Photo Tip of the Week: Landscapes and Lighting Direction
The angle at which light strikes your subject relative to where you are determines the amount of modelling your subject will have, and therefore the sense of three-dimensionality in your photograph. It will also affect how easy it is your camera meter to give you an accurate exposure. The illusion of depth which we strive to obtain in our photographs is a function of light and shadow. When you first study a scene, and before you photograph it, take a look and work out where the light hitting your subject is coming from. Generally speaking, lighting direction can be divided into three categories, front lighting, back lighting and side lighting. Let's look at front lighting first.
Light which travels over your shoulder towards the subject is called
front light. Depending on how high the sun is above the horizon, front light
will fall on the subject and fill in all the small bumps and hollows. As a consequence
there will be very little modelling. Generally speaking, front light is quite
boring and gives no sense of three-dimensionality. It does however make
metering very easy. Front light is particularly prevalent in the middle of the
day, and makes it difficult to add drama and impact to your photographs. Avoid
it if you can. That said, front light late in the day can yield amazing
Front Light: A rare example of successful front lighting. The sun, which is behind the camera, has lit up the mountain and clouds, and brought out the relief of the mountain top. Photo by Tony Bridge.
In the case of back lighting, the light is travelling from the subject
towards you. It is easy to recognise because most of your subject matter is in
shadow and will often be in silhouette. This can be very effective if the key
elements in your photograph have strong graphic shapes, for example trees on
the horizon. The key decision in a strongly backlit scene is how much detail
you want to render in your subjects. A photograph with strong silhouettes
allows your meter to have its head, since it will tend to underexpose the
foreground. Overexpose by one to two stops if you wish to allow some shadow
detail to be present. Backlit subjects will often have a wide brightness range
beyond the ability of the sensor to record, so you may want to use HDR
techniques to ensure you capture the full tonal range in the subject.
Back Lighting: This photograph of the Maniototo Plain near sunset, was taken looking into the sun. Because the brightness range exceeded the sensor’s ability to capture it, I made a series of bracketed exposures and used the HDR (High Dynamic Range) tools in Photoshop CS4 to capture a full range of tones. Photo by Tony Bridge.
Side light is the landscape photographer's best friend, and usually the
best option to go for if at all possible. In this situation the light is
falling on the subject at an angle between 30 and 150° to the
photographer-subject axis. Because the light strikes the subjects side-on, it
creates pockets of brightness and shadow. At a micro level we perceive this as
texture. The very best textural lighting occurs at an angle between 70 and 150°
either side of the photographer-subject axis. If you are planning to go out and
shoot a landscape at a particular time, try and select a shooting position that
enables you to view your subject using side light.
Side Lighting: Light that comes from the side is often the best option. This image, which was shot in the Bo Kaap district of Cape Town, was taken across the light. The strong sun and side light bring out the texture of the scene. A bird flying across the light has created a shadow on the wall. Photo by Tony Bridge.