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Why Shadows Are Key To Great Landscape Photographs

Canon 5D-MKII: 16:19, 1/320, f/8, ISO-100 A cairn of rocks marking the post box walk to Cox's Battery on St Helena. Shadows work brilliantly here to bring out the sharp shapes of the rocks and highlight the surface patterns.

Canon 5D-MKII: 16:19, 1/320, f/8, ISO-100
A cairn of rocks marking the post box walk to Cox’s Battery on St Helena. Shadows work brilliantly here to bring out the sharp shapes of the rocks and highlight the surface patterns.

PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS FOR OUTDOORS | Darrin Henry

Recognising good photography light is sometimes confusing for beginners. I mean, early afternoon with clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine is when scenery looks fantastic, doesn’t it? Isn’t this a good time to take a picture?

What The Camera Can Do

In fact, in most cases this turns out to be the worst time to photograph landscapes. Reason being, our cameras don’t cope well with the strong contrast between the glare and shadows that midday sunlight creates.

When the sun is lower in the sky the contrasts are more gentle, this allows cameras to cope better and capture an even balance of bright parts (sky, white buildings etc) and the darker areas (trees, buildings etc.)

Canon 5D-MKII: 09:37, 1/250, f/14, ISO-200 Start of summer in Company Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa. The monument shadow is falling away to the right but even at 9:37am the light is already becoming intense. The blue sky with the 'table cloth' cloud over Table Mountain in the background was a lovely bonus for this shot.

Canon 5D-MKII: 09:37, 1/250, f/14, ISO-200
Start of summer in Company Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa. The monument shadow is falling away to the right but even at 9:37am the light is already becoming intense. The blue sky with the ‘table cloth’ cloud over Table Mountain in the background was a lovely bonus for this shot.

An easy method I use to help me recognise good landscape light is to look for shadows. Let me explain.

Shadows Make Photographs Better

Preferred conditions for capturing most outdoor scenes (landscapes, architecture, street scenes, etc) is early mornings or late afternoons. Identify good shadows and chances are you have good light conditions. But what are good shadows?

Longer shadows are generally going to be better, it automatically means the sun is lower in the sky.

Sharp edges on the shadow is good, it indicates direct sunlight without cloud interference.

Canon 40D: 16:55, 1/320, f/10, ISO-400 The south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. The sheer scale of this place made it a challenge to convey in a photograph. Photography got better as the shadows grew longer and this location worked quite well with people in the foreground helping with the scale.

Canon 40D: 16:55, 1/320, f/10, ISO-400
The south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. The sheer scale of this place made it a challenge to convey in a photograph. Photography got better as the shadows grew longer and this location worked quite well with people in the foreground helping with the scale.

Position and direction is important. You don’t want the shadows coming towards you; as you point the camera they should fall any direction away in an arc from hard left all the way around to hard right.

Shadows also add depth, compensating for the ‘flat’ effect; the lack of 3D we get with photographs.

That’s the basic idea. I’ve included examples here, with camera settings for fellow nerds who find this data useful.

Breaking The Rules In Photography

Remember though, photography tips are always just that, tips – keep your mind (and eye) open for the creative moment where you need to do the complete opposite to convention. Harsh midday sun might suit the look you’re shooting or the shadows that fall straight toward you could work perfectly in a particular situation.

That’s the theory, now go outdoors and practise! The secret hides in the shadows!

Canon 5D-MKII: 07:10, 1/250, f/14, ISO-200 The volcanic coastline of Sandy Bay on St Helena Island, photographed from on top of the Sandy Bay Barn. To capture the light (and shadows) at this time of day meant a really hike, setting off before dawn. The shape of the hills are clear to see in this picture because of the shadows defining the outline.

Canon 5D-MKII: 07:10, 1/250, f/14, ISO-200
The volcanic coastline of Sandy Bay on St Helena Island, photographed from on top of the Sandy Bay Barn. To capture the light (and shadows) at this time of day meant a really early hike, setting off before dawn. The shape of the hills are clear to see in this picture because of the shadows defining the outline.

These pictures were taken on the same walk to Sandy Bay Barn on St Helena, a week earlier, when the weather turned completely overcast by the time we reached the post box. Without the sunlight and shadows the landscape photo was never going to work, which meant hiking back on another day for the shot we saw earlier. Sometimes you have to put in a lot of work for good landscape lighting!

These pictures were taken on the same walk to Sandy Bay Barn on St Helena, a week earlier, when the weather turned completely overcast by the time we reached the post box. Without the sunlight and shadows the landscape photo was never going to work, which meant hiking back on another day for the shot we saw earlier. Sometimes you have to put in a lot of work for good landscape lighting!

Canon 5D-MKIII: 18:03, 1/320, f/14, ISO-200 Breaking all the rules again with this shot, shooting directly into the late afternoon sunshine on this ferry ride in Toronto, Canada. The long shadows became a feature of this photograph as the students int the foreground were silhouetted against the city skyline.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 18:03, 1/320, f/14, ISO-200
Breaking all the rules again with this shot, shooting directly into the late afternoon sunshine on this ferry ride in Toronto, Canada. The long shadows became a feature of this photograph as the students in the foreground were silhouetted against the city skyline.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 14:24, 1/250, f/16, ISO-200 I love weather conditions like this; dark, brooding clouds overhead but sunlight flooding the foreground, it just allows the most dramatic photographs to be captured. This was taken during our day in the City of Oxford, UK, in 2015. Even though it was a little early in the afternoon, the shadows were surprisingly long. Keep an eye out for these conditions, you're bound to get some great images.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 14:24, 1/250, f/16, ISO-200
I love weather conditions like this; dark, brooding clouds overhead but sunlight flooding the foreground, it just allows the most dramatic photographs to be captured. This was taken during our day in the City of Oxford, UK, in 2015. Even though it was a little early in the afternoon, the shadows were surprisingly long. Keep an eye out for these conditions, you’re bound to get some great images.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 09:02, f/250, f/16, ISO-200 St Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Summer in the US you really need to get our early for photography as the sun gets high in the sky very quickly. We just about made it in time to photograph this beautiful cathedral. A little later and the white facade would have reflected the sunlight so intensly that the foreground/background balance would have been lost.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 09:02, f/250, f/16, ISO-200
St Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Summer in the US you really need to get our early for photography as the sun gets high in the sky very quickly. We just about made it in time to photograph this beautiful cathedral. A little later and the white facade would have reflected the sunlight so intensely that the foreground/background balance would have been lost.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 07:40, 1/320, f/13, ISO-200 Shadows on this World War One memorial in the town of Vicksburg, Misissippi, really help bring texture and three-dimensional depth of the sculpture.

Canon 5D-MKIII: 07:40, 1/320, f/13, ISO-200
Shadows on this World War One memorial in the town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, really help bring texture and three-dimensional depth of the sculpture.

Canon 5D-MKII: 08:33, 1/320, f/11, ISO-200. Early morning on the sun deck of the RMS St Helena on voyage to Cape Town. Early morning light at its best giving a nice balance between the foreground detail and the sky. The long shadows are clearly visible in this picture.

Canon 5D-MKII: 08:33, 1/320, f/11, ISO-200.
Early morning on the sun deck of the RMS St Helena on voyage to Cape Town. Early morning light at its best giving a nice balance between the foreground detail and the sky. The long shadows are clearly visible in this picture.

Canon 5D-MKIII 18:34, f/250, f/8, ISO-400 The dark sky and sunlit foreground made this shot irresistible, even from inside the car. Taken during our US road trip, driving towards Harrisburg in Pennsylvannia.

Canon 5D-MKIII 18:34, f/250, f/8, ISO-400
The dark sky and sunlit foreground made this shot irresistible, even from inside the car. Taken during our US road trip, driving towards Harrisburg in Pennsylvania.

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