Tips For Landscape Photography In Hard Light

You’ll often hear people say that landscape photography is best done at sunrise and sunset – and to forget about taking photos in the middle of the day. This is because the light is typically harsh and hard at this time, particularly on those bright summer days with clear, blue skies. Of course, you should always be wary when someone tells you not to do something in photography, as breaking the ‘rules’ often means capturing images in unique and unexpected ways. A perfect example of this is taking photos in nature during the day – with hard, harsh light offering an amazing opportunity to take some captivating images.

A Tricky Situation

Firstly, lets talk about the problems you’ll face when taking landscape photos in difficult lighting. One issue when photographing in daylight is contrast, that is, the difference between your bright and dark tones. It can be tricky to preserve data in both ends of this spectrum, so often a compromise needs to be made. This problem is amplified in busy environments like landscapes, where there are lots of individual elements in the scene that are competing for our attention and also casting shadows over each other. We need to find a way to both simplify our compositions and also deal with the technical issue of contrast.

A typical scene on a sunny day in the forest – bright highlights and dark shadows can make for tricky exposures, but ultimately dramatic shots.

Exposure

The first big question is how to get accurate exposures in these contrasty environments. Luckily there is a combination of camera settings that should have you nailing your exposure with every shot, although you’ll need to jump off simple automatic to use them. They are:

  • A priority mode (likely aperture priority)
  • Spot metering
  • Automatic exposure lock (AEL)
  • Exposure compensation

If you are unfamiliar with these terms or where to find them on your camera, have a look in your manual. They are fairly universal terms and should be used by any of the major brands of camera. Of course, you also have the option to shoot full manual exposure too, however be aware that this will slow the whole process down and you’ll likely spend more time fiddling with your settings than taking photos.

The Priority Modes

Priority modes allow you to manually set one factor in the ‘exposure triangle’ and let the camera work out the others for you. Camera’s typically have both an Aperture and Shutter Priority mode on the mode dial, with the name of each indicating the thing that you control. Aperture Priority is typically more useful for landscape photography, as this allows you to control the spacial qualities of the image, however you may find yourself switching to Shutter Priority when time factors become more important, such as when shooting fast moving wildlife. You can make life easy for yourself by leaving your ISO on automatic when using wither of these two modes so that the camera has more wiggle room to adjust your exposure settings. As there is so much light around in the middle of the day the ISO should always stay fairly low, and we rarely need to worry about losing image quality due to image noise.

In Aperture Priority you control the aperture, the camera controls the rest. This allows you to change the depth of field (the range of the scene that’s in focus) and do things like blur out the background. This photo was shot at f/5.6.

In Shutter Priority you control the shutter speed, the camera controls the rest. This allows you freeze or blur movement in your shot. Fast moving subject like butterflies need quick shutter speeds, with this photo taken at 1/500th of a second.

Spot Metering, Exposure Locking and Exposure Compensation

Next you’ll want to change how the camera actually reads the light when it determines what the correct exposure is. We do this by choosing spot metering. Now instead of analysing everything in your scene, the camera only looks at a small portion of the image (usually the middle) and meters the brightness from this. What you’ll want to do is point your spot meter towards the highlights (brightest spots) in your image and use these to calculate the correct exposure. This means the camera won’t get confused by all the dark shadows and leave you with images that look boring and washed out.

This is our exposure using the camera’s default metering mode. We’ve ended up with a washed out looking image and blown out highlights.
By instead using spot metering, and pointing the meter at the bright parts of the image, we can exposure properly for the highlights and capture a much more dramatic shot.

You might be wondering how you point the centre of your camera at a bright spot but also frame the image in a way that creates a pleasing composition? Luckily there is a little known button on your camera that will help us with this, the Automatic Exposure Lock (AEL) button. Pressing the button will lock in the exposure at the moment which it is clicked. What this means is that we can point our spot meter towards a highlight, lock in this exposure with the AEL button, and then recompose our photo to whatever composition we choose. You may also want to use Exposure Compensation to  slightly adjust  your exposures from here, with somewhere between 0 and +1 being sufficient to fine tune things.

This method of shooting is called exposing for your highlights. Highlights are generally the things we most want to protect, as it is easily to lose data in bright pixels than it is in dark ones. Think of the sun as casting many spotlights into your scene like some sort of natural theatre. Position yourself and your subject so they are illuminated by bright light against a dark shadow in the background, which will help separate them from the chaotic environment and really make them pop.

Colour

Preserving colour when shooting in the middle of the day is a much simpler process, and involves changing your White Balance from the default of auto white balance to daylight. White Balance is a setting on your camera that is always trying to neutralise the colour of light. This means if you point your camera towards something with a really intense colour (such as the greens of leaves or the blue of the sky) your camera will try and offset this colour in an attempt to capture something neutral. Setting your white balance manually to daylight tells the camera the colour of the light you are actually shooting under, rather than what it wrongly perceives, meaning the colours that it captures will more accurately reflect what you see in front of you.

When using Auto White Balance, the camera see the significant blue portion of the image and tries to neutralise the light, adding in yellow and washing out the blue.
Daylight White Balance preserves the original colours of the scene, leaving a much more intense blue in the sky that complements the orange of the moss nicely.

The Creative Side

Now that we’ve got the technical stuff out of the way, the next thing to do is talk about some of the creative things you can do with hard and harsh light. Often this light can make a scene overwhelming, causing us to think there isn’t any possibility for a good shot. However by working with the light and shadow, rather than against it, and by focusing on the little details, we can start to find amazing images in even the most chaotic environments.

Backlighting

When we photograph things we are typically capturing reflected light, that is, light that bounces off our subject and back into the camera. However a surprising amount of things in nature are actually translucent. Rather than capture light reflecting off these subjects, we can instead capture the light that passes through them. This is where backlighting comes in, and it will make your photos absolutely pop! Try and position yourself behind things like leaves or flowers so that the light from the sun is shining through, rather than onto them. This will make the colours of that leaf absolutely explode, bringing out a level of vibrancy that would never be possible with regular reflected light.

Look up and look down

We often get complacent when it comes to taking photographs and take every image from eye level with the camera pointed forwards. Pointing the camera directly up or down however can lead to some interesting images. On a clear day, the bright blue of the sky offers a spectacular background for subjects which are above you. Find some interesting compositions within the canopy and think of colours that work well with the rich and vibrant blue. Hard light also brings out the texture of things, which is great when pointing your camera directly towards the ground. Use this to create abstract compositions of dirt and debris and again think about how you can use colour to make your photos pop. When shooting this way be careful with your subjects and don’t let them get too chaotic, always making sure there is one particular element or section which holds your viewers interest.

Shadows as Subject

In bright conditions shadows will always unavoidable, and if you try and find photos without them you’ll just end up driving yourself insane. Instead of fighting the shadows, try and work with them, using the interesting patterns and shapes they create as the focus within your shot. Black and white works really well for these kinds of photos, as this forces us to focus on tone and texture rather than be distracted by colour.

Sunstars

Sunstars are a unique effect created by lightsources when the lenses iris gets really small. The easiest way to achieve this is to use Aperture Priority and choose a narrow aperture – which is actually a large number. You’ll start to notice sunstars creep in anywhere past f/11, however the larger the number the larger the star will be. Point your camera towards the sun an position yourself so that it just kisses the edge of your subject, creating this effect.

A couple of warnings however – doing this can damage the sensor of your camera if you are using a mirrorless system (you should be fine however with a dSLR). Narrow apertures also bring out the presence of sensor dust. Although dust doesn’t cause any damage, the spots they create will an unsightly side effect.

Look for the little things

We mentioned before that landscapes are often chaotic environments where many elements are competing for your attention. An easy way to get around this is to simplify your compositions and look for small, interesting details in the landscape rather than trying to get everything at once. When you start looking for the little things you’ll notice all sorts of interesting colours, shapes and patterns that will give you endless fodder to photograph.

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