There are many elements which make up a visually appealing image....subject, composition, editing but without doubt the single most important factor for me is light. Light transforms images, it gives them depth, it helps create mood and atmosphere. If you want people to be wowed by your landscapes then you need to consider how to use light to its optimum. For me it's the most important part of photography and its something I look to incorporate into all my images...if possible. I look for that lovely golden light which warms and casts lovely light across the landscape. If you look at my gallery you will notice I don't tend to take a lot of sunrise or sunset shots of colourful skies, this is because when I look to take an image I'm looking for the golden light hitting my scene are really give it some pop. I use various tools and techniques to get the maximum light in my shots, but its not all due to luck and there is a fair amount of planning than can go into it and give me the best chance of getting my shots. So in this blog i'm going to share some of the resources I use and what I look for when shooting with light. I will use a recent trip up to High Stile as an example, as it was a location I hadn't been before so I researched it extensively before I visited to give me the best chance of success.
An understanding of where the sun will rise or set.
Firstly I will do my homework on the location I want to visit. The first consideration is having an understanding where the sun is going to be when it rises or sets in relation to your location or what you want you want to shoot. There are many apps on the market where we can look at the location of the sun and these are a really essential tool for planning your photography shoots, especially if you can't visit locations often. Obviously the sun moves throughout the year, so a location will be affected in different ways in different seasons. So unless I've visited this location number times and understand it well, I will always check where the sun will rise or set. I usually look for side light and back light in my images and these apps help me to predict this. I use The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE), which is available as an app on your phone and your desk top. Once I've identified where the light is coming from, I then go a step further in my next planning phase.
Knowing where the sun is rising/setting is a great starting point in your research:
Where will the light fall?
We can also use other apps and websites to determine where the light will fall through out the day, this is another useful tool when looking to incorporate light into our images. We can investigate if the location of choice will get the desired light we want at the time of day/year we want to visit. This has become an invaluable tool, especially if I haven't visited this location before. Nothing worse than tramping up a fell and realising the light doesn't hit were you want it. This type of planning can really help and save you a lot of wasted effort. I use Google Earth Pro on my desk top, but TPE and other apps are available as well. I used this extensively while preparing to hike up High Stile. It gives me a 3d visualisation of where the light falls throughout the day. I knew that this location was perfect for sunset with the light hitting all the right places at the golden hour.
Google Earth Pro is an excellent tool for predicting where the light will hit at a given time of day and year. I use this regularly when planning my photography trips.
Check the weather:
This is pretty obvious but make sure you have a good understanding of the weather. My first port of call is Met Office. I have used them for years and find them pretty accurate. I will also use Mountain Weather Information Service www.mwis.org.uk. This is particularly good when we are heading into the fells as it gives full details of the mountain conditions, from cloud cover to wind speed on the summit. I also use an app called clear outside, which is another useful tool to use in tandem with the other weather websites. I use this app for an indication on the cloud cover and also for fog and mist. There are other apps out there but these are the ones I use and have had good success with. My preferred conditions are cloud and sunshine, especially when shooting wide landscape shots, I also look for good visibility and medium to high cloud. I use all these apps in conjunction with a large pinch of salt, as the weather people have been known to be wrong before.
So after all my planning and theory I'm ready to get out in the field to my chosen location. Typically I would like to be at my location early to get a feel for the place and see how the light will fall when I'm on site, this gives me an idea how the light might fall later in the shoot. I will then look to form my composition based on my research and how I predict the light to fall having observed it. Once I'm set up and happy with my composition I will then wait for the light to become warmer. This is usually around 1 hour before sunset and after sunrise, however this can vary depending on the season. It's at this time when the light is at its very very best and the time to get your game face on and grab those images. Once the light comes I will take a series of images over the course of golden hour and as the light develops. This way I have multiple images and I simply choose the one with the optimum light, as it will change considerably over the course of an hour. I would never just take one shot and always take plenty, you can always delete the ones you don't want later.
Compositional thought processes when on location: How I interpreted the scene while on site.
What I look for when using light:
First and foremost its all about the quality of the light. If we want the best quality light then your either going to need to get out of bed or stay out late. Shooting in the golden hours really takes an ordinary image and gives it that extra gloss. Its like having a beautifully prepared meal but without the salt and pepper, it will lack flavour. It's also this gorgeous horizontal light which really shows off the landscape at its very best with soft warmer tones and delicate shadows. I ideally like using side light but when the light is at its best you can have joy shooting at different angles. Shooting in these times certainly gives you every opportunity to capture better images. I also like images with multiple areas of light and shade, it's this type of light that really helps to add depth to my images. The play off between warm golden light and the slightly darker delicate shadows really creates the feeling of depth. It can add real dynamics and pop to our shots. If I'm shooting a wide landscape then I like my foreground to be lit and this always gives the eye a place to start before its drawn into the image and the other areas of light. This worked perfectly on my High Stile golden hour shot with lovely foreground light leading up to the warm light washing across the fells.
The final image: This was probably shot no. 20 of this particular location and one where the light was at its very best.
Its not really rocket science but I know what I like and what I look for in terms of light and how I like to present it in my images. However in summary the biggest thing for me is having that understanding of how the light will fall, where it will fall and the quality of the light. Once we know this then we can have more success using the light in our images. Giving yourself plenty of time when your location can also help, as we have time to asses our surroundings and be set up ready for the best of the light and not run around like a headless chicken. In terms of what I look for, well again it's pretty straight forward, it's the play off between light and shade and that golden light. Having multiple areas of light, especially foreground and back ground, I find works really well to draw the viewer into the image. So that is my work flow when planning and understanding light. I hope you found this useful and can take something away with you.