Flat light in landscape photography – what is it? - Landscape2Art
flat light in photography

Flat light in landscape photography – what is it?

Flat light was not in my vocabulary when I started photographing landscapes. Many of my photos turned out to be flat and lifeless. They had no punch and they were boring. At first, I did not understand why they came out this way. I did not know it’s the quality and not the quantity of light that is most important.

I used to go out to take photos in the middle of the day when the light was at its strongest. I was literally photographing at times when the light resulted in flat looking landscape photos. I ended up with a collection of photos I did not like. But I didn't delete them from the hard drive.

Most likely you also have some flat looking landscape photos saved on your computer for the same reason as me. You took the photos when the light conditions weren’t optimal.

flat light overcast

This photo was taken on a cloudy day. The lack of shadows and contrast makes the image look flat and lifeless.

Photography is about light

In landscape photography, you cannot change the light. You have to deal with the available light at the time you take your photos. Timing is a key in landscape photography. It's about being at the right place at the right time. You must plan for the best light.

But as you know, for different reasons this is not always possible. Even with thorough planning, you fail to get the photos you had in mind.

What is good light?

When we look at landscape photos, we get an impression it’s only possible to take good landscape photos around sunrise and sunset. The warm golden light at that time is landscape photographer’s favorite times of the day. But it doesn’t mean you cannot shoot under other light conditions.

Different light might be suitable for various subjects. It's nothing wrong with a flat image if this look was the intention when you took the photo. Typically, photos shot in fog will have a flat low contrast look. Such a photo can have a lot of mood and mystery to it.

It’s totally OK.

When photographing fall colors, the best light is diffused flat light. Diffused light brings out the colors of the fall foliage. The high contrast created from direct sunlight doesn't look very nice for this type of subject. 

In the rest of this article, I will discuss unwanted flat photos, why it happens and how you can deal with the problem.

What is flat light in photography?

It’s important to understand it’s not the light itself that is flat. What we say is flat light, is light creating a low contrast flat looking photo.

In a low contrast photo, the difference between highlights and shadows is small. The photo lacks the three-dimensional feel that is so important in landscape photography.

Not even an interesting composition will make a good image if the light is resulting in a flat look with no punch.

flat light midday

It's not lack of light which is the problem in this image. The image is shot in the middle of the day with a lot of sun. The clear blue sky with no clouds have no interest in it. Strong mid day sun has "washed" out the highlights resulting in a flat and none attractive image despite the nice scenery.

What causes flat looking photos?

Diffused light

On an overcast day, the cloud cover acts like a giant softbox. The result is photos with little or no contrast. The scene is evenly lit with hardly any difference between highlight and shadow areas.

Also, the gray sky on an overcast day is not very attractive. You should avoid including the sky or at least minimize how much of the sky you include in the composition. As a general rule, we don't want diffused light in landscape photos because we need shadows to create dimension.

Direct light

Light resulting in flat looking photos don’t have to be diffused. Strong midday light when the sun is high in the sky can also create flat looking photos. Midday light is harsh with very high contrast.

In such light shadows will turn completely black with no details. Further, the highlights tend to be washed out. Overall this direct light creates unattractive flat looking photos.

If you photograph with the sun behind you under such conditions, you will make the flat feel even more pronounced. The reason is you have no visible shadows in the photo because the shadows will fall be behind your subjects.

This photo was taken on a cloudy day. The cloud cover was quite light so there was some light hitting the foreground rocks. But it was not enough light to avoid the flat look. The composition is nice so the photo has potential. I knew I could work on this image in Lightroom and improve it significantly. 

How to deal with flat light?

When you travel, it’s not always possible to photograph at the best time of the day. We often arrive at the “best places” at the wrong time.

If you’re traveling with a tour group (other than a photography group), they tend to be on the on the road in the middle of the day. You have little possibility to adjust the time yourself. Take your photos and make the best out of the existing light conditions when you’re the scene.

You can experience flat light even if you’ve planned a trip well and you get to the scene at the right time. The weather might play you a trick. What if it is overcast or a rainy day? What do you do? You can’t do much other than taking your shots. Knowing you might not even come back to the same place ever is frustrating.

Do you refrain from taking the shot? No, I don’t, and you should not.

Make sure you get the composition right. You can always improve the photos when you edit.
Try not to include the sky in the composition when you must photograph in overcast weather (diffused light) or midday on a sunny day.

If the sky has some clouds, the situation is different. Clouds can make for some interesting patterns or the clouds can cast interesting shadows on the ground.

Also, try to position the camera, so you have the sun at an angle and not behind you. With the sun from an angle, you have a better chance to capture shadows. 

This photo was taken on a cloudy day. The lack of shadows and contrast makes the image look flat and lifeless.

Bring your flat looking photos back to life, with targeted post-processing

At first, photos taken under less optimal light conditions can look flat and boring. But the digital image sensor can capture a lot of data. You will be amazed how much details there are in a photo taken under less favorable light conditions. In most photos, you have a lot of room to increase contrast to make the photo look better. 

One of the most powerful features in the most advanced editing software is the ability to adjust only some areas in a photo. These local adjustment tools can make significant changes to your photos. You can literally bring light back into the photos.

Even if you’re totally new to
post-processing, you can do this

Don’t give up landscape photos you took in flat light conditions.

If you’re a Lightroom user and you don’t know where to start, presets is a quick and fun way to learn and get inspiration.

Bring your flat and lifeless landscape photos back to life with my Lights ON preset collection. You will be amazed by the transformation these presets can do to your photos.

See how simple one-click Lightroom presets can transform the flat looking images in this article.

Conclusion

As a landscape photographer, you will always have to deal with different light scenarios. The best is to avoid the worst light conditions, but it’s not always possible. In these situations, you must do the best you can with the available light.

Make sure your composition is right and take your photos. With the help of post-processing, you can bring life even to the most flat and dull photo. However, it’s crucial to understand post-processing is not a replacement for poorly executed technique in the field. 

Over to you
​​​​What is your worst experience with lousy light when photographing landscapes? How did you deal with it?

Share your experiences in the comments below.

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