The further I have gone on my photography journey, the more I have come to learn about the importance of understanding light. I believe light is the single most important element that makes a photograph. Not a great subject. Not great composition. It’s great lighting that will make a photograph amazing.
So what is great light? There is no one type of light that makes a photograph good or bad. Hardness, brightness, color, direction. All these things and more will dictate how your image looks, and more importantly, how it feels.
One of the ways I’ve learned to see and understand light and how it affects my landscape photography is by learning about and understanding portrait lighting. Portrait photographers know that the way light falls on the human form dramatically affects the photograph.
Although you can’t control the light in landscape photography, learning to apply the principles of portrait lighting will help you create far more dramatic landscapes that make the viewer feel something.
Light and Shadow
At its most basic level, a photograph is made up of light and shadow. We have a tendency to focus a lot on light in photography, but shadows are just as important, if not even more so. Shadows reveal shape, depth, and texture.
Portrait photographers understand light and shadow better than anyone. They shape a portrait by moving the light source around until the light falls in just the right way so that the shadows reveal the contours of the subject. When shooting with natural light that can’t be controlled, they will move the subject instead.
The transition from light to shadow is often lost in modern landscape photography. Camera sensors with incredible dynamic range, along with the popularity of HDR techniques, have allowed us to bring back a lot of detail in the shadows of our landscapes.
This isn’t a bad thing in itself, because usually, we want some detail in the shadows, but it often goes too far. Just because we can brighten the shadows doesn’t mean we should. Leaving parts of the image in darkness add mood and mystery.
I learned about Rembrandt lighting before I had ever heard of the artist it was named after. Rembrandt was a master painter who understood the principles of light and shadow better than anyone. Studying his paintings will teach you a lot about how they can create mood and drama in an image.
Rembrandt lighting has become known as a classic lighting setup in portrait photography. Using soft side-lighting, this technique creates a beautiful look that you will likely recognize.
When the light source is coming from the side of the subject, it causes the light to reveal and conceal various elements. The parts of the subject that are visible to the light source will be illuminated while the parts which aren’t visible to the light source will be in shadow.
You obviously can’t control the light source when photographing landscapes, but you can still apply the same principles.
Considering how the light will fall on your landscape can guide the way you photograph it. The position you shoot from, your composition, and the time of day will all affect how the lighting affects your landscapes. Even though you can’t control the light, it never stays the same, so waiting for the angle of the sun to change or for a gap in the clouds can make a big difference to that way it illuminates the scene.
Reverse Engineering Photos
A great exercise for learning to understand light is to reverse engineer a photograph. When I was learning portrait photography I would regularly study an image and try to figure out how it had been lit. Is it natural light or flash? How far away from the subject is it? How big is the light source? Is there more than one light source?
These days as a landscape and travel photographer, I still ask myself those questions when looking at a photograph. Which direction is the light coming from? What time of day was it taken? Was the sky clear or cloudy? Learn to get in the habit of analyzing photos that you admire by asking yourself more specific questions like this rather than what gear or presets the photographer used.
Dodging and Burning
Shaping light and shadow doesn’t stop when you take the photo. Dodging and burning is the process of lightening and darkening areas of a photo in post-production. It doesn’t need to be a complicated process. Often all that is necessary is burning (darkening) areas that could use more shadow or might be distracting.
One of the best ways to think of dodging and burning is to ask yourself where you want the viewer to look. It may be a specific element of the photo, or you may want to draw the viewer’s eye through the image. You can paint more light and shadow into a photo to guide this process.
Our eyes are naturally drawn to brighter parts of an image. Portrait photographers will often dodge and burn to draw the viewer to the subject’s eyes or another important element of the subject. When editing landscapes, try to paint in light and shadow to control which parts of the image are attracting your attention.
The next time you’re photographing a landscape, try taking another look at the light. Ask yourself some of the questions I’ve mentioned. Look for the shadows. Experiment with side-lighting. Wait until the light changes. By understanding portrait lighting you will be better equiped to apply it to your landscape photography.
You’ll find that thinking of the landscape as contours with depth and shape rather than separate elements will help you make more engaging landscapes with mood and drama.