Understanding light is extremely important in landscape photography. If you can’t get it right, your photos will never look their best, no matter how beautiful is the landscape you’re trying to capture. Even the most breathtaking landscape is, at a technical level, nothing more than light falling on your camera sensor.
Light is also one of the crucial factors when it comes to the emotional impact of your landscapes. If you want to emphasize the drama of a landscape, you need to look for high-contrast light. On the other hand, if you’re after an ethereal quality, you should look for subdued colors and softer shadows.
In this guide, we’re going to cover four basic situations in terms of light in landscapes – golden hour, blue hour, midday and night. Each of these scenarios requires different settings and different gear, so make sure to understand these differences and make good choices in terms of the equipment you’ll bring on location.
Probably everyone has heard about the famous golden hour! It’s the time of day around sunrise and sunset. The golden hour is the best time for landscape photography because of the nature of the light at this time of day. The sun is near the horizon, which means that the intensity of direct sunlight is reduced. The low angle of the sun, diffused light and those warm hues in the sky make even everyday scenes more magical.
If you’re new to landscape photography, you can use The Golden Hour Calculator. This is the online calculator which will help you find out the exact time of the golden hour so that you can plan your shoot. Magical light of the golden hour can last just a few minutes, so it’s easy to miss it if you’re not prepared. In addition to this calculator, there is another similar program called The Photographers’ Ephemeris. This program displays sunrise and sunset times depending on a chosen location and it can be very useful too.
When it comes to the equipment you’ll need for shooting landscapes during the golden hour, in addition to a full-frame camera, you should have a wide-angle lens, such as 14-24mm or 35mm. Another piece of gear you should have handy is a set of graduated neutral density (GND) filters – they will help you keep the sky correctly exposed. Even though you don’t have to use a tripod for the golden hour photos, it’s still good to have it just in case, since it will allow you more variety in terms of shutter speed and other settings.
Just like the golden hour, the blue hour happens twice a day, a bit before sunrise and just after sunset. It doesn’t last long – usually between 20 and 40 minutes, so you need to know the exact time of it in order to arrive on location at the right time. The length of the blue hour also depends on the weather and geographical location. You can use The Blue Hour Site in order to plan your photo shoot more efficiently.
During the blue hour, the sky becomes really colorful! It can turn not only various shades of blue but also orange, yellow, pink and even purple. However, no matter these colors, the sky is quite dark during this time since the sun is below the horizon. This means that you need a longer shutter for properly exposed photos. It’s best to shoot in RAW because that will give you the highest quality files so that you can adjust the exposure in editing if needed. In case your photos come out a little too dark, you can adjust them without ruining their quality.
When it comes to gear, a tripod is mandatory because you have to use slower shutter speeds. It’s also a great idea to use a remote shutter or your camera’s self-timer because pressing the shutter release button can cause camera shake and blurry photos. There are no limitations when it comes to lenses, but you’ll probably want to use wide-angle lenses, maybe even a fish-eye if you’re after some unusual effects.
Midday is definitely not a popular time of day for landscape photographers. But why not accept the challenge and try to shoot some great landscapes at midday? Rather than avoiding the sun, use it to create some interesting, eye-catching compositions that you can’t achieve during the golden and blue hour.
You should be aware that the strong contrast found midday makes it difficult to hold the detail in the sky while properly exposing the foreground. You can simplify your composition in order to solve this issue – you don’t have to include the bright sky in every photo you take! Try to find interesting patterns on the ground and concentrate on them instead on those typical compositions that include both the sky and the ground.
You can take some really dramatic shots at midday if you find an object that partially blocks the sun so that there are some sunbeams spilling through the obstruction. This scenario is also perfect for showing some colorful lens flare effect!
In terms of the equipment you’ll need for midday shots, the most important tool will be the circular polarizer. If you have a great multi-coated polarizer you can shoot even a pale blue sky and make it stunning! In case you don’t plan to take typical wide shots that include both the sky and the ground, you can use a medium telephoto lens instead of a wide angle lens. Just use a slightly faster shutter speed with telephoto lenses because various imperfections become more pronounced at greater magnifications.
If you’re still unsure about how to shoot landscapes at midday, you can watch this great tutorial with Alex Strohl, who is a successful travel photographer.
Shooting landscapes during the night takes a lot of skill and patience, but it’s definitely worth it because these images can have a dreamlike quality if shot properly. DSLR cameras can produce night photos with fantastic details of the night sky if the settings are right. However, you need to face common challenges such as noise and blurriness. When shooting at night, you have less creative options because your primary goal is to find a way to allow enough light to reach the sensor.
In general, you’ll want to keep ISO reasonably low to avoid graininess, but many modern full-frame DSLRs can now handle higher ISOs well. Because of this, you should feel free to experiment with ISO if your camera allows you to do that. Also, make sure to bracket exposures at night – this will ensure that you don’t over or underexpose your images. In addition to this, bracketing will also allow you to blend multiple exposures and create HDRs.
When it comes to the recommended gear for night landscapes, you will need a full-frame DSLR and wide-angle lenses with faster apertures. A wide angle lens will allow you to capture a very wide view of both the ground and the starry sky, while faster apertures (such as f/1.8 or f/28) let more light through the lens. A sturdy tripod is mandatory in this case because the camera has to be stable during long exposures.
As you can tell from this article, there is no such thing as universally good light. You should choose how to shoot a landscape based on the time of day, weather conditions as well as your own artistic vision. Bear in mind that you don’t need any ideal conditions in order to make some outstanding photographs. Stick to trial and error method until you learn to capture landscapes in a mesmerizing way!