Tag Archives: Contrast

Landscape loves – do you know why you are photographing this scene?

Do you know why you are shooting the landscape you are looking at?

Do you know why you are shooting the landscape you are looking at? If not then you will probably not make it exciting for your viewer either. Shoot for impact.
(Click the image to see large)

A landscape ‘snap’ just does not seem to cut it…

Many landscape photos are really stimulating for the author, but few other people. The problem? It’s too easy to ‘snap’ a shot that will bring back the moment. You really need to think about what will stimulate someone else when they see the picture.

One of my favourite landscape photographers once said,

Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer, and often the supreme disappointment.

Ansel Adams
…and he was right. Most people do not have a reason to take a landscape shot that will satisfy someone else.

Insights to landscapes

Personal perspective is all important, but it can misrepresent the situation. I studied the environment when at university, including geology. I loved landscapes and knew how to read them. I could take them apart and tell you their geo-history, rock types, erosion… well, you get it, I was a geek! I loved taking pictures of landscapes. I found them beautiful and interesting. It was many years before I realised they were interesting to me because of my geeky knowledge. I realised I was taking geeky geology pictures of landscapes. I thought they were beautiful. Everyone else just did not get it. That’s the point. You should be finding elements in the landscape that capture the scene for what is attractive and what it means to everyone, not just you.


There are a number of themes that successful landscape photography hinges upon.

As with any photo, light is the key. Great light, great attraction. Early morning, sunset, dramatic weather – they all have their place. Flat mid-day, blue sky light, not so good. But even then, combined with other composition elements you can make it work.

The angle of light is important because of the creation of shadows. They define the landscape by creating bright and dark spots which really brings out the contrast in the landscape. The camera is not as versatile as our eye and a good contrast brings out the depth in a landscape picture that we can see naturally but needs to be strong for the camera.

Drama is another theme that helps a landscape picture. Think of the primal drivers of our inner being. Sunsets, uplifting because of the promise of a new day tomorrow. Storms, threatening our existence, fascinate and drive us to shelter. Dawn, captures our hopes and fears of the unknown in the new day. We all respond to these drivers. So, pick them out.

Aesthetics, what we find stimulating and uplifting. Yes, beauty is a factor. You need to find elements in the picture that are truly attractive to everyone, not just your feeling of the moment. Don’t take a shot because of a lovely moment shared with your love. Look for the attraction for everyone in this scene and capitalise on that. Show what is attractive by using composition to focus the viewer on the subject. Take a moment to consider where to take the shot to show it best. Look all around you, consider high and low, left and right. The perspective of the shot is important.

The subject is the thing you want to show most. So make sure you find ways to bring it out. Is it the danger, the beauty, the vista, the awe? Look at the landscape and sense what it is doing for you – then hunt it down with your camera. If you know why it is stimulating you, and it is a primordial driver, then you have isolated the essence of it.
More after this…


Just taking a snap is a kind of composition – even if a negative one. Remember that you are trying to create an impact others will find attractive. So, look for compositional elements that bring out your theme and then frame the shot for them.

In the shot above I was looking for ways to draw the viewer into the picture. The essence of this shot lies in the drama and the layers of the landscape. These layers make you want to go into the shot to see how the landscape changes as you go in. They give the shot depth and invite you to see what is around the next bend in the valley.

Knowing these were the reasons for my attraction to the scene informed my composition. I wanted foreground emphasis. This lead to the capture of foreground objects giving a sense of being there. In the shot on the other side of the road I could see round the corner. The scene there lost the mystery of implied discovery. The drama in the sky drew me into the distance because of the mystery in the unseen there too. Closer to me the drama in the sky created an implied threat. That was too good to lose. So I had to take several exposures so I could capture the sky without blowing it out and the hills without underexposing them. The contrast between the two was too much for the camera to capture both at once as my eye saw it. This meant I had to think about my post-processing too, including my crop. The shot was taken so I could bring out a panorama to enhance the feel of awesomeness in the landscape. A ‘letterbox’ crop gives right-left depth to complement the depth from the contrast as well as foreground, mid-ground and distance layers in the picture.

I know there are other things that made me stand right there and create this shot. The point is that I knew why I was doing it that way. I knew what it meant to me. I knew what the drivers were that would impart meaning to others. Then I composed and shot for the post processing.

One more thing. It might not surprise you to know that this photo represents a lot of time working the scene at this location. There were about 35 pictures of the general location. More takes on the exact spot of the shot. In all, there was about 50 minutes work, with tripod, to get this one shot. A ‘snap’ it was not!

Use window light for portraits

You don’t have to have strobes or flash for great light.

The quality of your shot is not proportional to how much equipment you have. You can create great shots with simple equipment and great light. Got a camera and window? You are nearly there.

In the video below you can see simple steps to create great shots often come from simple set-ups. It is the simplicity that often makes these shots work well. A great portrait shows off the subject and if the environment is understated they become the main focus. Simple light and simple props are the key.

The photographer, JP Morgan, uses lighting contrasts, hard and soft light with reflectors to manipulate the light in this portrait session. The use of the light is constantly aimed at creating shadows that flatter the face and colours that bring out the skin tones.

Although he does not mention it, look out for highlights on the skin of the subjects. Did you see any? Well, he used the light at a natural level to control the highlights. Flash often creates nasty bleached highlights on prominent features of the face. That distracts from the overall view of the face and destroys the balance. Natural light, especially soft light helps to minimise highlights and that brings out the character of the face more.

Notice that he explored the different potentials of the two girls to suit them. Skin tone, hair colour, clothes and posture were all considerations. Notice too that most of the poses were ones that suited the girls individual character. They probably had a lot of input to those positions. Remember to involve your portrait subject, they will respond better and photograph better if you work with them and make it about them.
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He worked the scene continuously. He used reflected light a lot to prevent the camera creating a silhouette against the window light. The reflector brought the natural light to the front of the shot, but toned it down. This meant there was a difference between the intensity of the window light and the subject lighting.

The creative use of shadows is great. They are endlessly fascinating to work with and they make a scene look deeper and more natural. The window frame on this shoot also made the shadows more dramatic which complemented the girls own shadow.

This video is an interesting insight to shooting with natural window light. There is also a lot about how to work with a model there too. Watch out for the way the girls seem to be enjoying themselves.

Is your shot ruined by bright white spots?

Lighting is about the balance between contrast and intensity.

Lighting is about the balance between contrast and intensity. The camera does not have the same range of light tollerance as the eye.

Lighting only works if the camera can cope.

To retain all the detail in a picture, light levels must be within the capability of the image sensor. Eyes see detail in a wider range of light intensities. The camera is quite limited in its range.

If you want to be able to see, for example, detail under the trees in shadow, and detail in the cloud, you need to take two exposures. One for the sky and one for the shadow. Then you can combine them in post processing. This is because a bright sky and a dark shady area is too much of a range of contrasts for the sensor to cope.

The image sensor can see the detail in the shadows perfectly well. It can see the brightness in the sky perfectly well. If you expose your shot for either you will get a great shot. Expose for both and you will get either a blown out sky or a black shadow. The dynamic range is too large.

In the photograph above the artists dummy is unlit directly. The orbs it holds are self-lit. This was a difficult photo to take. The dummy was too dark and the lights too light. The light intensity between the two was too great for the sensor to cope with. Without independently lighting the dummy I had to rely on post processing to fill the light on the dummy without increasing the light in the orbs. Easy enough in PhotoShop. But how do you do it in camera?

If the contrast between the lightest part of your scene and the darkest part of your scene is too large you simply cannot take the shot and keep all the detail. You have to find a happy medium. The way to do that is use the blinkies!

Look up in your camera manual how to turn on the blinkies (often associated with the camera histogram). When you look at the back of the camera after a shot the blinkies will show. They blink-to-white if the detail is lost in very bright spots. They blink-to-black in the very dark spots. These are the areas of your shot that the detail is lost. They are also the most distracting part of the shot. If a shot has large areas of blown out white you will draw the eye away from your subject to the white spots. Your shot immediately loses impact.

The answer is ‘chimping’. Take the shot you want to take. Take a look at the shot (Chimping). If it has blinking areas you need to find another way of doing it. Try to find a way of taking the shot so there is no blinking (either black or white). What you are looking for is to reduce the contrast. Take the shot in a brighter place altogether, or take it in darker place. The aim is to reduce the contrast between bright and dark. Then the sensor can cope.

By Damon Guy (author and Photokonnexion editor)

Damon Guy - Netkonnexion

Damon Guy (Netkonnexion)

Damon is a writer-photog and editor of this site. He has run some major websites, a computing department and a digital image library. He started out as a trained teacher and now runs training for digital photographers.
See also: Editors ‘Bio’.