One of the biggest mistakes in landscape photography is to think that the best light appears just around sunset or sunrise. You could get the best light you have ever seen in your life straight around noon, as well. This is what you have to consider.
After some rainy days in Slovenia, I decided to drive down to Tuscany in Italy. It also rained there the days before, which increased my chances to get breathtaking landscape photography weather with the best light, also during the day.
I arrived in Tuscany, I wanted to start my photography at one of my favorite photo spots, which is the Gladiator’s Alley in Pienza. Over the years I have learned to use my camera not just to take different snapshots, but more as a tool to expose after I have deeply thought into a composition. This is why I decided to explore my planned sunset photo spot at noon so that I was prepared for an outstanding composition for the evening. The rain over the previous days built a lot of isolated clouds, and so I decided to take my small Sony A6500 camera with me. You know, just in case there was a kind of “emergency camera” if the light would turn awesome.
I was vlogging and straight at that moment as I was explaining the importance of light to my audience, I saw the cloud shadows rolling in towards the scene I wanted to photograph. I just threw down my vlogging camera, grabbed my emergency camera for photography, framed up a composition, and took the shot. It was half-past one at that time and the light was outstanding. Some minutes later everything looked flat and boring. What happened?
Quality of Light
It is a big mistake to think that the quality of light in landscape photography would be just given through the low sun like is the case around sunrise or sunset. This would lead to more oranges and reds in the spectrum of light though, as blue is scattered in the atmosphere. And this indeed dunks the landscape in enchanting colors, but there are other criteria that define the quality of light. The most important one in my experience is contrast. And this is what made the first image above.
I simply used the gaps between the shadows as light spots to illuminate those parts of my composition that add to the flow. The illuminated meadow at the bottom left is quite important. It has a high visual weight and catches the viewer’s attention. This works only because the area behind was dunked into shadow. This is how contrast is defined: the difference between bright and dark areas. As the thicker cypress trees at the bottom right are quite dark, they draw the viewer’s eyes to that area as well and the light spot on the left side of the midground meadow supports the view along the road, back to the farmhouse. I saw the cloud shadows forming this formation and just waited some seconds to get the entire meadow at the left midground in the shadow, but having the bushes in the foreground layer still illuminated, to get the needed contrast for creating this amazing sense of depth. The light was just superb. It couldn’t even be better, especially for this composition.
Light as a Component of Your Composition
I was happy with the first photograph I got around noon and I knew already that it would be hard to get better light for that scene. But I followed my plan to return there in the evening with my Sony a7R IV anyway, as I also knew one important thing: light alone is not enough. You need to nail the composition as well.
To be honest, I was lucky that I started already to think about a rough composition before the cloud shadows rolled in at noon, so I was already a bit prepared for getting a strong composition, but I was sure that I would get an even better composition when I tried again later. I think that I nailed the composition at noon though, but I was sure, that the same composition would not work for sunset. Why?
The light in the noon shot didn’t build textures in the landscapes, which are created with a lower light source from the side. The sun was high and the texture of the meadows itself looked flat. The only reason it didn’t look flat overall was the contrasts of the cloud shadows that built interesting textures. But they led also to a very specific visual weight. For the first photograph, it was all about balancing the three light spots on the left bottom, in the left midground meadow, and right beside the farmhouse.
In the evening the shadows were not built through clouds, but through the hills of the landscape and through bushes and trees. This led to a totally different appearance of the entire scene. The left side of the hill appeared already with deep shadows which led together with the distant mountain to a larger visual weight on the left side of the frame. This is why I decided to take more of the right part of the illuminated meadow into my frame for the evening shot, to get the scene nicely balanced. Light changes everything, not only the mood but also the visual weight in a composition.
Amazing light doesn’t only appear at sunrise or sunset. You can use a thinner layer of clouds to get shadows on your landscape to get awesome contrasts, and in the best case to support the flow of your composition.
To enjoy the entire adventure and to get a lot more tips about landscape photography, watch the above-mentioned video. And feel free to leave us a comment below about how you experienced the best light you have ever seen in your life. What is the best shot you have taken that isn't during either golden hour? Share it in the comment section below.