Finding Good Light in Landscape Photography

There’s a reason why landscape photographers like waking up at 4AM and hiking out to the middle of nowhere. (Or, at the very least, there’s a reason why we tolerate it.) Are you a morning person? I’m not. But – countless times – I’ve stood by my tripod as the sun rises, watching the morning light illuminate a beautiful landscape. And that’s the reason. It’s all about the light. If you can get this one right, your photos will be as good as possible. So, what are some of the things you can do to find good light?

1) Why light is so important

Light matters more than any other part of photography, almost by definition. Even the most beautiful subjects in the world are, at a technical level, nothing more than light falling on your camera sensor.

It’s deeper than that, too. Light also changes the emotional impact of a photo, which is one of the most crucial elements in capturing a photo that sticks with your viewer. If you want to show the drama and intensity of a landscape, you need to look for high-contrast, punchy light. Or, if you’re after a gentle quality, look for subtle colors and soft shadows.

Sunset at Half Dome
NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/6.3
Good light is everything. Here, sunset lingers on Half Dome in Yosemite.

Good light is essential for capturing high-quality landscape photos. I’ve seen blurry photos taken with horrible compositions, of a random landscape on the side of the road, that still made me stop and stare because their light was so fantastic. Even if the overall image had some major issues, the light can draw you in.

2) What is good light?

Good light is light that matches your goal for a photo. It complements your subject and harmonize with it. Often, the best light will even mirror the character of the landscape you’re photographing, or the character that you want your photo to embody.

For that reason, there is no such thing as universally good light.

What? Surely that’s not true. Imagine a soft sunset with glowing colors in the sky, and a low haze in the air. That must be good light! But it isn’t.

Here’s why: For a lot of photos, this would be very good light indeed. You might be trying to showcase a beautiful landscape with pastel colors and gentle shadows. If so, soft and colorful light would be perfect.

But that won’t always be your goal. Instead, you might be after high-contrast, dark, monochromatic photos — photos that emphasize the power of a landscape. If that’s true, a soft sunset won’t be “good light” at all.

Harsh black and white light
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 70mm, ISO 140, 1/500, f/9.0
Midday sunlight? It’s not what you’d normally chase after, but it works quite well in this image. Ask yourself what type of light would complement your subject, and then search for that.

My larger point: The right light depends upon your subject.

Sometimes, the best image you’ll take at a landscape won’t be at dawn, or any other classic time of day for photography. It could even be mid-afternoon on a sunny day, with harsh and intense light. Because that works well for some photos. Not all landscapes look their best under golden, low-angled light – the typical conditions at sunrise and sunset. Other scenes are better while the sun is still well below the horizon, or even on an overcast day.

Overcast day and soft light
NIKON D800E + 14-24mm f/2.8 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/10.0
Overcast days can be great for photography. Here, the low clouds from a recent rainfall add to the character of this mountain landscape.

Good light is not universal, except that it is universally the light that makes your subject look how you want. Yes, beautiful sunsets are amazing for photography, but they’re not universally ideal. Sometimes, “bad” light will match your goal for an image better than anything else.

3) How to find the best light for an image

If you’re searching for good light, start by thinking about the character of the landscape in front of you. If the scene is harsh and overpowering, perhaps gentle light will conflict with your message rather than enforcing it and harmonizing with your goal. This means, quite often, that the light you stumble upon at a scene won’t be the best it can be. That’s not a problem if you’re only in a location for a brief period of time; take what you can get. But if you have ample time to stick around and return to a place for photography, try to picture what the best possible light would be at a scene.

I once spent a sunset taking pictures at Jökulsárlón in Iceland, an amazing landscape with elaborate icebergs washing ashore a dark beach. This experience taught me the importance of using light to complement a subject, rather than just defaulting to sunrise or sunset no matter what.

Specifically, I took one photo at that beach with a beautiful orange glow on the horizon – classic “good light” in landscape photography. I took a second photo an hour later, when the light was much darker and more blue. The second image was vastly better. You can see the two below:

Jokulsarlon bad light example
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1 second, f/16.0
“Good light” that actually isn’t very good.
Jokulsarlon good light example
NIKON D800E + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 0.6 seconds, f/16.0
Much better light.

Why does the later photo work better? On one hand, I do like the iceberg in the second photo more; that shouldn’t be ignored. But more than that, it works well because the whole photo presents a “unified front.” The icebergs on this beach were sleek, sharp, and blue. In the second image, the light is blue, metallic, and intense. The subject and the light complement one another. It’s no wonder that they work so well together.

In the first image, as beautiful as the light is, it just doesn’t harmonize as well with the subject. Rather than magnifying one particular emotion, the subject and the light each say something different. That won’t always result in a disjointed look, but it often does, as I believe is the case here.

3.1) Internal unity

Say that you want to photograph a forest, and your goal is to capture a beautiful, peaceful image. What type of light works best? Direct light at sunrise or sunset might be too intense. Instead, a better possibility could be to capture a low-lying fog, with sunbeams filtering through gaps in the leaves. That would create a bright, ethereal mood in the image.

Redwood trees and mist
NIKON D7000 + 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 35mm, ISO 360, 1/200, f/4.0
Better than sunset: The mid-afternoon light in this landscape filtered gently through the trees. It was a magnificent scene.

Every landscape will be different. The right conditions for one image will be totally wrong for another. So, while you’re planning a photo, keep the concept of internal unity in mind. If the elements of your photo combine to form a singular, strong message, it helps them convey an emotional impact as well as possible to a viewer.

That starts with taking a hard look at your subject, and asking yourself what type of light would work best. Yes, the answer might be sunset or sunrise. But often, you’ll realize that other conditions — fog, snow, post-sunset light, or even the midday sun — are better. After you’ve asked yourself about the character of your scene, try to figure out whether the light complements or detracts from your overall mood, and think of ways to improve from there.

3.2) Scout for landscapes with good potential

When you’re searching for the best light, a powerful tool at your disposal is scouting.

What is scouting? It’s simply the process of searching for a good location to take photos. In this case, you’re searching for a location that has strong potential for light.

While you’re out searching for landscapes, try to visualize exactly how the scene will appear under different lighting conditions. Figure out where the sun will rise and set, and if it will be blocked by any nearby hills or mountains. Ask yourself if that landscape is well-situated for snow, fog, or other environmental conditions.

Scouting lets you find locations with good potential for light. You don’t always need to scout in order to take a good photo, but it is one of the best ways to spend your downtime – searching for new places to take pictures, and thinking about when they will look their best.

3.3) Manipulate the light

Landscape photographers aren’t known for manipulating the light. That’s especially true compared to portrait and studio photographers. It’s not like you can move the sun, and editing your photo in post-production doesn’t really count as “manipulating light.”

Still, you have more leeway here than you may think. First, the obvious – you can always wait around until the light changes. If you’re a landscape photographer, you need to have a lot of patience. Eventually, no matter how long it takes, the right conditions will appear at a scene. Even if you aren’t there to capture them, someone might be.

But that’s not all. There is one other very simple case where you can change the direction of light in a scene without waiting for conditions to change at all. This is a very common tactic among landscape photographers, even if it’s not the most frequently discussed tip:

Turn around.

Assuming that the sun is low on the horizon, you instantly have access to multiple directions of light: frontlighting, backlighting, and sidelighting (both left and right). You can pick and choose between them. All you need to do is turn around and face another direction. Not every scene will give you a full 360 degrees of freedom. But many of them will.

This is yet another reason why you should look behind yourself periodically while you’re taking landscape photos. You’ll see a totally different scene — one that might lead to your best shot of the day.

Good light at sunrise
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 130mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/11.0
Near where I took this photo is the famous “Vitaleta Chapel” in Tuscany. It is a beautiful building, but, at sunrise, it’s completely backlit. I visited this area as part of a group of photographers. While most people spent sunrise photographing the chapel, I snuck away to capture a different angle of light. I’m glad I did. In my opinion, the sidelighting in this direction held many more opportunities for photography.

4) Conclusion

There’s nothing more powerful than light. It’s the backbone of photography.

Still, it’s also true that the concept of “good light” is a bit fuzzy around the edges. That’s because the best light for a photo depends upon the scene. It also depends upon your goal for the image – the emotions and message you want the photo to carry.

The takeaway here should be the value of internal unity. If the light complements your subject and magnifies your message, rather than conflicting with what you’re trying to say, you are doing something right.

Of course, that doesn’t mean good light is always easy to find. It might take some scouting, and it certainly requires plenty of patience. But it does exist. If you know how to find good light, you’ll see your landscape photos improve significantly. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what to look for.

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