How to embrace varying light in landscapes and emerge on the winning side

In landscapes, no one set of weather conditions works for all scenes and locations. Photographers will often baulk at sunny days and superficially this is true; the direct sun can wreak havoc, but the direct sun can also help form a powerful aesthetic.  Firstly, let’s look at the more desired, controlled landscape lighting.

The locations I visited in 2018 (Switzerland and Spain) both made use of different qualities of light.  The Swiss rocks series was made on days with a mixture of bright direct sun and moving clouds. I used the moment when the edges of each cloud-first passed over the sun, leaving a bright but diffuse light.

Photographing this way, both allowed for light penetration of recesses and added a softness to the scene.  Clouds providing a diffuser were used in tandem with a polarising filter which also helped to control the highlights and reflections from rocks.  What would have been useful is a solar filter for my own eyes to make safe judgements on sun and cloud movements.

In Spain’s northern forests there were four kinds of lighting conditions:

Backlight with mist

End of day

Directly overhead filtered by trees



In the right image, you can see the dramatic use of backlight filtered through rising mist.  The exposure challenge here was to hold back the highlights from clipping (overexposing), whilst still recording enough shadow detail.  As technology updates, this can increasingly be achieved in-camera rather than in processing.

Forests with a high and dense canopy can be accessible during the middle part of the day because the light is heavily filtered which produces a lowering of contrast.  These conditions allow photography of ground subjects, the task being to find something which elevates itself from subdued surroundings, as seen in the left image.  Without a protective canopy, more exposed forests offer the challenge of controlling contrast in bright daylight.  In these circumstances, I look for what the light is actually doing by surveying the geology of a location and working with reflected light off areas of the landscape rather than direct light.

River valleys and wooded banks offer the opportunity for this.  One side will be in bright sunshine, the other in shade.  The left-hand image shows the use of this in mid to late afternoon light.  The unseen bank to the left out of the shot is blocking the sun’s direct light and instead of lighting the bank behind the camera.  This in turn is reflecting back an intense warmth on the intimate scene ahead of me.  The quality of light is softer and offers a different quality to direct light.

In the right image there are no banks of forests, but instead, mountains blocking the sun’s direct rays.  As the sun emerges from behind the rock face, an intense direct light creeps along the ground, reflecting onto a small area of bamboo.  This lifts what would otherwise be a flat scene.  In these situations, one has to anticipate or be aware of what’s coming and work quickly.

Photographing in bright sunlight

More southern climates are in direct sun for a large part of the day and this makes looking for subjects more difficult.  If we only go looking with the previous templates in mind it can be a frustrating experience.  Instead, we should embrace those bright sunny conditions and a more typical available light, both to challenge ourselves and enable more photographic opportunities.  In doing so we need to find the right tool for the job.  Harsh sun can work with the right subject and it helps to select black and white for its ability to simplify the scene into deep blacks (shadows) and bright whites (highlights).

This photograph benefits from having light permeate its entirety, revealing detail across the frame.  The gritty look also helps reflect the nature of the place and works because of the balance of light and dark tones.  Black and white photography enables this.  How would this scene have looked in colour?  This kind of imagery taps into an unromantic view of landscapes that were favoured by the ‘New Topographics’.  It can be useful to sometimes know how a photo relates to historical or contemporary examples to understand the reasoning behind it.

Much of that comes from increasing your subject knowledge but also there can be descriptions shown with photos, which are suggestive of intentions and aesthetics.  Words have their place alongside some imagery.  This image of the salt and sand piles wouldn’t sit well within a set idealising the landscape form, instead, it’s better appreciated in a ‘new landscapes’ exhibition that shows human intrusion.

Using B&W in sunny locations

The last but one photograph again uses strong shadows and shapes to define its structure.  Now within the urban landscape, the compositional effect is achieved by balancing shadows against the lighter tones.  The use of black and white here simplifies the scene and brings geometry to the fore.  Also, note how a black and white tonal range helps organise the frame into interconnecting blocks and how the distance between the left wall and frame edge and the right corner and frame edge is roughly equal.

With small compositional elements such as this, one can rarely define a location as they are often intuitive rather than conscious responses.  Only afterwards do we see why the image works.

Learning to work with the light that’s available and tailoring your photography to suit will lead you to become a more complete and contented photographer.