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Handling Natural Light: A Corridor of Light on an Autumn Forest

You’ve put in your best effort to find, observe and shoot your subject in beautiful light, but did you know that with just a bit of basic post-editing, your lovely shot could look even better? A landscape photographer shares with us the story behind this stunning shot of sunlight on a forest of conifer trees in autumn. (Reported by: Toshiki Nakanishi, Digital Camera Magazine)

Japanese larch trees in autumn

EOS R/ EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM/ FL: 200mm/ Flexible-priority AE (f/11, 1/25 sec, EV ±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight


The story behind the shot

Japanese larch trees are the only species of conifer in Japan that changes colour in autumn, and this shot is of a forest of them lined up rhythmically on a slope.

Finding the light

As the trees were of different heights, I decided to find an angle where the warm, strong morning light shone on them from the side, illuminating only on the tallest trees. This gives the shot more dimension and makes the sunlit trees look more impressive.

The shot was taken soon after sunrise in November, which is the only time in the year where the angle of sunlight would light only the tops of the trees. The perfect conditions for such a shot are a fine day with strong light and as little haze as possible.

Timing is of essence. The narrow corridor of light lasts for only a few minutes before it spreads.

The importance of shadows

The recent trend is to use high dynamic range (HDR) technique to achieve images that are brighter overall, showing all the tones in the image beyond what the human eye can see. But don’t forget: the areas that are hidden in the shadows are what gives an image depth. The presence of shadows makes light stand out, and the presence of light teaches us just how important shadows are.

I also personally feel that images with areas that you can’t see stimulate the imagination more.

Analysing the light and exposure

Lighting direction diagram

Light direction: Strong side lighting from the sun just after sunrise, shining directly on the tallest trees (A) from the right of the image frame at a 90 degree angle.
(A): The tallest trees in the forest that catch the sunlight.
(B): Trees that didn’t catch the light

Getting the proper exposure: Control the shadows

L-shaped histogram showing strong shadows

To achieve my ideal image, which emphasises the corridor of sunlight at (A), I would have to expose for the sunlit trees at (A) and keep exposure low in the midtones all the way to the shadows at (B).


Post-processing goal: Enhance the dimensionality of the trees at (A)

Taking the shot at the right timing, exposed for the trees at (A), was only part of the job. The next step was to adjust the shadows at (B) to a suitable level.

In post-processing, I made adjustments using the tone curve, lifting the highlights slightly and lowering the shadows as much as I could. Crushed blacks are acceptable, but I needed to keep them at a controlled level so that the image wouldn't lose its sense of dimension.

Step 1: Basic tone adjustments

In the Basic Adjustments panel of my post-processing software (Lightroom), I:
- Increased the highlights and whites
- Decreased the shadows

Screenshot of Basic Adjustments panel in Lightroom

This separates the highlights and shadows in the image so that the trees lit by sunlight in (A) stand out more.


Step 2: Increase the contrast using the tone curve

I then increased the contrast slightly using the tone curve.

Screenshot of Tone Curve panel in Lightroom

The key point is to leave a bit of shadow detail so that the image retains the subtle tonal gradations.



For more about lighting in landscape photography, check out:
Capturing Breathtaking Landscapes Under Ever-Changing Lighting Conditions
Decisions in Landscape Photography: Front Light or Backlight?
Understanding Dynamic Range: How to Avoid Unnecessary Blown Highlights

Need more landscape photography inspirations? See:
How I Nailed this Shot: Adding Impact to a Grand Forest Landscape
The Matrix Method: A Systematic Way to Add Variety to Your Shots
Handling Natural Light: Telephoto Macro Flowers in the Evening Light


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Toshiki Nakanishi

Toshiki Nakanishi

Born in 1971 in Osaka. After learning photography on his own, Nakanishi moved the base for his photography activities to the town of Biei located in Kamikawa-gun of Hokkaido. While capturing landscapes that focus on light, he also produces works that bring out the figurative beauty of nature. Head of PHOTO OFFICE atelier nipek.