Playing with light

Photography, as a technique, is far less powerful than our visual abilities, especially when it comes to landscapes.

Landscape is, from this point of view, the worst kind of genre: we cannot adjust the lighting as in a studio, the diversity of materials and subjects is constant, everything is constantly moving and changing, the location of things is random, nothing is movable or interchangeable, volumes and sizes are enormous…

The cohabitation of air and clay, wood and water, shadow and light is totally familiar to us, elementary to grasp, but for the chemistry of a film or the circuits of a sensor, it is a set of contradictions and radically different physical properties.

Light caresses, bounces, penetrates, crosses, gets stuck, ricochets, amplifies, disappears, in an infinity of variations, as if each leaf, each stone, each puddle had its own voice, its own song.

Magnificent symphony for our eyes, cacophony for the photographic medium.

The more diverse the notes are, the higher the volume (light intensity), and the more difficult the recording will be.

On the contrary, a simple tune gently whistled will be captured in its slightest variations.

It is therefore not by chance that many professionals always photograph in the morning or dusk hours: in addition to the flattering colors, they avoid the tedious gymnastics of corrections, and obtain perfectly homogeneous images.

With light, as with composition, one does not always seek to respect reality.

Creativity also requires a transformation, and therefore a shaping of the ambient light conditions.

Just as some focal lengths exaggerate or reinforce perspectives, you have different ways to dose and characterize light, starting with exposure management. 


Widely used for “fashion” portraits, overexposure gives the model a smoother face by erasing skin imperfections.

The same principle can be applied to landscapes, especially when blurring a background that is brighter than the main subject.

This will be the case for images made in undergrowth, when the canopy lets the outside light through.

By setting the exposure to the forest canopy, you will strongly overexpose the gaps of light, which will then take on an almost religious dimension, while drowning the background.

Outside this type of situation, a slight overexposure (+0.5 to 1 EV) can reinforce the ethereal aspect of pastel or misty atmospheres.

In these cases, explore the realm of grain (or noise associated with high sensitivities) and low contrast, using a high ISO setting and/or your camera’s Portrait or Neutral mode.

Twilight is a great classic in landscape photography. It can last until after sunset. On this Camargue pond, the water seems to change into lava. The warm colors respond to the bluish ranges in a fascinating gradation.
One can voluntarily overexpose even a sunset. Here, we can still guess the sun very low on the horizon of the Dead Sea, despite the strong luminosity.  (+2.5 IL). The adoption of a desaturated colorimetric profile reinforces the timeless character of this landscape. The somewhat milky atmosphere accentuates the Zen side of this motionless expanse.


This is the technique most used in landscape photography, which mainly results in greater color saturation.

In order not to affect the reading of the image, the underexposure must remain light (-0.5 EV) and the low lights must be quite discreet.
This technique is all the more relevant as it applies to large formats of shooting.

Indeed, with their larger surface area, prints larger than 24 × 36 cm always appear a little brighter and a little less saturated, because of the more legible and detailed low lights.
More underexposure can also considerably improve the mood of a photo.

Paradoxically, it is by lowering the overall brightness that we manage to illuminate a scene: only the most intense subject then takes over.

This is the favorite register of the Spot meter, which isolates and focuses attention on a key area.

Use this technique to dramatize a landscape by introducing large dark areas.

The bay of Mont-Saint-Michel takes on an unexpected magnitude thanks to a cleverly dosed underexposure (-1 IL). The light caresses the sky and the water, restoring every detail of the trailing sky. The sun clearly stands out beside the Mont, letting every shade of orange express itself. The blacks become deep and serve the contrast of the composition.

The ultimate degree of underexposure is that of chiaroscuro and American night.

Revealed by François Truffaut in the cinema in “La Nuit américaine”, this ploy consists in strongly under-exposing an image (1.5 EV) to the point of creating an impression of generalized penumbra in broad daylight.

This effect is automatically obtained with strong backlighting: the camera then compensates for the strong dominant luminosity by greatly reducing the exposure.

Note that a Spot metering on an area of full sun in a shady environment will give the same result.

Typical use of the American night in this e photograph taken inside a restaurant. The objective was to erase the details of the interior to exploit only the graphics of the bay windows and the silhouette of the character. A strong underexposure (-2.5 EV) allowed to show only the bluish tones of the torrent roaring outside.

The diaphragm

There are other ways to play with light, without affecting the exposure.

First of all, the diaphragm can help you create nice effects.
As we have seen, a correct exposure is the synthesis of an optimal speed-diaphragm couple;

this couple, which determines a certain amount of light, is not fixed for all that.

Thus, the setting f/8 to 1/125 s will let the same amount of light pass through as f/11 to 1/90 s: a smaller aperture is simply compensated by a slower speed.

The depth of field and the ability to freeze the movement are then modified, but not the accuracy of the exposure.

This principle being acquired, the aperture of the diaphragm has real influences on the dispersion of light.
Note that large apertures create diffuse and nebulous backgrounds (and foregrounds): the light and colored shapes seem to spread out like watercolor on a blotter, overflowing onto the nearby contours.

Conversely, a small diaphragm ( f/16) creates sparkling effects, with small, tapered rays: the slightest patch of sunlight filtering through the branches is then transformed into a starry diamond.

It is the same for night-time illuminations or intense reflections.

For the effect to be convincing, the light must arrive directly and from the front on the subject.

Of course, it will only be visible on the final photo, not in the viewfinder.

Do not zoom in on the solar disk in the middle of the day without a protective filter, otherwise you risk serious eye damage – and incidentally damage to your cell.

The use of a large aperture (f/4) allowed blurring the scene in the background. Only the raindrops on the glass are clear and materialize the presence of a glass.
Note the stars formed by the lamp posts, characteristic of the choice of a small diaphragm (f/16). In these conditions, the tripod is essential to ensure long exposure.

The flare

Another phenomenon, which optical engineers strive to minimize, can bring more life to your images: ” The flare”.

This is the stray reflections generated by light when it hits the lens at a certain angle.

This is because glass lenses break down the sun’s rays into several colored layers, like a prism.

This gives a more or less tight alignment of small hexagons that seem to float in space …

Contrary to the effect described above, this phenomenon is perfectly visible in the viewfinder.

Lenses are precisely treated to minimize this type of aberration, but the integral parry does not exist.

Indeed, with a light source close to the axis of view, the flare appears quickly.

Usually, you should take care to avoid this parasitic light that disturbs the contrasts, but playing with this diffraction can introduce a live dimension in your landscapes, which will be immediately associated with a certain spontaneity, the naturalness of an image taken on the spot.

These reflections are so authentic that they are recreated with great computer effort in computer-generated images or cartoons.
As it is an optical physical phenomenon, it is strongly associated with photography and cinema in the minds of viewers.
It is, in a way, a means to materialize light, to give it a geometric consistency.

This effect blends particularly well with the wild, rather desolate landscapes and the great outlooks.

It introduces a graphic element that resembles a vanishing line that restores depth.

Here is a perfect example of flare. The effect is usually visible in the viewfinder, it just tends to be even more pronounced in the photograph. This kind of phenomenon, which appears with the sun in front, is very aesthetic when it is controlled. Usually, the sun visor is designed to avoid this parasitic effect.

Take advantage of the ambient light

You can also take advantage of certain lights to strongly color your images.

Sunsets, for example, cling particularly to the stone in all its forms: from golden yellow to blood red, the uniform hue seems to be aimed only at this material, ignoring the rest of the landscape.

At dusk, before it gets really dark, it is a deep blue that will drown everything: in the absence of any other source of artificial light, only radiation close to UV light still filters through the darkness and will impress your photograph.

The darker it gets, the more you’ll want to voluntarily overexpose the shot by 0.5 to 1 EV to keep it legible.
Exposure times will be long and the colored effect will be difficult to perceive with the naked eye. 

The Filters

If you prefer a strong pink or green cast, there may be a few exceptional circumstances that will make you enjoy it once or twice in your life, but it will be easier to use filters.

Cokin or other brands offer a very complete range of shades, with different gradations for each color.

Each hue is identified by a number and one or two letters: the number is the color number, the letter indicates the density (from A, for the lightest filters, to EF for the darkest).

You will find round filters to be screwed on the lens, or squares that slide on a plastic support (itself screwed).

The most expensive filters are made of glass, but most of them are made of plastic (“organic glass”);

there are also gelatin filters (made of thin plastic, very cheap).

Some can imitate a sunset (thanks to an orange gradient), others a rainbow.

Choose square filters that are large enough to cover the outer lens of your lenses – use the largest diameter you have.

Here is an example of the use of color filters. The first shot is taken in natural colors, the second with a yellow filter, the third with a blue filter. The three atmospheres remain plausible, simply evoking different lights or times of day. This is the condition so that the filters do not give a stalked look to your images.

Be careful, for a color filter to be welcome, it must be invisible to the unprofessional eye, i.e. it must be imperceptible to the untrained eye.

Be aware that the most natural shades are also the most discreet;

it is thus advisable to adopt light, almost pastel densities.

Thus, magenta, green, yellow and blue will find their place in your material.

The principle is to always use a filter in adequacy with the colors of the photographed medium: an undergrowth bathed in green remains logical, but a purple sky will strike the spectator …

Also know how to agree with the weather or the type of luminosity.

Indeed, you should accentuate an already emerging trend and not go “backwards” from the conditions of the moment.

For example, accentuate in blue a stormy scene or a foggy coastline, but don’t introduce pink under a bright sun or a humid forest…

Note that yellow acts more as a mood “warmer” than as a dominant color. 

The filters get dirty (due to fingerprints) and scratch easily.
They should therefore be stored and handled with care.
Do not hesitate to change them if necessary. 

The Best Lights for Landscape Photography

Light remains the absolute heroine of a landscape.

Like some influential people, it is better to have it on its side …

Some configurations guarantee magnificent results, but be aware that a landscape is much more than a simple luminous conjunction.

In a way, photography is an art of form, light itself being only the surface of that form.

Stormy conditions

The palm probably comes back to the stormy conditions.

If it is still a bit risky to go out under the lightning, I strongly encourage you to open your eyes every time the horizon darkens.

The key to success is the sky.

Heavy, hemmed, dark, etc., it is a machine for sculpting light, giving it exceptional quality.

Underneath, the landscape seems more intense, the hues deeper ;

rare fact, the black clouds balance the earth/sky light ratio and serve a perfectly controlled exposure.

At sea, the wind creates impressive waves, every detail of which can be perceived – a varnish of rain sublimates every patch of vegetation.

The peak is reached when a ray of sunlight filters down to the ground.

The effect is magical, no matter which part of the landscape is illuminated, but above all in open terrain.

As far as exposure is concerned, a Spot metering on the illuminated area gives the scene the look of a cathedral or the creation of the world.

Some stormy skies defy imagination. That day, above the Château de Fontainebleau, it seemed like the end of the world… A dazzling spectacle whose Multizone measurement is generally well performed. On digital cameras, the Saturation color mode is recommended for this kind of configuration.

Some stormy skies defy imagination.

That day, above the Château de Fontainebleau, it seemed like the end of the world…

A dazzling spectacle whose Multizone measurement is generally well performed.

On digital cameras, the Saturation color mode is recommended for this kind of configuration.

Stay extremely careful in open areas and especially in the mountains.
Indeed, photos must be taken before or after the passage of thunder ;
during, take shelter, especially with a tripod which can make a nice lightning rod .

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Dawn and dusk

Then come the extremities of the day: dawn and dusk deliver warm, moderate, particularly flattering lights adapted to the technical constraints of photography.

The morning offers subtle and light hues, and in the evening warm and contrasting colors.

The symbolism differs according to the moment: birth, awakening, restart and virginity for the aurora ;

the ultimate radiation, the decline, the appeasement and the blaze for the setting.

All these lights are fascinating, like an ideal world, more beautiful, softer, more intense.

The calmness that reigns then enhances the landscapes a lot.

The Multizone measurement is very effective in these situations. 

A sunset is not always orange, as the one overlooking this beach in Lisbon proves.

The logic of location is particularly justified for this daily mechanism: with a clear sky, and over a short period of time, the light will spread in exactly the same way every day.

“It’s not the right time…

! “Like a fisherman who comes back empty-handed, the unlucky photographer will always have the fantasy of those miraculous hours.

Don’t forget that nature also has a thousand things to offer you in the middle of the day.

Even if the images are seductive, it is distressing to lock yourself into a schedule, in the name of efficiency or stereotypical aesthetics.

Photography must indeed remain a mode of communion with the landscape, an opening, an act of attention and permanent discovery.

Midday lights

In the middle of the day, the brightness of the good weather also works wonders, but it is mostly a matter of season.

In summer, the big blue can be perfect thanks to a polarizing filter 

With well-colored subjects, the contrasts will then be striking.

By exploiting the transparency of the water, the whiteness of the sand and the purity of the sky, you can build heavenly images by the sea.

The secret is simply to introduce as few shadows as possible in order to keep a perfect readability of the scene, and to remain vigilant on the exposure.

In spring and autumn, the sun is lower and the light less intense.

This softness is to be exploited for more serene atmospheres, particularly in relation to vegetation and architecture.

For example, forests, gardens, parks and castles are then enhanced.

The shadows are more legible and can be more closely integrated into the compositions.
In winter, snowy landscapes shine with a thousand lights.

The strong contrast with the blue of the sky and the perfectly transparent air brings a breath of purity and precision.

If the snow has fallen during the night, covering trees and roofs, the effect will be even stronger.

Note the very bluish rendering of the shadows, which is very aesthetic.

For this type of scene, automatic exposure is unreliable.

The Spot metering (sky, vegetation…) can be used for this type of scene.

) or a voluntary overexposure are essential.

Finally, a UV or polarizing filter is recommended.

The end of the day always works miracles with its warm and summery hues. The quarries of Rustrel are in perfect harmony with this yellowish atmosphere.

In the absence of snow, the winter sun also enhances the value of wetlands and lakes, as well as all forms of frost and frost (especially in backlighting).

If the pure, azure blue sky retains its supporters, a few well-patterned white clouds will give more consistency and relief to the landscape.

They are also very useful to introduce depth into an image that lacks perspective.

Brume and fog

The perfect reading of a landscape is not an obligation.

Mist and fog are capable of sublimating many scenes.

The light is scattered, diffused in clouds that erase the contours of the distance;

the air becomes consistent, as if the heavens had descended to earth in cloudy processions.

More than the air, it is the light itself that becomes palpable: by clinging to the particles of humidity, it reveals itself in all the space it crosses.

All this is highly charged with symbolism;

the elements of the landscape seem to emerge from a matrix, perfectly virgin and new, generated by the mist itself. 

On this autumn afternoon, this lake of the Hautes-Alpes gives all its measure in a hole of light. When the warmth of the hues is not the result of a light at the end of the day, it may come from the landscape itself and its vegetation.

Moors, lakes and marshes are subjects of first choice, true sources of magic. 
Remember those magicians who make a character appear in the middle of a cloud of smoke…

For this magic to work, the fog must not be too compact, it must begin to dissipate slightly.

The first shots must be clearly discernible ;

the spectator must feel that the fog is rising, not that it is getting stronger.

When it is very light, it works miracles in the undergrowth: the first rays of the sun take on the consistency of laser rays or divine light (make a spot measurement on the ray).

Caution: strong foggy dominants require a voluntary overexposure of 0.5 IL. 

In this Norwegian landscape, the mist softens the edges of the relief and scatters the bluish background of the air. A slight voluntary overexposure (+0.5 to 1 IL) allowed to keep the original luminosity. 
In the forest, the fog is an ally of choice. It brings mystery, enchantment, and deposits a varnish of moisture that illuminates the mosses and foliage.

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