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A Beginner’s Guide to Photographing Landscapes Part Two

Posted on March 3, 2015 @ 9:45 AM in Walking

Part Two - Chase the Light


There was only one occasion when I was a student that I was evicted from my house and before you start to worry about my moral fibre, I hasten to add this was not for any reprobate behaviour on my part. Rather it was at the request of one of my house mates. He had plans for that evening, you see. Plans that involved entertaining and entertaining a girl, no less. And so, my other house mates and I were duly informed that we were to make ourselves scarce for the evening.

But, before we did, we got to see how he had laid out the place for dinner. The table was set in the corner of the room. Fancy napkins had been purchased and were folded neatly beside the plates. He had even managed to find some matching plates and cutlery (no mean feat in a student house) - everything was arranged just perfectly.

But there was one final vital element. For no amount of carefully laying out and arranging was going to impress this girl if the whole evening was lit with the harsh, cold light of a kitchen fluorescent tube. So a candle was placed in the centre of the table, ready to be lit at just the right time, and to cast the whole scene in soft, warm, flattering light. With the right kind of lighting, the mood was set.

In my previous blog - A Beginner's Guide to Photographing Landscapes Part 1, I discussed the composition aspect of photography. The laying out and arranging of the elements in your picture in just the right way. But, as with my house mate, no amount of careful arranging is going to create that perfect mood if the lighting is wrong. Light is the part of photography that can really pack that emotional punch. So here are a few tips and thoughts that might help you think a bit more about lighting and how you can use it effectively in your photography.

1. Make the most of the way light changes during the day

The light across a landscape changes considerably throughout the day. Imagine you are in place for a sunrise, for instance. The first kind of light you see is the blue light of morning twilight, when rich, deep blues dominate the skies and the landscape is still mostly in shadow. As the sun gets closer to the horizon, at first an orange band starts to appear and the clouds above can take on warm tones. Finally, if you’re lucky, when the sun finally rises, the whole scene may be bathed in orange hues and the landscape around you as well as the sky above may be lit with the kind of warm light that brings it all to life. What you will have witnessed is what photographers refer to as the blue hour and the golden hour. Something similar happens at sunset, only in reverse. These are often seen as the best times for landscape photography as both the tone and the softness of the light is so pleasing then.

Just before sunrise at Whiterocks, I was treated to a wonderful fog display on the coast at Dunluce Castle. At this time of the morning, the sky was beginning to take on warmer tones, but the cool soft blues of the ocean and mist had a subtle beauty. 

Cave Hill

Just after sunrise at Cavehill this morning, the cloud bank lifted slightly, allowing me to catch a glimpse of the sun, still low in the sky. This allowed the light to squeeze through the gap and the whole area was awash in orange. 

The wind was howling as I waited on the exposed top of Cavehill for twilight to descend and for the lights of Belfast below to come on. But the whole bitterly cold experience was worth it! I wanted the city below to be lit but I wanted to catch it at twilight when the rich, dark blues of the sky were still on display. As a bonus, the last remnants of the sun set were clinging on to the north west over Black Mountain.


The classic golden hour, when the landscape is bathed in orange hues. This is from the summit of Doan in the Mournes. We had arrived on the snowy peak just a few moments before and my colleague, inspired by the view, threw his arms spontaneously up into the sky. Good job I had my camera handy!

2. Be aware of how lighting can change during the year

It’s often said that as you should avoid photographing around the middle of the day, when the sun is highest in the sky and the light is much less flattering to a landscape. It becomes brighter and gives your landscapes a large dynamic light range (the shadows are too dark, the highlights too bright). The lighting comes too directly from above - during the summer anyway - which means you may have fewer shadows and your landscape photos may lack depth. This means that the best shots during the summer tend to be had around the golden and blue hours.

In contrast to the summer however, the sun during the autumn and winter months is low enough in the sky even at midday to cast long, glorious shadows. So whether it’s a tree in your foreground, or valleys in the distance, winter sunlight can give great contrasts all day long, and not just during the golden and blue hours of sunset and twilight. And very often, these contrasts look very well if done as black and white pictures. 

Bearnagh Mournes

Although this photo of the last ascent up Slieve Bearnagh was taken around midday, the sun was still low enough in the sky in January to cast lovely long shadows on the far side of the Mourne Wall. The black and white treatment accentuates these contrasts.

During the course of the year, the location of the rising and setting sun varies considerably as well. These can lead to very different photo opportunities throughout the annual cycle. Watch out for these and see what different light opportunities are presented as a result.

Portstewart Strand

During the winter, the sun at Portstewart Strand sets well inland. In this case, objects closer to me were backlit and cast into silhouette, while the whole scene was bathed in a coppery glow.


During the summer months, the sun sets much more to the north west, far out over Inishowen. During this sunset, the light was reflected off the wonderful cloud formations, toning down the harshness of the light, and spreading a golden red colour all across the landscape.

3. Be on the lookout for how light can change over the course of minutes

One of the great benefits of the Northern Irish weather to the landscape photographer is its changeability. As the saying goes, if you can’t see the hills, it’s raining. If you can see them, it’s about to rain. This can bring its own challenges to those fond of exploring the great outdoors, but what it means for the landscape photographer is that, whatever the light is at the moment, it’s probably going to change in the next half hour - or even in the next few minutes! So if you spot a good location for a photo, why not wait around for a bit? As well as giving you a well-earned rest, you never know what the light will look like in a quarter of an hour. It may well be worth that wee wait!


This day in the Mournes, I had headed to the ridge along Slievenaglogh. All day the clouds hung low and ominously over the entire landscape. Apart from one ten minute opportunity, after I had packed up for my descent back down, when the clouds parted briefly and a fine display of crepuscular rays lit Ben Crom valley, picking the water out as silvery highlights. I may have packed up. It may well have been freezing cold. But I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity!

4. Shoot with the sun to your side – and shoot into the sun!

It’s often said in photography that you should shoot with your back towards the sun. This provides even lighting with no real exposure problems in your shot. This is true and can often be good advice. But it can result in images that lack emotional punch.

So experiment a bit with your position towards the sun. You could try side lighting, for instance. Turning side on to the sun can be a good thing, even in the golden hour when you may be drawn to photographing the setting sun itself. But look beside you too. The warm light resting over the landscape, along with the long shadows cast by the low sun can be beautiful. And not shooting into the sun means that your camera can see all these beautiful details as it isn’t trying to expose for that very bright sun in your shot.

Slieve Bearnagh

Two intrepid climbers make their way back down the steep slopes of Bearnagh in the Mournes. The light coming for the side not only lit their faces, but it cast interesting shadows across the valleys in the background.

And sometimes the best shots are waiting for those who turn and face our solar neighbour head on* (this is known as backlighting). In these cases, any foreground detail is often cast into stark silhouette and this can be very striking indeed. Experiment with your position and the placement of the subject in relation to the sun. 

One of the most rewarding climbs in the Mournes, Slieve Bearnagh offers amazing panoramic views into the heart of the mountain landscape. My colleague climbed up onto this rock to survey the valleys below – it was the perfect moment for me to shot directly into the sun!

5. Look for lighting contrasts in your landscapes

If you have dramatic lighting, you can sometimes really push the contrasts in your image, increasing the tonal gap between the darkest and lightest aspects of your photo.  Sometimes, black and white processing is a good way to process your photo, as it lends itself much more to a highly contrasted approach. 

Trassey Track

The sun was low in the sky during this December walk up Trassey Track. This meant that the track was in shadow for all of my walk. But the light streaming through the saddle between Meelmore and Bearnagh allowed for a dramatic light contrast, accentuated by converting the photo to black and white.

Contrasts can also present themselves to you courtesy of some of our wonderful Irish clouds. Whether it’s the speckled pattern of light and shade cast on the ground by fluffy cumulus clouds, or whether it’s the light contrasts within the clouds themselves, the tension and drama of the contrasts can play themselves out all around us at times. It’s just down to us to be on the lookout for them!

Murlough Beach

A few hours earlier, I had been on top of one of those peaks, enjoying the wonderful winter landscape. But after my descent, I quickly headed for the beach at Murlough in the hope of catching a sunset there. My legs were tired from a day’s climb as I forced them to hurry along the boardwalk to the beach, but with a display like this going on in the sky, you can see why I was in a rush! The contrasts between the light of the sun’s rays and the darkness of the clouds and beach were wonderful. And to cap it all, the tops of the silhouetted mountains were picked out in a bit more detail, courtesy of the snow that covered the peaks.

6. Look for colour contrasts

The colour theory as shown on a colour wheel tells us that complimentary colours (such as orange and purple) can work very well together. If you are fortunate enough to find examples of these in the landscape around you, they can really add an emotional power to your image. 

Cave Hill

I had climbed Cavehill in the hope of getting a sunrise with some snow in the ground. At first, the sky looked like it wasn’t going to deliver anything spectacular. And then, just after the sun rose, some classic Antrim Plateau mist swept in from behind me and over the edge of the cliff. All the water droplets acted as prisms, refracting the sunlight and giving a wonderful diffused glow. The colour contrasts that resulted between the the reddy-orange of the sky and the purple-blue of the snow were straight off an Impressionist’s colour chart and provided wonderful colour contrasts for this scene. If I hadn’t waited a few extra minutes, I would have missed it all!

Alistair Hamill enjoys writing about photography and has published an eBook called ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Dark’ about night photography. You can find out more about it here:

He also has plans to turn these two blogs into an eBook, with all the tips gathered together and illustrated with a wider range of his photos. Check out his webpage in the coming months for download details.

* Disclaimer – if you do, be very careful when looking towards the sun, especially if you are looking through a view finder. Looking directly at the sun can blind you. Use your camera or phone to shade your eyes while taking your photo and check the image afterwards on the view finder.

Alistair Hamill
Alistair Hamill  Landscape Photographer

Alistair is a landscape photographer who likes nothing better than trying to capture something of the stunning beauty of Northern Ireland’s wonderfully diverse landscapes. From getting his feet wet in the Atlantic Ocean on the North Coast, to forcing those same tired feet to clamber up yet another mountain in the Mournes, he loves to get out and about in our amazing countryside.

6 comments have been posted in reply to this article

Posted by Edward Gielty on March 3, 2015 @ 10:53 PM


Just had a look at your page from a facebook link and what a mouth watering box of delights you have presented here! Dramatic, beautifully coloured and as moody as Roy Keane being interviewed by Sinead O'Connor...

Posted by Alistair Hamill on March 4, 2015 @ 6:49 PM

That's the most unique description I've had about my photography, Edward - I love your creativity! And thanks for this kind words.

Posted by sarrenn on March 13, 2015 @ 4:50 AM

Landscape photography catch the attention to it. lighting contrasts is a awesome blend of photography. I came back to complete my bridge tour with this site where I get many landscape photoghraphy. After reading this article I must say here great effort and interest show in your article. Great sharing keep it up.

Posted by WILFRED SWAIN on March 16, 2015 @ 4:32 PM

That is my kind of photography - a-maz-ing . It would be nice if you could give settings gear filters etc used but maybe that is your 'secret' .

Posted by Alistair Hamill on April 28, 2015 @ 9:39 PM

Hi Wilfred, thanks for your comment! If you're interested in finding out a bit more of how I get these kinds of shots., feel free to check out my blog where I share some of the stories behind how I get this look. It's a combination of the right kinds of lenses and filters out in the field and the post production I like to do in Photoshop. You can find out more here:

Posted by lighting doctor on April 29, 2017 @ 8:31 AM

nice blog, and gorgeous look of nature build landscape

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