Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Light is a photograph’s key ingredient—it’s literally the only reason an image can exist. Upon clicking the shutter, light enters the camera, transferring the image it hits onto the film or transforming into electric signals that then turn into the pixels in a digital photograph. Without light, there is no photograph.

White House in Arnarstapi Harbor, Iceland - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

An overcast sky creates a soft landscape with no shadows.

Understanding the three characteristics of natural light will help you use the light to your advantage and make images with an impact no matter what conditions you have to work with.

The Quality of Light

By quality of light, I am referring to how hard or soft the light is.

Hard light happens during midday when the sun is high in the sky and there are no clouds to filter the light. This kind of light is harsh and bright, but it can also create interesting shadows and contrast.

Shadow on the Dunes - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

Harsh mid-afternoon light casts a dramatic shadow on this sand dune emphasizing its shape.

Soft light happens on a cloudy day when the clouds diffuse the light making it even with no shadows or bright spots. It also occurs in the shade.

Even on a day when there are no clouds, when the sun is lower in the sky the light passes through more atmosphere which softens the light. This is why golden light at the edges of the day is softer then midday light.

The Color of Light

The color of natural light from the sun changes during the course of the day. Before the sun rises, when the first light of the day appears in the sky, the light is a cool blue. During sunrise, the light is golden. As the sun gets higher in the sky, it is bright with little color tint at all.

Organ Pipe Cactus - Beginner’s Guide to Natural Light in Landscape Photography

During Golden Hour, the last of the day’s light casts a warm golden light on these cacti.

At the end of the day the opposite thing happens. When the sun is low on the horizon before sunset, you get the golden glow. After sunset is twilight when the light is a cool blue (blue hour).

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