Landscape photography is one of the most popular niches of photography. The same scene with the same composition can look completely boring under one set of lighting conditions and very dramatic under different conditions. Good light makes the difference.
But does that imply there is also such a thing as bad light? I don’t think there is such a thing. The key is to understand what kinds of images to make under the lighting conditions you are presented with when you are photographing.
Understanding the three characteristics of natural light will help you use the light to your advantage and make images with an impact no matter what conditions you have to work with.
The Quality of Light
By quality of light, I am referring to how hard or soft the light is.
Hard light happens during midday when the sun is high in the sky and there are no clouds to filter the light. This kind of light is harsh and bright, but it can also create interesting shadows and contrast.
Soft light happens on a cloudy day when the clouds diffuse the light making it even with no shadows or bright spots. It also occurs in the shade.
Even on a day when there are no clouds, when the sun is lower in the sky the light passes through more atmosphere which softens the light. This is why golden light at the edges of the day is softer then midday light.
The Color of Light
The color of natural light from the sun changes during the course of the day. Before the sun rises, when the first light of the day appears in the sky, the light is a cool blue. During sunrise, the light is golden. As the sun gets higher in the sky, it is bright with little color tint at all.
At the end of the day the opposite thing happens. When the sun is low on the horizon before sunset, you get the golden glow. After sunset is twilight when the light is a cool blue (blue hour).
The Direction of Light
Front light is when the light comes from behind you and hits the front of your subject directly. Front light can be unforgiving, washing out colors and minimizing textures. So if you are going to use it, it’s best to do so when the sun is low in the sky when it is warmer and softer.
Backlight is when the sun is directly in front of you and behind your subject, lighting it from behind. I love backlight because the deep contrast between the highlights and shadows is so dramatic.
Backlighting is also perfect for making silhouettes when you have subjects with great shapes.
Sidelight is when the sun is beside you, lighting your subject from the side. This kind of light is excellent for emphasizing shape and texture.