Dappled Light. Can it Work in a Landscape Photograph?

Aug 24, 2021

There’s no denying that light is photography. Without light, photography would cease to exist. One of the first lessons all photographers learn about light is that good light can take an average setting and transform it into captivating.

The second lesson photographers often learn about light is that all light is not created equal. When it comes to capturing a compelling scene attractive to the masses, there are rules specific to the use of light. One of those rules is that dappled light should usually be avoided in photography.

Outdoors, full-strength dappled light usually comes from the daytime sun but can be light in any form filtered through an object. As a result, dappled light often creates small patches or patterns of light within a landscape setting. These are often high-contrast scenes with bright highlights and deep shadows.

A viewer’s eye will always be more strongly drawn towards bright areas within an image, and dappled light is often not ideal in a landscape scene because lit elements may draw attention away from the main subject.

Furthermore, dappled light infuses an often non-traditional mood into a landscape image. Dappled light is contrasty, edgy, bold, and vibrant. Many landscape scenes are the opposite of the mood in dappled light and are inherently peaceful and sublimely calming. 

Early in my photography journey, I was scolded for using dappled light in an image. As a result, I intentionally avoided this type of light within my images for a long time. Nowadays, I frequently break such constraining photography rules and instead, I photograph what captures my attention. 

If you'd like to try and capture landscape images lit by dappled light, I'm sharing a few ways you can use this type of light effectively within your landscape photography.

Take a look at the image below. 

ISO 31, 24mm, f14, 1/4sec

1. When using dappled light ensure the main subject is lit.

As noted, dappled light is not always ideal because lit areas of an image can detract from the main subject within a frame. Therefore in most situations, all, or at least some of your main subjects, should be lit to use dappled light effectively. 

In the image above, my main subject is the creek. I was drawn to the light leading from the right side of the frame as it lit the water highlighting its texture and form. Both the line of light from the forest and the warmth of the light falling across the water help draw attention to the creek. 

This area of strong dappled light is also prominent in size within the image. The additional hits of dappled light within the image don’t really take up as much visual space, so don't pull my eye away much from the creek and the front of the frame. 

2. Second, don’t be afraid to use dappled light to help you convey a feeling of energy.

In my image, I’ve captured a busy forest scene with a fast-flowing creek. I think the use of dappled light further enhances that mood. Flat light would have likely infused a more tranquil and calming mood. At that moment, I found myself struck by the noise and energy of the creek within the quiet forest. The scene felt vibrant and energetic, so I think that the dappled light meshed well with the energy I felt.

3. Third, use camera settings that compliment the mood in the type of available light in a setting. 

Smooth water through slow shutter speed is a common landscape photography technique for creek and waterfall forest scenes. However, in this image, that technique didn’t feel quite right to me. Very purposefully, I chose not to slow my shutter speed too much. I wanted to retain a touch of the texture in the water to compliment the energy in the dappled light.

When a scene is lit under non-traditional light, know that it’s fully possible to come away with a beautiful image. So, in your photography, I encourage you to explore non-traditional lighting. At a minimum, you’ll learn more about light and what you like and don’t in your own photographic style, and you may just find that by breaking the rules, you develop your own beautiful artistic expression.