Dramatic landscape photography: the secret to adding impact with natural light

Dramatic landscape photography: setting the right white balance

Landscape photography is one of the most popular subjects for photographers. Even if you live in a big city, you don’t have to go too far to find nice countryside or coastal vistas, and scenic shoots are a great way to make the most of the capabilities of your DSLR. But serious landscape photography raises some questions.

How should you set up your camera? What white balance setting is best? Which metering mode, and more? We’ve broken down everything you need to know about the importance of good lighting to help you shoot stunning landscapes.

In this tutorial we’ll show you some of the best camera settings for dramatic landscape photography and how you can use the natural light more creatively.

Dramatic landscape photography: the secret to adding impact with natural light

Where’s the sun?

Most people assume photographers want to shoot with the sun behind them so the light falls onto the subject.

This does produce the richest colours, but there are times when exactly the opposite can create great results.

Dramatic lighting: what is 'contre jour'?

So don’t be afraid to try shooting into the light, also known as shooting ‘contrejour’, as demonstrated above.

Shoot towards the light and your camera’s light meter might get confused by the concentrated area of bright light in the frame – taking this pocket of light into consideration and overcompensating for it.

The result will be an image that’s underexposed and too dark. Use the Exposure Compensation function on your DSLR to ‘dial-in’ a higher exposure setting.

Dramatic lighting: how to use side lighting

Shooting with the light 
to the side of the scene creates strong shadows in your landscapes, such as above. This can accentuate the three-dimensional form of buildings and the surface texture of the land itself.

SEE MORE: 10 common landscape photography mistakes every photographer makes (and how to avoid them)

The golden hour

Dramatic landscape photography: understanding the 'golden hour'

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Most landscape photographers prefer working in the early morning or early evening.

These moments are often referred to as the ‘magic’ or ‘golden’ hours, and while it can be a drag getting out of bed so early in the morning, the subtle qualities of the light at these times will make it worth the effort.

Light can change in a matter of seconds, especially if there are fast-moving clouds in the sky.

These images of Glastonbury Tor were taken in the space of one minute. You can see how much the changing light has altered the final effect.

SEE MORE: Golden hour photography – tips for making magical landscapes at dawn

Spot metering

For more accurate metering use the Partial or Spot metering mode. With this setting your DSLR will take a light reading from a small central area of your scene. These metering modes are ideal for more challenging situations, such as backlight.

SEE MORE: Metering mode cheat sheet – how they work and when to use them

Set the right white balance

Dramatic landscape photography: setting the right white balance

All DSLRs allow you to alter white balance, so you can specify the light source of a scene (eg, Daylight or Fluorescent) for more accurate results. If you’re shooting RAW, you can change the white balance in photo-editing software, but it’s quicker to get it right in-camera.

SEE MORE: What is white balance – camera sensitivity settings and the best ways to use them

Or set the wrong one

You don’t always have to use the ‘correct’ white balance. Your DSLR’s Auto White Balance (AWB) and pre-set options (see above) are great in most circumstances, but try experimenting with different colour settings to enhance the mood of your scene.

Final Tip
Light can completely transform a scene, so be prepared to head out early or late in the day during the ‘magic’ hour.

When the sun is close to the horizon try shooting into the light to give your images an evocative feel.

You must take care with exposure, though, and check the histogram to ensure 
you have held detail in the highlight areas.

Look for fleeting light, when the sun peeps through gaps in the cloud and sends shafts of light downwards.

Planning is the key, so research your location thoroughly and choose your shooting points in advance so that you can make the most of any fleeting situation.


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