Although for outdoor photographers there is only one natural light source – the sun – any keen landscape or architectural photographer knows that there is an infinite number of variations in natural lighting conditions. Knowing how these lighting variations impact on the scenes and objects you photograph will help you to plan your shots and lead to stronger, more arresting images.
There are broadly speaking three factors that govern how natural lighting visually impacts on the landscape and elements contained within it – atmospheric conditions, the position of the sun, and the angle of the camera in relation to the sun and the scene being photographed. By atmospheric conditions we mean clouds or haze. When it’s very cloudy or overcast sunlight is diffused, creating soft, often shadow-free lighting. This type of light certainly has its uses and warrants a fuller discussion in its own right, but here we’re concerned with the direct, undisturbed light of cloudless or near cloudless skies (and primarily – although not exclusively – during early morning or late afternoon when the sun is relatively low in the sky). This leaves us with the second two factors – the position of the sun and the relative angle of the camera to the scene being captured. Although you have no control over the first, you can control the second in order to utilise the light to its best advantage.
When we consider the number of positions the camera can be in relation to the sun, we can boil it down to essentially three – in front, behind, and to the side. This in turn results in three principal forms of natural lighting — backlighting, frontal lighting and side lighting. Each offers the photographer unique conditions under which to work, and each has a very different impact on the scene being photographed. Let’s look at each one in turn in more detail.
A scene is said to be backlit when the sun is behind the subject of the photograph and pointing more or less towards the camera. The most dramatic example of backlighting (also known as ‘contre jour’, literally ‘against daylight’) is the silhouette. In this extreme instance the contrast between the subject and the background is usually so great that in order to have any sort of control whatsoever over the bright background you will have to use an exposure setting that renders the foreground subject completely underexposed, devoid of any visible texture or colour. For a silhouette to work successfully, therefore, the subject needs to have an interesting and recognisable outline. The outline of a person’s face at right angles to the camera, or plants that exhibit strong architectural form would both make good silhouette subjects.
The most dramatic form of backlighting is the silhouette, which renders the subject a black, two-dimensional shape. Here the gaps between the branches of the tree have allowed light from the sun to shine through creating striking rays – a slight twist on the more conventional silhouette.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/2000sec, Aperture f4.0, ISO 100, Focal length 105mm.
Less dramatic, but potentially more interesting, are backlit scenes in which the sun is slightly off to one side. With so-called ‘off-axis’ backlighting the reduction in contrast between the background and foreground is usually sufficient enough to allow a certain amount of colour and detail to become visible in parts of the foreground if exposure is carefully metered. This can result in powerfully atmospheric images, such as a landscape photograph featuring a succession of rolling hills to create aerial perspective, with one set of hills attractively silhouetted against the next, and so on.
Shooting towards but not directly at the sun creates ‘off-axis’ backlighting. This less intense form of backlighting allows us to capture at least some foreground tonal detail (the flock of sheep are discernible), but the overriding impression is the aerial perspective of the receding hills silhouetted against one another.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/1000sec, Aperture f4.0, ISO 100, Focal length 105mm.
Another potentially atmospheric form of off-axis backlighting is edge, or rim lighting. Rim lighting gets its name when light glows off the edges, or rims, of objects being photographed. How much the edges glow is determined by their texture – with hard, smooth materials such as glass or metal producing a thinner but more intense edge light than soft, highly textured objects, such as hair or woolen clothing.
Although a backlit shot, the relatively low dynamic range means the exposure setting allows us to view the foreground objects and colours. But the image still retains the strong contrast and silhouetted forms, notably the trees, the figure, and the iron railings, representative of backlighting.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/40sec, Aperture f9.0, ISO 400, Focal length 20mm.
Rim or edge lighting is a specific type of off-axis backlighting characterized by brightly glowing edges – the size and intensity of the glow determined by the physical makeup of the glowing object. It’s a powerfully atmospheric form of lighting.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/200sec, Aperture f6.3, ISO 100, Focal length 85mm.
Frontal lighting, with the sun behind the camera shining more or less directly onto the subject, doesn’t share the same problematic issue of high contrast with backlighting. Thanks to this lack of contrast, scenes exhibit a low dynamic range making it is easier to set an exposure relatively safe in the knowledge that most elements will be accurately exposed. The only exception to this of course is any bright, reflective surface. This is liable to overexpose if not taken into account.
The strong frontal lighting in this shot of a harbour shelter creates a crisp image and helps to bring out the bright colours of the blue bench and orange buoyancy aid, as well as highlighting the subtle tones of the black paint. The slightly offset angle of the lighting results in short shadows that reveal texture. The viewpoint and lighting also help to show the shelter’s outline against the blue sky, which incidentally will be at its bluest with this type of lighting.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/400sec, Aperture f5.6, ISO 100, Focal length 25mm.
With the light distributed squarely and evenly on the subject there are few shadows to contend with. This lack of shadows gives images a crisp, clean appearance, albeit often a somewhat flat, two-dimensional one. Frontal lighting, therefore, is best reserved for when you want to bring out the colour of an object or show off its outline shape to the best of its advantage, as many architectural photographers often do.
Myrtos beach on the Greek island of Kefalonia is famed for its turquoise water. With the sun almost directly overhead the entire scene is effectively frontally lit, which helps to bring out the colour of the water, and reinforces the graphic quality created by the contrast of sea and beach.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/160sec, Aperture f13, ISO 100, Focal length 105mm.
Perhaps of greatest use to the landscape photographer is side lighting. The most distinctive feature of side lighting is the shadows it casts. Shadows are longest when light is at right angles to the camera (becoming longer the lower the sun is in the sky), and it is these shadows that help to model the contours of a landscape. Without shadows, landscapes can appear flat with subtle peaks and troughs lost to the viewer. This is, incidentally, also the reason way shooting landscapes at midday, when the sun is directly above and shadows are at their shortest, is liable to provide the least satisfactory lighting.
The long, raking shadows of this landscape are created by late-in-the-afternoon, side-lighting. This type of lighting is popular with landscape photographers as the shadows help to reveal the scene’s contours and add atmosphere.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/250sec, Aperture f7.0, ISO 200, Focal length 45mm.
Side-lighting can also help in close-up photography as the shadows it casts, despite being on a much smaller scale than those in landscape photography, bring out the texture of objects, helping to engage the viewer’s sense of touch.
As well as its modelling characteristics, side lighting also offers distinctive yet usually manageable contrast to a scene – not as dramatic as backlighting but usually offering more for the landscape photographer to work with than the more evenly contrasting, frontally lit scene.
Although if frontally lit the minaret of this mosque would have created a striking 2-dimensional outline against the deep blue sky, side-lighting helps reveal the structure’s circular form and creates a more 3-dimensional result.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/200sec, Aperture f16, ISO 200, Focal length 55mm.
It’s worth mentioning at this stage that the sun is capable of creating ‘frontal lighting’, ‘side lighting’ and ‘backlighting’ all from the same position – depending on the relative angle of the object in relation to it. For example, although we don’t think of midday as a great time to shoot partly as shadows are lacking, for an upright wall, the midday sun being overhead provides excellent modelling ‘side-lighting’, picking out all the minute crevices and revealing texture. While any object lying horizontally will, at the same time of day, benefit from strong, neutral and even ‘frontal’ lighting, helping to enhance colours and clarify outlines.
The texture of this sarcophagus in the ancient necropolis near Simena, Turkey is created by the side-lighting shadows of a sun that is almost directly overhead.
Camera settings: Shutter speed 1/160sec, Aperture f10, ISO 250, Focal length 32mm.
Armed with a little more knowledge about natural lighting, its varying characteristics and the visual impact each has on the landscape and objects around us – their individual strengths and weaknesses – will help you to consider what elements and features of a particular scene or object you can expect to draw out, what features are likely to be suppressed, whether you can reframe the scene to overcome any drawbacks, or whether it’s a case of returning at another time of day. After all, the more we consider before pressing the shutter, the better our photography becomes.