Lighting in Landscape – Gordon Longmead

The first aspect of Lighting in Landscape is to understand the question – What is light? I do not mean this in the scientific sense but in the photographic, not that it is easy to separate the two. Light is a form of radiation.

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What we see illuminating out planet either by the sun or another source, is the very small part called the visible spectrum.

Outside of this area are two other forms of radiation we also use in many aspects of photography, Ultra Violet and Infrared. For this article I will be looking at natural light landscape photography

One of the phrases we hear in photography is “The Quality of Light”. Light quality depends on a number of different factors.

For example, bright sunlight produces a harsh light quality giving very sharply defined areas of shadow.


Pictures taken in this light often burn out the highlights while the shadow areas are black and with out details.

Take the same pictures on a bright cloudy day and the highlights are muted while the shadow areas start to show details.

On a very dull and overcast day the light range between light and dark areas becomes very small giving little or no highlights or shadow areas.


It is harder to judge an exposure in harsh lighting to avoid the contrast and thus the burn out or dark shadows, even in full auto mode.

To overcome this you can use a tripod and take three or five pictures of the same subject. In the days of film we called this Bracketing the exposure.

This involves taking one picture at the ‘correct’ setting, then further images at F stop settings one or two stops above and below that first. On most digital cameras this can be accomplished in camera. Some cameras allow bracketing up to five stops in either direction.

The trick is to take the bracketed images and then to blend them in post processing by overlaying the pictures and erasing the over and under exposed areas.

The other aspect of light that should be known, is the Light Temperature. To give you an idea, in the following the light temperature is in degrees Kelvin (K):

2000-3000K Sunrise or sunset

5000-6500K Sun in a clear blue sky

6500-7500K Dull overcast days

10,000K Bright overcast days (white clouds)

This is also the reason you see people wearing sunglasses on cloudy days.

So when is best to take landscape pictures?

There is no real definitive answer to this, but we can look at a few ideas. These are best taken early in the day or later in the afternoon, a general rule is before 10am and after 4pm.

The reason is that when the sun gets high in the sky even the prettiest landscape will tend to go flat. This is because the shadow areas that give the depth to a scene are dramatically reduced by the high sun.

This problem does not tend to occur on heavily overcast days. There will still be shadow areas even at mid day. This is when you should be looking to take those really moody pictures with dark heavy clouds, using the contrast in the light to maximum effect and the grey filters to exaggerate the effect.


There are probably as many variations on lighting landscapes as there are days in a decade, so when going out to specifically take a landscape series, do not plan to move around very much and take the tripod.

Visit the area beforehand and decide where to set up for the shoot. Consider where the sun will rise and set, and also which way you will be facing. You should be looking to be on higher ground and have the daytime sun behind your camera.

If you have a day when there is sunshine and broken cloud forecast, get out early, preferably to arrive at the location an hour before daybreak, do not forget to take your lunch, flask, and a seat, and turn off your mobile phone.

I would suggest that you take two cameras, one for the tripod with the wide lens and the other to be handheld with the telephoto lens. You never know what will appear while you are waiting for the lighting to change in the landscapes.


There is nothing worse than setting up for the landscape series only to find a fox or raptor appearing ten feet away and not being able to get the picture.

Once you reach your spot, set up the camera to face east ready for the sunrise. You will not be able to set more than a general exposure as there will be nothing to see, but set the camera to bracket the exposure +2 and -2 Stops.

This is because the light starts to appear long before the sun and that light has many different appearances. Bracketing the exposure will change the colouring of the picture in often unusual ways that the eye will not register. This also applies at sunset.


After sunrise is complete, change the bracketing to take just one un-bracketed picture. Then watch the landscape.

We are lucky with digital in that there is no restriction on the number of images beyond the size of card used.

Watching the landscape you will see it change. If the clouds are moving quickly the scene will be constantly changing so you should be taking more pictures.

Stay through the day and keep taking the pictures. You may think that hundreds of images of one scene are a waste of effort, but not all will reflect what you see.


Those that do will all show differences in the lighting and from those you can select those that best describe the location and its moods.

The picture above and the one below were taken within a few minutes of each other from the same location.


You may wish to try taking a series of pictures at set intervals. One every ten seconds for an hour will give you 360 pictures. Later you can set these up as a slideshow with a one or two second duration and have your own time lapse presentation.

At about 10am centre your camera view on the main landscape and about an hour before sunset realign the camera again to face generally west and reset the exposure bracketing.

Continue to take the pictures until the light has disappeared completely, this can be half an hour after the sun has disappeared.


The same can also be said of Seascapes, but here it is not only the lighting that will change but the sea also.

Try and select a day when the sea is calm but with strong onshore winds forecast. These winds will bring up the waves and clouds to change the lighting and atmosphere of the pictures.


If you intend to sit on the shoreline please be aware of the tides and always ensure an escape route if your location may be cut off by the rising tide.

A good guide to the state of the tide is, if you are sitting on rocks below the water line and the rocks are dry, the tide is out. If they get damp the tide is coming in and if your knees are under water, start swimming.

With Cityscapes the principle is much the same, but forget the tripod and the idea of taking many images from the same spot all day.


The lighting still changes through out the day and probably as often as in the countryside, but people will start asking questions and the police will ask you to remove the tripod. In London they may even challenge you for taking pictures, but so long as you have a valid reason all should be well.

Also with the cityscape it is the buildings and the environment that are used to change the mood of the image more than the light.


Any subject can be taken using natural lighting, it is more varied and variable than indoor or studio lighting which is highly controlled, but it is in landscapes that it really comes into its own.

By now you should be wondering why I recommend going out to a single location for the whole day.

Apart from recording the changes in the light and the subsequent images, the reason is that we may be away from our home range, often many hundreds of miles or even on a different continent.

If you want the perfect picture of the location in question, the chances of getting it on a half hour visit are remote. You do not see the changes in the lighting, neither will you see all the wildlife (second camera) that will pass you by.

 This type of photography trip also provide you with a chance to rest and relax, just to chill out and watch the world drift by, free from the troubles and stress of home and work and to put things in perspective. We call it ‘me time’.

A few tips will help your day go smoothly, leave the other half (unless they are into photography), kids, dogs, phone and ipad at home. Take a spare battery or two, and maybe a spare card for the camera, and some money for the stop at the local refreshment establishment on the way home.


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