farmhouse, Tuscany, italy

Early morning light at sunrise at the Il Belvedere farmhouse in the Val d’ Orcia region of Tuscany, Italy. Tuscany Photo Tour.

The word “photography” comes from the Greek words for “Drawing with Light.”

The stay-at-home situation has given me time to filter through the zillions of raw images I have accumulated over the past 15 years. Perhaps like many of my fellow photographers I hang on to these images for various reasons. For me, a big one is that I’ve spent time, money, and energy to travel to the locations and I simply find it difficult to find my way to the trash folder. Another reason for hanging on to a photo is that it shows at least some potential because of a pleasing composition. 

kinderdijk, windmill, The Netherlands

Just after sunset at Kinderdijk in The Netherlands. The Netherlands Photo Tour.

I have been opening some of these images in Photoshop in the hope that the miracle of post-processing will deem them worthy of avoiding that trash bin. My conclusion? While post-processing is essential for all my images and can really make a photo shine –  if the light is not happening the image usually falls flat. The more post-processing I apply to attempt a rescue the more it becomes obvious that that is just what I’m up to.

Monte Lussari, Italy.

Strong back-low-light from atop of Monte Lussari, Italy. Slovenia & Croatia with a Pinch of Italy Photo Tour.

I recently opened some files from our trip to the Meteora monasteries in Greece a few years ago. I had already cherry-picked and processed the obvious standouts, the ones with good composition and light. This time, I noticed a few good compositions that I had previously overlooked and attempted to find some magic in them with post-processing. Again, the flat ones just did not cut the mustard and finally found their home in the trash. I did find a couple of hidden-gems and with minor post-processing tweaks, I was even more convinced of the need for good light to create stunning landscape photos (stay tuned for a short processing tutorial next week).

Meteora, Greece

Hard to beat wonderful, late afternoon light at the Meteora monasteries in Greece. Those deep, dark shadows and highlights on the monastery and rims of the rocks really make this photo.

Pitigliano, Italy

Low afternoon light kissing the town of Pitigliano in Tuscany, Italy. Tuscany Photo Tour

So what is good light?

Low Light

The obvious answer is the low light situation that takes place twice a day in the morning and afternoon. It’s hard to beat low angle sunlight highlighting your main subject while creating deep, dark shadows. These shadows not only accentuate the landscape but can also turn into compositional shapes and elements in themselves.

Cypress grove near San Quirico, Tuscany, Italy

Just before the sun disappears is usually the best light for this composition near San Quirico, Tuscany, Italy. Tuscany Photo Tour.

Keukenhof Gardens, Netherlands.

Early morning low-light with nice shadows creating graphic elements at the Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands. Netherlands Photo Tour.

Top-light and Back-light

We can also find good light at other times of the day. Midmorning and midafternoon light can create nice top-lit or back-lit situations producing successful compositions with a combination of shadows and direct light.

Southern Moravia wheat fields, Czech Republic.

This image has great, mid to late afternoon, top light. Notice those nice foreground shadows. Southern Moravia, Czech Republic. Czech Republic Photo Tour.

Wine terraces. Douro Valley, Portugal.

Another photo with nice late afternoon top-backlight. Again, the shadows are so essential. The Douro Valley, Portugal. Portugal Photo Tour.

Do we always need this direct, bright light?

Absolutely not. It really depends on the situation. Photographing waterfalls in a deep forest is best done with bright, overcast light. Direct sunlight would produce too many distracting shadows. Bright overcast light also allows for the color in the lavender fields of Provence to really pop.

Waterfall, Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia

Bright, overcast light is preferred for waterfall photography in a forest. Plitvice Lakes National Park. Croatia Photo Tour.

Lavender fields, Valensole Plateau, Provence, France.

After the sun disappeared behind the clouds the bright, overcast light really enhanced the lavender color on the Valensole Plateau in Provence, France. Provence Photo Tour.

I have had good results well after the sundown before full dark while there is still a hint of light lingering. Long exposures are necessary here.

Lavender fields and farmhouse, Valensole Plateau, Provence, France.

Well after sunset just before dark wit a 245-second exposure. Valensole Plateau, Provence, France. Provence Photo Tour.

The Bottom Line

There is no substitute for good light but remember that what is good light depends on the situation as illustrated in the images above. We don’t always get the great light we’re always hoping for. That is one frustrating aspect of photography but also bittersweet…when we do get the right light it is especially rewarding. My best advice is to get out there with your camera as much as you can and return to your photo location for better light if at all possible. The more time one spends out in the field with the camera is directly proportional to the number of stunning photographs in your portfolio.

Stay tuned for a short post-processing tutorial I’ll be posting next week. I’ll share my process taking an image into Lightroom, Photoshop, and Nik.

Tre Cime, Dolomites, Italy.

Right at sunset. The Tre Cime, Dolomites, Italy. Dolomites Photo Tour.