Follow the Light

Nov 9, 2013

Yes , Follow the Light.  Chasing good light is 50-75 % of effort in shooting landscapes. You read it right , fifty to seventy-five percent !  And if we thought that high end SLR cameras and fancy editing software could substitute for good light, the answer is no.

How I learnt Landscape Photography

I have never done any photography course/workshop. I began with the  book  "Understanding Exposure How to Shoot Great Photographs" by Bryan Peterson. Since then outdoor photography has been the joys of being in nature at some of the most beautiful times of the day and  hands on experience with my camera. Practice improves judgement along with boosting skills. I am still on a learning curve !

Natural light is key to Landscape photography

Landscape shots are often wide angle shots ( smaller focal lengths typically 10-24 mm). While wide sweeping vistas can be captivating, harsh lights, strong shadows pose a huge challenge in achieving an overall balanced exposure.  This is in sharp contrast to a close up shot of a flower, where one can zoom in and remove poorly lit surroundings from the composition. Similarly, a portrait shot in a studio has less dependence on natural light. Lighting accessories can help illuminate the subject and achieve desirable exposure.

Landscapes on the other hand are associated with a high dynamic range. The sky might be very bright where as the foreground may be relatively dark. Our eye pupil and iris can adjust quickly as we move them from a bright to a dark subject. The camera cannot. We set our camera to shoot at a given ISO, aperture and shutter speed and that sets the same exposure for every element in the composition (be it well lit or dim).Hence achieving good exposure is a big challenge here. Dynamic range is a vast topic in itself and I shall cover it in more detail in a separate post.

I shall also illustrate  later in this post , how good light contributes to saturation, better contrast and clarity  in the image and why editing software and high end cameras cannot substitute for it

What is seeking good light ?

Seeking good light entails tracking hourly weather forecast, awareness of sunrise and sunset times of the intended geographical destination, knowledge of terrain - plains vs mountainous (mountainous regions will have early moon/sun set and delayed moon/sun rise ) , phase of the moon (could be full moon, crescent), orientation of the intended subject of photography , monitoring of the conditions of the sky (could be movement of clouds), type of clouds , observation of change in light, color, and color temperature at different times of the day, planning to be at wee hours of the day (can be dark, cold and windy), some risk taking as locales could be desolate in those hours , driving/trekking in dark etc. Does it surprise people that even in a developed country like USA, I rarely come across female photographers at night or pre dawn in national parks, coasts etc.

Most importantly you have to enjoy being in nature and watch the drama unfold in front of your eyes. If you do, patience and effort will pay off.

What is good light and how does it help?

I shall go over a few examples of optimal light, light that is favorable for the camera to handle, light that enhances detail, clarity, color and contrast

Dawn beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the lighthouse

Pigeon point lighthouse - Had to drive for 1.5 hours in the dark on winding roads of Highway 1 to reach here before sunrise. But it was worth it. At this time it is still dark, the moon will set in an hour. The camera however captures some colors even at this time. This place is so desolate that when I arrived here, felt eerie with waves crashing and no one to be seen around. Initial instinct was like "go back" !!. But then as I stayed, I was soaked in the bliss and solitude.

It took me about 1.5 hrs of drive on the winding roads of California Hwy 1 to reach here. My goal was to arrive before  dawn and before the moon set. Felt eerie as a I stepped out of my car and walked to the lighthouse. The sea waves were roaring, it was pitch dark and not a head to be seen! Felt like retreating. 

I set up my tripod at the edge of another elevation jutting into the sea. It was hard to beat the thought - "one push from behind and I shall be on a free fall only to be devoured by the ocean!" But then as I got caught up in the setup, was easy to negate bad thoughts. 

It was still dark but the dawn streaks were good enough for the camera to capture with long exposure. At this hour, there was no disrupting strong light or shadow. The soft light helped immensely in achieving gorgeous colors and contrast. Dawn is a magic hour of the day and can transform your image into surreal beauty.

 The moon as you can see looks white, has no details of craters and its overexposure can be explained by high dynamic range. Moon is a very bright object. If I had exposed the moon correctly, the lighthouse and the surroundings would have been underexposed, almost black. Remember, it was quite dark at the time of shooting.

Other option would have been to shoot the lighthouse and the  moon separately and then paste the moon in the shot in photoshop. I don't own photoshop (CS) and I opted for a single shot. All night pictures that you may have seen  that have well exposed city scape with a well exposed supermoon (with details of the craters) are always pictures with moon pasted to the image separately. It is impossible  for the camera to expose both correctly in a single shot. 

Thun Castle in soft light after the storm

Thun castle

Above is the picture of Thun castle shot when storm was clearing and filtered sun light brightened the surroundings. There wasn't any strong sunlight, the dynamic range was low, a wonderful time to shoot. One has to grab the opportunity as such conditions do not last long. Note the clarity, contrast and color and compare it to the image below shot in clear sky, overhead sun.

Diskit, Ladakh in harsh light

Picture shot with clear skies and overhead sun. Generally the worst time to shoot panoramas.  

Observations based on the above image -

Harsh light with clear skies and overhead sun can render vistas otherwise impressive, dull and lifeless ! This is one of the worst times to shoot panoramas. 

This type of light adds haze to the picture. Leads to poor details, poor colors and low contrast. I have already applied color and contrast in the software during processing this image and this is the outcome. If I push the contrast and saturation slider further in the editing software, colors will look leaky and details will look smudged.

Even more interesting is the fact that this image is shot with Canon 6D, a much improved camera over Canon 40D used to shoot  Thun Castle and Lighthouse in soft light. A quick look will lean you towards 'Thun Castle' and the lighthouse shot when it comes to contrast , clarity , color and even details. That doesn't make Canon 6D any less, it is a fantastic camera.The takeaway is that cameras are optical instruments and will churn the output based upon your input. They cannot do magic for you.

The flaws of this image with respect to that of 'Thun Castle'  get amplified when they are viewed in full resolution. 

It is one of those shots that you know will never make it to the gallery but the location is compelling enough to shoot for memory

Sunset at Pescadero, California

December 8 - Rain and clouds at this time of the year in Northern California make for dramatic skies. Made another trip to the Pacific coast and captured some pictures during sunset. Waves striking the shores make stunning patterns!<br />
<br />
Camera- canon 40D<br />
Lens - Canon 17-55 mm<br />
Tripod -Silk Pro<br />
Processing- Shot in RAW and processed in Lightroom. No HDR. All images are single shots. To handle dynamic range, used Lee .9 graduated density filters (soft edge).

Sunset shots not only make the picture more colorful, they also enhance the contrast. The dynamic range is very high and is a challenge for camera. The sky is much brighter than the foreground. If the sky is exposed properly, the foreground will be too dark, if the foreground is exposed correctly, the sky will be washed out. It does offer an opportunity for silhouette shots but that was not of interest to me. I wanted crisp details in the rocks in the foreground and intended to showcase the beautiful patterns the waves created.

Exposing this shot has two possibilities -

1. Parts of sky blown out because of overexposure. Data for that portion is lost . No amount of software processing can recover that data. Overexposure of sky also results in loss of colors and spectacular sunset hues.

2. Underexposure of foreground but well exposed sky - You have lost details in the foreground that is unrecoverable in software processing.Brightening a very underexposed portion of your image in a software adds noise and doesn't result in impressive details,texture  as serious quality loss has already occurred when capturing the shot  

Here neutral graduated density filters come to our rescue. I used Lee .9 neutral  graduated density filter. Since it is neutral, it doesn't add any artificial hue. But it acts like a sunglass for the sky by blocking light by 3 -stops.

The end result was a balanced exposure with crisp details in the foreground and good colors in the sky because the latter wasn't overexposed. Note that the sky doesn't look as an oversaturated block of mass . It has fine patterns and tones and all that is retained. I can view this image full size and those patterns look even more impressive.


Rich, sharp details in the image  makes your image stand out even in Photoshopping age  because software cannot generate details for you.  

Overdoing saturation in software results in details and texture loss and makes the image look leaky and noisy. View the image at 100% and push the saturation slider in the editing software. Notice, how it destroys the textures, patterns and details in the skies , rocks, and just about everything. High saturation obtained as a result of correct exposure, optimal light and real conditions on the ground never compromise image quality. One may still add a little punch in the software processing without destroying the details. It is a trade off and also a matter of personal preference

Image with excessive contrast/color reworks in processing software may look pleasing in a small resolution but will show up the glitches and noise in higher resolution such as 1920x1080 , sometimes even lower if you are a practiced eye. And if we didn't care about high resolution, good to reflect why we bought that high Megapixel camera !

Landscape photography is not hit and trial. Fewer targeted shots yield better results than taking too many pictures. With decent practice, it gets easier to visualize the composition and predict the outcome

Future post

My first post was supposed to be a starter. In the next few posts will discuss gear, is this real (I keep getting this question), planning for light and landscapes, digital art or photography and more.


  • Ravi P Malhotra

    on September 29, 2017

    Thanks for an excellent write-up on outdoor photography and the nuances for great nature photographs. One needs knowledge from experienced photographers like you and zeal to capture nature's best moments.

  • KP Ganesh

    on December 2, 2013

    Thanks Shika for sharing your experience of landscape photography, putting them in the most lucid and informative manner possible, with some really stunning illustration. And thanks for your patience on twitter as well..answering few of my queries. It would be an honour to see you in action.