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 spectacular. So, what are some of the things you can do to find good light?
Why light is so important
Light matters more than any other part of photography, almost by definition.
That’s because photography is capturing light. Even the most beautiful subjects in the world are, at the most basic level, nothing more than light falling on your camera sensor (or your eyes).
It’s deeper than that, too. Light also changes the emotional impact of a photo. 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.
Good light is essential for capturing high-quality landscape photos. It’s more than that, really — it’s magnetizing.
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 drew me in.
What is good light?
Good light is light that matches your goal for a photo. It complements your subject. The best light mirrors the character of the landscape you’re photographing.
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.
Here’s the thing: 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, this 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.
Here’s the 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.
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.
How to find the best light for an image
If you’re searching for good light, the most important thing you can do is to put in conscious effort.
No part of your photograph should be an accident. Everything should exist for a reason. The subject and light in your photos shouldn’t just be whatever you happen to see one day — you must choose both of them very deliberately and intentionally, so that they harmonize with one another.
I once spent a sunset taking pictures at an amazing landscape, with elaborate icebergs washing ashore a black-sand 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:
The icebergs on this beach were sleek, sharp, and blue. In the second photo, the light is blue, metallic, and intense. It’s no wonder that they work so well together.
The first image, on the other hand, isn’t as good — even though, on paper, it seems to have everything going for it. The subject is beautiful, the composition works fairly well, and the sky has amazing colors. The trouble is that the subject and the light don’t harmonize. They’re branching off in totally separate directions. Rather than magnifying one particular emotion, they each say something different.
1. Internal unity
“Soft, gentle, and orange” is very different from “sleek, sharp, and blue.” If your photo is trying to convey both of those messages at the same time, that’s not good.
Instead, the best photos have a sense of internal unity, where everything in the image exists for a shared reason. No part of your photo should be out-of-step with the others. In the best cases, everything combines together to form a singular, strong message.
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.
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.
Every landscape will be different. The right conditions for one image will be totally wrong for another.
The best thing you can do is to ask yourself about the character of your scene. Then, try to figure out whether the light complements or detracts from your overall mood.
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.
That’s right. It’s time to use your compass (and also smartphone apps).
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. When you’re planning out an image, it’s step one.
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, but not one that you’ll usually read about:
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.
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 — how you plan to use that photo later on.
Most of all, though, is the importance of internal unity. If the light complements your subject and magnifies your message, you’re doing something right.
Of course, that’s not always easy to find. It takes some scouting, along with plenty of patience. But it does exist. If you know how to find good light, you’ll master landscape photography. Hopefully, you now have a better idea of what to look for.