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Light on the Landscape by David Munro

If we were to think of photography as painting, then light would be the photographers' paint, film the canvas, and their camera the brush. How we combine the three contributes a great deal to the look and feel of the image.

 

A basic understanding of light and its effects on film is most important in achieving consistently good results. If you look upon a landscape at different times of the day you will notice the changes in lighting that occur. Early morning and late afternoon light is soft and warm with long shadows stretching across the landscape. Around mid-day the light is very harsh, producing strong flat lighting on top of the subject and deep shadow below. The light itself is much more blue than at dawn or dusk. Between these time periods there are various combinations of light and shadow.

 

Compared to our eyes, film (especially slide film), has a very limited ability to record variations of light in a scene. This means that films will only correctly expose objects in a scene that are within a limited range of brightness. Exposing for subjects in shade will mean anything in bright sunlight will come out greatly overexposed. The opposite is true for subjects in the shade when photographing in open sunlight.

 

Take time to look at a scene much in the way your film would and take note of the areas of varying contrast. With practice taking well exposed photos will soon come more naturally to you, rather than being a hit and miss affair.

 

Exposing landscapes correctly is easier at certain times of the day and also during different weather conditions. Morning and afternoon light is much more even than at mid-day, so shadows and highlights are more closely exposed. Overcast days provide the most even lighting of all, with virtually no shadows or bright highlights.

 

Which light is best for which subject?

There are no solid rules as such, but here are a few suggestions. If you've seen my article in the October issue of Australian Photography, then you will know that I prefer overcast days for shooting rainforests. These conditions are perfect whenever you want to record all the detail in a subject. They will however not make for very good scenic view photos, where the flat lighting can make the scene look rather dull.

 

A good time for scenic view photography is mid-morning/afternoon when the light is not too harsh and the shadows aren't too long. In fact this light is suitable for almost any type of photography.

 

Warm morning/afternoon light brings out the warm tones in subjects like cliff faces, autumn trees and buildings. Because light levels can often be quite low, long exposures are sometimes required, hence a tripod and cable release are useful.

 

Around noon the light is at its least desirable for good photography so your time is best spent looking for new locations from which to shoot later in the afternoon.

 

Setting the mood

People respond to different colours in many different ways, but generally they have a more positive view towards scenes featuring warm colours. Why do you think tourist brochures and the like are filled with people walking along beaches at sunset, their faces glowing in the golden light? The 81 series of warm up filters is available in various strengths and will help to add warmth to a cool scene.

 

You may on the other hand wish to bring a dark sombre tone to your images, in which case you would use blue tones to emphasize the mood. To bring out the blue tones use an 80 series filter.

 

Subtlety is the key when using filters. Use them to enhance your photos, not alter them dramatically. If you've used the right filter for the situation then there should be no evidence that you've used one at all. Practice with various strengths in different lighting situations and you will soon know what works best. Of course this is all academic when you choose to use print film, as any mistakes you make will be corrected by the mini lab operator. To really know if you're doing it correctly or not, use slide film.

 

Choose your direction

The direction from which the light hits the subject is another important consideration. The old photographic adage that the sun should be placed behind one of your shoulders is fine for producing ordinary snap shots. But placing the sun to one side, or behind a subject you can produce much more interesting photos.

With the sunlight coming from side on to the subject, one side is lit and the other in shadow. This gives the subject shape and form, helping to give it a 3d appearance, rather than looking like a flat object. Any texture on the subject will also be emphasized by this type of lighting.

 

Shooting into the light, or Contre Jour, can be one of the most rewarding, but also the most challenging methods to attempt. Exposure is made difficult as the sunlight is heading directly towards the camera rather than bouncing off the surface of your subject. Keep the sun out of the frame and for your eyes sake never look directly at it, even early/ late in the day when its rays aren't as strong.

 

Try to shield the lens with your hand or whatever is handy as any sunlight directly hitting the lens can cause lens flare, which can be attractive, but not in the majority of images. Take care to check the edges of your view window to make sure that your hand isn't in frame. You can also try hiding the sun behind the subject. Partly transparent objects such as leaves are perfect for this sort of thing as the light reveals the inner patterns.

 

Accurate exposure is achieved by metering off a surface at around 90 degrees from the sun, or by getting in close and taking a spot meter reading from it. It's always a good idea to bracket your exposures.

 

If you would like to record your subject as a silhouette then simply meter off the sky to one side of the subject. Silhouettes are best practiced after sundown when there is some nice colouring in the sky.

 

Whether you're taking a landscape photo simply because it looks nice, or you're looking to get an emotional response from the people viewing it, take time to think about the quality of the light and how to use it to your advantage.