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When I teach and discuss composition in landscape photography, I usually focus on all of the elements that contribute to good visual design. Things like lines and shapes, patterns, variation, visual weight, and of course, simplicity. Yet, in the end, it’s the light that really connects everything together, that conveys the emotional content of an image; an experience.

If we compare composition to language, an analogy I think is helpful from a conceptual perspective, then the design elements are like words and sentences, and light is how the writer makes us feel though the writing style.

The composition may be well designed, just like the writing may be grammatically correct, but that’s just not enough to create a compelling story.

This analogy is just a way to think about how we communicate our ideas and feelings through art. And while the design of an image is critically important, that’s not sufficient to make it resonate with a viewer.

Light is the only thing that can imbue a landscape image with emotion, with depth, with a sense of something beyond what is seen. It can and often becomes the most powerful element of an image because of its ability to connect us to something beyond the literal.

It’s the potential of light to create so many possibilities that keeps me venturing out into nature regardless of where I am. Time and time again I’ve been surprised when a seemingly mundane landscape is transformed into an amazing scene with the potential to create a meaningful image. (I’m no longer surprised by this…I try to anticipate it.)

Just minutes before this was a shadowy mess of trees with little resemblance to anything worth capturing, but because I knew the scene would be backlit once the light arrived, I decided to wait…

Here’s a very familiar scenario for me while leading a workshop. I arrive at a location before sunrise with a group of students and point out a few features of the landscape and some compositional ideas. Invariably some students will struggle with getting started because everything looks so flat and featureless.

But there are many features if you look hard enough and anticipate how the light will interact with the landscape. This is analogous to creating a general outline for your story and then starting to put ideas into words and sentences.

For me that means identifying different “visual ideas” that have the potential to form the foundation of a good composition then anticipating how the light will interact with my ideas. This is a two step process which involves both working out the design of a composition and awareness of where the light is and will be as time passes.

The more light there is (whether direct or indirect) the more these two steps become interconnected, so that I’m evaluating the design and the light at the same time. However, we all know how fleeting light can be, and so the better you become at anticipating the light, at “visualizing” how the landscape and your composition will respond to the light, the “luckier” you will get!

In other words, you will be better prepared to take advantage of unique and transient opportunities in nature that allow you to share an experience with others rather than simply a scene.

Another wooded feature that resonated with me as the soft and warm light slowly appeared, and disappeared soon after.

First Principles

If you struggle with any of this, whether that’s getting started at a location, or using light as a creative part of your composition, here are a few first principles that may help.

  1. Spend time studying light in all of its forms. Regardless of where you are, observe what the light is doing; particularly where it is and where it isn’t.
  2. Learn to identify the different types. This includes the direction: front light, side light, back light, overhead light, and the quality: hard and soft light, overcast light, reflected light, diffused light. All of these are different and will create vastly varied opportunities for images.
  3. Learn and internalize the basic design elements of composition: lines, shapes, and colors. Lines move a viewer through an image, shapes create structure, and colors create depth and energy, especially when combined with light that complements your vision.

I’m aware you won’t be able to implement these princinples overnight. They are not meant to be “quick tips” to help you photograph like Ansel Adams in short time, sorry. But, if you’re interested in improving your way of seeing and photographing in a personal and meaningful way, then it will be worth the time to internalize these ideas.

Join the CreativePath Newsletter for more ideas, and access to free webinars where I discuss these ideas and more. I’m planning one on this very subject soon!

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