Using Light to Create Emotion in Landscape Photography

This week I find myself in Bellingham, Washington on a mostly business, partly pleasure visit. Simply dazzling here! Incredible! Breathtaking! Fill-in-the-blank with your own superlatives. 

The Pacific Northwest is quite a bit different than where I live, in Flagstaff, Arizona, so I’ve jumped at every chance I’ve had to photograph the area. So far I’ve found myself perched along a rocky coastline, walking through dark forests with towering canopies, and alongside rivers that look as if they belong in Alaska. At each location, I thought a lot about light.  

Flagstaff sits at 7,000 ft in elevation, in a sprawling high desert, marked by a towering stratovolcano, a LOT of open space dotted by pygmy trees and shrubs (classic desert fair), and a remarkable number of cloudless days, on average. While the largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest in the world is found there, walking through the dense forests in the Pacific Northwest has been strikingly different. As I meandered a riverside trail the other day, the first thing that really struck me was the way the high canopy filters the light of the sun (yes, the sun was out in January in Bellingham, Washington – stop the press!) creating perfect soft light, seemingly dancing from one spot to the next.

These small sun breaks did their best to highlight a small waterfall here, or an electric-green moss-covered stump there, all throughout the forest. It was beautiful. It made me feel comfortable as if in a place from a recurring dream. It was in stark contrast to the harsh light and open spaces of the desert southwest that I’m used to. 

We should all be thinking about light anytime we’re with our cameras, but as I walked through this unfamiliar forest, looking for the perfect stories to tell, I found myself backing up and thinking about how different light helps to portray different emotions. Bright light versus dark light, high contrast versus low contrast. How does the light that I’m currently experiencing match the scenery? 

I thought about how to best use what I was being given on that afternoon, and how to take advantage of such a nice moment in time. People respond to emotion. Images that can make a viewer actually “feel” something makes an image capable of being engaged. Landscape photography should connect with the viewer, giving an image the potential to be something more than just “pretty.” 

Want to know what makes a photo “successful?” It’s that.

You’ve likely heard this before, but light is the most powerful tool to capture emotion. And there aren’t many great landscape images that lack emotion. As landscape photographers, we are tasked with finding that emotion in a scene, and then using it so that it can be felt. Tell the story properly through your image. I’ve heard this statement tossed about many times, so the following sentence is surely not mine, but when you master light, you master photography. 

So, let’s take a look at a few different types of light so that we can begin to understand how to best use it. 

Dark Light
I think of dark light as having the potential to be powerful and/or ominous; intense and even somber. A ton of emotion can be portrayed through the use of dark light. 

A number of landscape photographers I’ve encountered while leading Backcountry Journeys workshops have told me they most enjoy shooting sunset images in a dark and moody way. They like the feeling that adds to their final image. I agree. Picture yourself perched at an incredible viewpoint at Glacier National Park. Big, dark clouds are racing across a mountain pass, a classic rocky mountain storm is imminent. The emotion of this scene is dark, it is ominous and intense. Using that light is necessary to portray the correct feelings of the scene. 

Take a look at the above photograph. How does it make you feel? Imagine that same photo taken at midday with no clouds. Can you imagine the different emotions that would come with that change? It’s huge! Which story do you want to tell? Of course, this is not always in our control. We may be in a particular place at a particular time and only for that particular time. Take what you can get, but never forget to keep in mind the emotion that your image will portray. And, if you cannot connect with a particular emotion of a scene, will anyone else?  

Bright Light
On the opposite end, bright light brings with it a different set of emotions. If you are looking to make a photograph to portray a scene that portrays a sense of happiness, airiness, or optimism, you’d likely need the light of a bright, hazy, late-afternoon sun, as opposed to say an oncoming storm. The emotions of bright light include feelings of optimism, airy, light, gentle, and ethereal. What kinds of stories from scenes in your own world would best be told in airiness and optimistic light, such as the one below? How would this scene feel different in dark light?

High Contrast
High-contrast images, with regard to emotion, can draw a lot of attention because they tend to be dramatic, loud and vibrant. Recall that contrast happens when bright and dark elements are right next to each other. For nature shooters, like us, shooting on a sunny (Flagstaff-like) day will produce that high-level contrast. It can make the scene look all the more intense and sharp, almost loud. 

Low Contrast
Meanwhile, low-contrast images are more muted and subdued. Again with the opposites? On overcast days, when the light of the sun is diffused, look for gentle scenes like a rolling meadow, for example. Anyplace where the emotion to match the scene is gentle, quiet, soft because the low contrast simply won’t be demanding attention. Match the light to the character of your subject.

Next time you go out with your camera to shoot a landscape, be sure to consider the light when sizing up a particular scene. What emotion does the light provide to the scene? 

Often, while leading Backcountry Journeys workshops I’ll recommend to the group that upon arriving at a shooting location that we should take time to sit with the scene for a bit. Breathe deeply and invest your emotions towards what it is that you are looking at. How does it make you feel? Remember, we are artists working with light. While we have all this fancy high-powered gear with buttons that need to be pushed at some point, that really shouldn’t come first. Find the emotion of the scene. Discover how you can use the light that you have to portray that emotion. This, in the end, will lead to a final image that packs a punch. 

You can shoot in all types of light, don’t be afraid to do so. However, always keep in mind that in the end, you need to make sure the light you are shooting works hand-in-hand with your subject, enforcing the message you wish to get across. Shoot with intention, they say. Without light, you have nothing. With it, you have everything!  

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.




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