Light is a photographer’s raw material, the building block that makes or breaks our images. Pro shooter David Noton explains the skill in learning how to see, feel and understand it in this guide to outdoor light
My college lecturer used to assert that a good photographer could make a lump of coal look appealing with the skilful use of lighting. I never felt the need to prove his point, but my subsequent decades behind the lens have convinced me he was right. Even the Grand Canyon can look uninspiring under the flat grey light of an overcast day, whilst a view of some flat Essex fields can be transformed into a breathtaking vision by evocative dawn light. Light is our raw material; the building block that makes or breaks our pictures. In fact, lighting is so important to the finished image that I often feel I photograph the light more than the subject.
We photographers need to see the light, and I mean really see it, feel it and understand it in all its endless forms and subtleties. When contemplating a scene the first thing to do is consider where the light is coming from. And beyond seeing what is happening now we need to predict the light that will best illuminate the picture we have in mind at different times of the day and year. Anticipating what could happen with the light in a few minutes, an hour, later the same day, the next morning, in
a few months or next year is a fundamental photographic skill. It comes with experience and is the product of every photographic vigil, productive or otherwise. Standing by the tripod watching the light paint a landscape is never time wasted.
We have the obvious time options – daylight, dawn, dusk or night. Beyond those we have the directional aspect to consider; do we want the main light to come from the front, back, side or above the subject, or a combination? Then there’s the nature and colour quality of the light: high or low, hard or soft, warm or cool? In truth, most lighting situations in the natural world are a subtle fusion, and the permutations are endless.
Guide to outdoor light – Colour temperature
All light sources have a colour temperature, expressed in Kelvin. The light our planet receives from the sun is constant, but as the Earth rotates what we receive on the surface goes through radical daily transformations. As photographers we have five different lighting options: daylight, golden hour, twilight, blue hour and night. All have their appeal, but atmospheric conditions, the weather, our position on the globe and the time of year are all factors affecting the nature of the light painting the landscape. That’s why, after a lifetime behind the lens, I still feel I’m only beginning to appreciate the endless subtleties of natural light.
Take any photo group out at sunset or sunrise and most will be transfixed by the sun peeping over the horizon. It takes mental effort to turn away and observe the far more subtle lighting effects playing on the landscape and sky to the north or south, but that’s where the photographic gold dust lies. Seeing it is one thing, predicting it is something else. Our ability to pre-visualise these lighting situations is what sets photographers apart. It’s a skill to be honed, so read on for details on how to shoot using various types of natural light.
Guide to outdoor light – Daylight
At noon the overhead sunlight has had the shortest passage through the atmosphere so it is neutral in colour balance; what we term daylight, with a colour temperature of 5200K, give or take a few Kelvin. Generally speaking the hard vertical light of midday is the least favourable to work with.
Shadows are hard, contrast is high; time was I wouldn’t touch the camera after 10am and before 4pm. But ideas change and I’m confronting some of my more entrenched assumptions. Sometimes the skies in the middle of the day have billowing cumulonimbus and streaking cirrus clouds that beg to be captured.
Guide to outdoor light – The golden hour
The contrast between the warm highlights and the cool shadows enhances the scene with the complementary colours of orange and blue. The last golden light of a crystal- clear evening after a rain shower is perfect for revealing all the form, texture and scale of a landscape. How soft the light of the golden hour is depends on the clarity of the atmosphere. Light that is too soft can be too insipid for big views but perfect for details.
Guide to outdoor light – Night
The night sky is an enticing subject, and we have the ability to capture it in all its glory. Including a landscape in the scene as well as being in the right place at the right time takes planning, and a truly clear night is essential. The capability of modern DSLRs to work with minimal noise at high sensor speeds makes this possible.
Guide to outdoor light – Twilight
Minutes before the sun rises and after it sets, the light reaching Earth goes through some great transformations. Whilst direct rays are absent we are still bathed in twilight from the sun below the horizon. That twilight reaches us as the last rays of sunlight bounce off the bottom of clouds and down into the landscape, and as residual ambient light that the atmosphere has scattered. The two combine, which is why this time of day is so special and worth rising before the crack of dawn or lingering as dinner beckons to witness.
Guide to outdoor light – The blue hour
The residual ambient half-light that either brightens as dawn approaches or dims as dusk settles has had all of the warmth stripped from it after being bounced and scattered through the atmosphere. Its colour temperature is sky-high, well in excess of 10,000K, resulting in a very blue light, and virtually non-directional. This cool monochromatic twilight is a favourite for those hooked on seascapes with slow exposures of swirling water. It’s also the perfect light for night shots of illuminated landmarks, when the artificial lights of our towns and cities perfectly match the lingering tones of the twilight sky.
Guide to outdoor light – Direction of light
With such wide discrepancies dependent on our location when planning a shoot we need to know when the sun is due to come and go, and where in the sky it will rise and set. I have to admit I rely on experience, but it pays to be precise. Apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills are handy, but I’m cautious of relying on them. We still need to ascertain which direction we want the light to be coming from to paint the landscape best – front, back, side or above.
Guide to outdoor light – Side lighting
Side lighting is my favoured default for landscape work. The low rays of a rising or setting sun slanting across a scene reveal every shape, texture and contour in the landscape. Shadows provide strong shapes and every detail from the poppies in the foreground to the distant mountains beyond is apparent.
Guide to outdoor light – Backlighting
Backlighting can often be the route to graphic impact. Shooting into the light is beset with problems – flare, exposure and contrast to name a few, but strong shapes backlit and silhouetted against a dramatic sky often have a bold simplicity that can be very powerful. The big drawback though is any tantalising detail in the shadowy foreground will be lost. How much detail is sacrificed depends entirely on the contrast range between the rocky vegetation and the bright sky; softer light allows us to retain more foreground detail, whilst stronger more dramatic light renders silhouettes and foregrounds black. We have stratagems for tackling that immense contrast range; namely graduated filters or exposure merging, but there is a limit to what can be achieved without the loss of all credibility. In my book any such wizardry needs to be done with subtlety if believability is to be retained.
Guide to outdoor light – Front lighting
Full frontal light from directly behind the photographer leaves little to the imagination; all is revealed with maximum stark illumination, usually with the photographer’s shadow thrown in, but the harsh flattening effect and lack of shadow/highlight contrast rarely shows a landscape or indeed any subject off to its best; it’s an unappealing light that I avoid like the plague.
Guide to outdoor light – Top lighting
When the clouds coalesce into an oppressive grey ceiling the low-contrast diffuse top lighting can be just the job for woodland and canyons. When the clouds close in there’s also the option of turning the camera on faces; it’s the perfect light for portraiture.
Guide to outdoor light – Light on my local patch
Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is my home patch where I have the luxury of being able to choose precisely the best time of year to shoot a specific location. The east-west aspect of the coastline makes shooting most locations between the spring and autumn equinoxes unfeasible; the sun is rising and setting over the land to the north, which casts its shadow across the cliffs and beaches. In the short days of winter though, when the sun is rising to the southeast and setting in the southwest, tantalising side lighting bathes the white cliffs and coves. It’s a view I never tire of, and one that provides endless inspiration.
David Noton is recognised as a leading landscape and travel photographer. His passion for photography, travel and the world’s beautiful places are the defining influences that have shaped his life, work and his creative approach to photography. His images sell all over the world – both as fine-art photography and commercially in advertising and publishing. Visit www.davidnoton.com.