky, which is how that nice blue tone came to be.

{You can read more about the morning I made Summer’s Serenity here}

Minimalist Seascape Photography - Exhale

2. Use Gentle Side Lighting

I made Exhale one spring evening in the hour after sunset. The sun had disappeared behind the horizon way off to my left and as the day slowly turned to night my sky got darker and darker. And because I didn’t want my photograph to appear as if it was made at night I lengthened my exposure time to allow lots of light into the camera giving the appearance that it was made during daylight hours.

{You can see a video of the night I made Exhale here, I made it before the sun was fully set, that’s why you can still see}

Urban Photography - London Convention Centre

3. Use Interesting Directional Lighting

Convene is a good example of how the time of day and the direction you’re shooting can really change the tone in the sky. The sun hasn’t yet risen but when it did it wasn’t too far to the right of where I was pointing my camera. That’s why the sky is so much lighter in the bottom right of the image that it is in the top left. As the sun came up the sky got brighter and brighter which put the building into a darker shadow. If I had photographed the building from the opposite side, with the sun behind me, I would have gotten a darker sky with some nicely lit architecture but I would have missed out on the interesting way the light skimmed across the metal from being somewhat back lit.

Winter Tree Photography - Elviage Pearl

4. Shoot on Beautifully Soft Overcast Days

Winter scenes are tough. With all of that bright light bouncing around it’s hard to figure out what your exposure should be let alone get everything evenly lit. My trick is to go out on heavy, heavy overcast days in the first few hours after sunrise. Elviage Pearl was made at a spot not too far from our studio and a place I’d stopped by a few times waiting for the light to be right. The sun had come up behind me about an hour before and is lighting the snow and the trees from the front while the thick cloud cover is making the sky a touch darker in the background giving that subtle line of separation where it meets the earth.

For my winter tree photographs I like to take a minimalist approach, black and white with lots of white in the snow and sky and the sole greys in the trees themselves. So only overcast days will do.

Nature Photography - Spring Shine

5. Let the Brightness of the Sky Give Energy to Your Image

If it’s a beautiful clear day I’m pretty much done once the sun comes up. The light gets too harsh with lots of shadows plus the sky brightens up, and looks quite white in photographs. In the first hour or so after sunrise I’ll play around with the sun and how it streaks across the foreground. In Spring Shine I opened up my camera settings to let more light in and properly expose for the tree that would otherwise have been in shadow. Then I used the branches to obscure the bright white sky and let the sun flare across the image.

Muskoka Landscape Photography - Christian Beach Sunset

6. Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters

The evening I made Christian Beach Sunset I was experimenting with graduated neutral density filters. It’s a filter that’s mounted in front of your lens to darken down a portion of your image by letting less light enter your camera. Here I used a 2 stop graduated neutral density filter from Singh Ray. That’s why there’s still some tone to the sky and some detail in the rocks even though I’m shooting directly into the area where the sun just set. I don’t use filters very often but in some cases there’s just nothing else that will work.

Sunrise Photography - Summer Lovers

7. Merge Images in Photoshop

I made Summer Lovers as an experiment in photographing the colours of the sunrise. I was able to get detail in the sky and the water by not pointing my camera directly into the rising sun, instead I was looking off to the left by close to 90 degrees. This darkened the sky slightly, bringing the exposures between it and the lake a bit closer together but it still wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I bracketed my exposure by making photographs that were both lighter and darker to see what would work. In the end none did. What ended up working the best was choosing the middle of the road exposure that generally looked good everywhere but was still missing some punch. I processed two variations of the raw file with Capture One Pro, a darkened version for the sky and a slightly lightened version for the water, then I merged them using layers in Photoshop.

I used two variations of the same image instead of using two separate images, one properly exposed for the sky and one properly exposed for the water, to keep everything seeming real. I didn’t want to have an impossibly vivid sky with a properly exposed lake because it’s just not the look I was going for.

Merging images in Photoshop is not part of my regular routine. I wouldn’t say that I’m a purist but I’m a firm believer that the better you can make the photograph with your camera, the higher quality your end result will be. Plus it can save a lot of time. I typically only do it when I have absolutely no other option or if I’m experimenting with something new because it helps me to learn whether a technique will work aesthetically and how I can make it happen practically.

Seascape Photography - Lake Erie #9

8. Use a White Sky to Add Mood

Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about a bright sky. Lake Erie #9 was made on a dreary late fall evening and I knew I’d never be able to get any sort of detail in the sky, no matter what I tried. So instead I worked with it. I used a long-ish exposure to give a fog-like look to the water and let it fade back to the horizon where you see a subtle blue-grey line dividing the lake from the sky, then more white enhancing the eeriness of the image and bringing your attention to the rocks and rails.

I guess you could say it’s all about putting yourself in the right place at the right time. I hope these tips help you understand how I light my landscape photographs. What are your favourite ways of lighting scenics? How do you balance the difference in brightness between the land and the sky?

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