Light in the Landscape

Soft Light – White Oak Marsh © jj raia

It would not be a revelation to say that light is a significant component of photography. After all, it is the light that we record whenever we trip the camera’s shutter. During daylight hours, illumination is provided by the sun which can be supplemented by lights both indoors and outdoors. For indoor, or studio photography, there are probably enough classes and instructional videos on You Tube for proper studio lighting techniques, for every imaginable subject, type of light and modifier, flash system, reflector shape, and home-made contraption, along with the immeasurable variety of their uses, that would make your head spin.

In the studio, to touch briefly on a few of the variables, lighting can be adjusted for location, intensity, direction, temperature, and number of lights, all with the ability to be modified for the angle of the beam, and whether it shines directly on, or is reflected onto the subject. Objects can be flattened, silhouetted, modeled into three dimensions, or given added texture, simply by making some basic changes to the direction of the illumination; shadows can disappear or be deepened with light, thereby modifying the overall contrast. Studio photographers have complete control of all the variables in lighting the subject, simply because they create the light.

But what about Light in the Landscape?

For the outdoor or landscape photographer, the single light source, the sun itself, cannot be controlled as it can in the studio. Even the basic belief that “the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west” is really only true this year on March 19th and September 23rd in the Raleigh, NC area, when it rose and set closest to the compass directions of 90º(E) and 270º(W) respectively. Yet during the course of the year, the location the sun rises or sets can vary widely; more northerly in summer and more southerly in winter, causing scenes to differ, sometimes substantially. In my neck of the woods, it will rise as far north as 60º in summer, and in the winter, much further south at about 119º. For an extreme example, in Iceland during the summer solstice, it rises at 19.5º, or 70º north of east, while in winter it rises at nearly 152º, closer to due south than east!!

That can have a profound affect on what images are even possible at a particular time during the year. Advance planning becomes vitally important, especially in those extreme cases, and needs to be taken into account when deciding what photographs you want from any particular location. The simple idea of photographing a particular barn in a field at sunrise just as the light rakes across it’s side, may only be possible during the winter months, while during the summer, it may rise too far north leaving that side of the barn in shadow most of the morning! So the direction of sunlight needs to be taken into account for your photos. If you have the luxury of revisiting local areas throughout the year, eventually you’ll know where to expect the sunrise or sunset to occur. Since I often photograph locally around Jordan Lake, it has finally been drummed into my head where the sun rises and sets at various locations throughout the year. Believe me it helps, although in a recent post, I went against the normal, so you also need to remain flexible when choosing locations.

Even during the course of a single day, the angle of light overhead changes drastically. Long shadows in the early morning and late afternoon accentuate variations and textures in the landscape, and can highlight a particular subject when they are spotlighted by the sun with one of those long shadows in the background. Textures are more noticeable with low side-lighting as even a grain of sand will cast a tiny shadow as the light gives everything a sculpted, three dimensionality. Colors are warmer during this part of the day and turn a cooler blue when the sun dips just below the horizon and dusk settles in during “blue hour”.

Beyond the changing direction of light throughout the day and year, there are so many other variables to the sun’s illumination. Color can be blazingly bright white (mid-day, or even just after sunrise or just before sunset), can take on a kaleidoscope of color as the day begins or ends, depending on the amount and location of cloud cover, along with humidity; it can be almost monochromatic, more blue in the shade on a clear blue sky day or during the blue hours mentioned earlier; intense or soft and diffuse. It can even be a vibrant red under certain weather conditions, or when the air is filled with smoke from raging wildfires. Photographers have to adapt to whatever light the sun provides along with the atmospheric conditions present, and work with it, knowing full well we are subservient to it, having no influence or control whatsoever. Although we may modify the intensity of light with our exposure, filters of varying strengths, or reduce reflections with the use of a polarizer, there is nothing we can do to change it’s properties, or how the light lays across the land. And as any photographer knows, we are at the mercy of the moment, as sunrises and sunsets can be both a boom or a bust!

You may have to work very quickly adjusting camera settings and composition, to capture the fleeting moments of wonderful or unexpected light, sometimes lasting mere seconds. At other times, patience is needed waiting for the sun to come out from, or disappear behind a cloud. There are no do-overs in the outdoors because the sun never stops moving; when the light is gone, it’s gone.

Soft Light Histogram

So, how do we make judgements about the light? When it comes to exposure, a good starting place for us to explore is how we want the photograph to appear, along with it’s associated histogram. Remember, the final appearance of the image you want can be completely different from what you see in the field. The histogram can provide some useful information for us, but only on the intensity and amount of color contained within the frame. It is important to use the information provided by the histogram when you first create the image in camera differently from during post processing afterward. However in the end, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the appearance of the final image is most important to us, while the histogram remains secondary.

When the image is first recorded, the expression I hear so often is “expose to the right” (ETTR); meaning the histogram should appear as close to the right without clipping the highlights, but don’t ever think that it is the correct approach for every one of your photographs. It depends on what your vision is for the final version of it, not just its initial recording. If you want all the information from the highlights and don’t care if shadows are blocked up, void of any detail, then why wouldn’t you expose more to the left with a substantial amount of the information crowded up against the left side of the graph? Adjustments can be made to the brighter tones to end up where you want them, leaving the darkest tones to remain without any detail, because that’s what you wanted. It’s another story if you want detail throughout the tonal range. So let’s look at a few images included here, along with their histogram. (A note here: all the histograms included represent light values of the final processed image).

For the image at the top (Yes, it is the same image from a recent post, but few others in my library exhibited the same histogram illustration I was after), the histogram indicates that almost no light values approach the left or right side of the graph, meaning nothing very bright or very dark appears in the photograph. Most of the values are spread out in an evenly shaped and centered curve toward the middle, indicating that the majority of light values fell among the mid-tones; no deep shadows, no clipped highlights. Directionality of the light in the image is fairly faint, indicated only by the slight shadows on the right side of the trunks as the sunlight, coming from the left side of the frame, forced its way through a thick fog that morning.

What can be done to enhance that soft, etherial light of the image? One vitally important consideration is to use directionality to your advantage. By having the light come into the frame from either the right or left side, it will enhance what little shadows may exist, thereby slightly sculpting the subjects into three-dimensional forms. Should those shadows still need some help in their definition, that can be accomplished in your post-processing software using brushes in Lightroom or some selective burning in Photoshop, by “painting” in the desired shadows; in this case, along the right side of each tree trunk. If a completely flat appearance is the desired result, possibly to encourage the design within the frame eliminating any sense of depth, having the light come from behind you would accomplish that. And if you’re looking for rays of sunshine to wrap around your subject, then aiming directly toward where the sun should be (hoping it burns through the mist enough to create those rays) is where the camera should be pointed, producing silhouettes of your subjects.

Rain-Soaked Forest – Chatham County, NC © jj raia

Compositionally, in order to maintain the minimal contrast throughout the frame, along with the soft appearance of the subjects and lighting, I tried to exclude any trunks or branches that were very dark, avoiding those distracting elements which may draw the eye away from the brighter main subject and supporting characters. This may prove difficult directly after a rain which soaks many trunks, making them darker than they usually are (above). Under those conditions, it may work to your advantage to look for a more contrasty set of subjects; very bright colors against dark tree trunks; again, working with the light and conditions you encounter.

February Sunset — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia
February Sunset Histogram

For the image above, you can read about the severe bodily injury and pain involved in how this shot came about here. Looking at its associated histogram, it appears more like it was exposed to the left than the right!! It was more important to assure the exposure recorded the highlights properly than to have properly recorded the shadows. In doing so, all the drama of the dark clouds being lit by the last gasp of sunlight was maintained, without blown out highlights along the horizon, yet light enough to easily see some detail in the leafless trees in the foreground. There was no real need for detail in the tree trunks and limbs since the intent was to have them stand in bold relief against the dramatic sky, and not distract from it. An HDR blend to include bright trunks and foreground would have taken attention away from the dramatic sky. What really helped in getting some detail in the foreground was the light colored sandy dirt rather than what usually would be much darker; in fact there is even the hint of green color in the mosses on the ground. So instead of a completely dark foreground without any detail, the camera was able to record enough information to be recovered from that area to faintly distinguish the various broken limbs and stumps there, yet still not distract attention away from the sky, the main subject and reason for the image itself. If the foreground did record as completely black, and detail there was the intention, then a second brighter frame would be required, and the two blended together later either as an HDR, or as two layers in Photoshop using layer masks. The aim here was not to compete with the sky, but whatever your intentions are for the final image, all the necessary steps needed, including multiple frames, should be taken then to make your intention a reality later.

Snow Covered Aspen – Bishop Creek, CA jj raia
Snow Covered Aspens Histogram

Within the image above, every effort was made to differentiate between the pure white snow gathered on the branches and the very slightly darker white bark of the aspens. In order to accomplish that during post processing, all the light values were pushed to the right, nearly to the point of the snow being blown out, with barely any light values being anywhere close to the left edge; in fact there are none recorded at all. Yet, to avoid the yellow, orange and green values from being overexposed in the final version, they could be easily brought back to reality using the Saturation and Luminosity sliders in Lightroom’s HSL panel for each of those individual colors. I’m sure there must be a method to accomplish this in Photoshop, but it is well above my pay grade; maybe a hue/saturation adjustment layer? As in the photo at the top, dark branches or other dark areas were avoided in framing, with any errant, small and distracting markings on the aspen bark removed using the clone tool in Photoshop. The snow covered hillside in the distance provided an equally bright background maintaining the high-key look throughout the frame in keeping with the desired semi-abstract design of the photo.

The image below is an example of the modeling affect low angled side-lighting provides when the sun is very close to the horizon. Even the smallest of elements can cast a shadow, evidenced by the tiny rocks embedded within the sandstone when it was formed eons ago in the prominent rocks near the bottom of the frame. Looking at the land in shade on the left edge, the sandstone there is rather dull and lifeless without the benefit of the strong light. Capturing this light can be exhilarating, but at the same time stressful as it is fleeting, and can disappear in a moment as you frantically search for your composition. In fact, the light in this photograph lasted mere seconds after the film was exposed (note – since this and the image above were scanned film images, there is no metadata listed below the graph as it is in the first two).

Petrified Dunes — Glen Canyon NRA, AZ © jj raia
Petrified Dunes Histogram

The two important bits of information the histogram provides here is that light values are stretched well across the entire spectrum, and the yellow and red channels appear right on the border of being blown out indicated by the red triangle in the right top corner of the graph. That’s about as far as any channel should be pushed to retain some control of the color. If it is completely blown out when the photo is taken, any attempt to darken or saturate that area will have no affect and remain complete white. At times that may be acceptable though, as when shooting directly into the sun in order to convey it’s blinding white light. Any instance where you might want that included in your photograph is acceptable but with the understanding that just like the light on the landscape, generally you have no control.


Clearing Storm — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Earlier, red light was mentioned. To explain it a little further, it is a type of light that I’ve witnessed only a handful of times in my lifetime, but it is truly magical. In most of the occasions, it has occurred at sunset when there is a small sliver of an opening to allow the light to squeeze through as the sun drops below the horizon. And with only these conditions, the light hits the clouds and turns them red. But what really sets the unique conditions for the actual red light, seemingly in the air before you, is when there is rain involved as well; when the droplets or mist left behind hangs in the atmosphere, and you become immersed within that moisture as it glows with the red light of the setting sun. One of those occasions happened on a late August afternoon at Jordan Lake (above). I’ve always been reluctant to show this photo because of the otherworldly appearance, but this happened to be an instance when all those elements came together to create that red light, with the “cherry on top” rainbow!! It was a three-panel HDR, separated by 1-stop of exposure to capture as much of the detail in the trees as possible.

Clearing Storm at Sunset — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

Five minutes later, when the rain had completely stopped and the moisture in the air had mostly dissipated, looking in the opposite direction from the rainbow, which by now was no longer there, the clouds were still lit red, but the atmospheric color had disappeared. That magic light was gone. The red light needs something on which to convey its color, and in the image directly above, the first thing the light struck were the clouds. The previous image illustrates how the red light also hits the moisture in the air as well.

Those fleeting moments are the real joy in landscape photography; they are the times that become etched in our memories that can never be erased. Seeing the images that are obtained from those moments will always bring up the same feelings of exuberance, and is like reliving the experience. I will always remember another moment when some unexpected sunset light materialized when I was out photographing with my son at the same lake. He had never experienced light like that, and when we were done and driving back home, he was hooting, hollering and high-fiving with excitement. The ride home is something I will treasure forever, even though no photographs were taken in the car.

Mauve Sunset — Jordan Lake, NC © jj raia

One of the images from that day (above), happened when a sunset was shaping up to be somewhat nondescript, but quickly morphed into a hectic pursuit, frantically trying to record those fleeting moments, and being so unexpected, added to the difficulty. Although I had placed a 2-stop Hard Step Split ND filter over the sky to balance the light values better, the entire right side of the image was a problem since it was the source of the light from the setting sun. If it was exposed properly, the left side was way too dark, and if the left side was properly exposed, the right was totally blown out. Since I hadn’t learned about blending separate photos yet, it crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be able to properly record it at all, and would just have to enjoy the show as it unfolded. It was then that I thought to use a second Soft Step graduated ND hand-held sideways(!) with the darker area over the bright right side. That solved the problem just in time. It would have been nice to know then, that several digital images could be combined in Photoshop. But at the time, I was still a bit new to the digital world and continued thinking in terms of film. It sure would have made things a lot easier and reduced the stress of that day’s shoot.


Sorry about the length of this post, but the subject of light on the landscape can be discussed almost indefinitely. An excellent book to read on it’s differing aspects, in much greater depth and detail than here, is Mountain Light — In Search of the Dynamic Landscape by Galen Rowell. In it he devotes separate chapters to magic hour, backlight, soft light, artist’s light, and several other categories within the context of outdoor photography. I hope this inspires folks to go out and seek all the varieties of light out there for us to enjoy, especially in our photography. It can be both rewarding and impactful in our view of the world around us, and for me, has been a constant source of inspiration to marvel at the wonder of it all.



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