It’s all about controlling light and shadow.
Think of what the world looks like first thing in the morning when you’re awakened by the sunlight streaming in the window and onto your face. Hard to make out any detail until you eyes have adjusted to the brightness, right? How about the amount of detail you can make out in a dark room? Not that much I’m guessing. Our eyes have limitations we’ve learned to deal with in order to see clearly.
It’s the proper blend of light and shadow that optimizes our visual system. Edges are sharp where there is a sudden change from light to dark – we call this edge contrast. Less sudden change and the edges get softer, less distinct. In a world of grey everything seems just slightly out of focus.
The rocks on the right above are the same rocks as on the left, under the same depth of water. The right side looks softer, a little more saturated in this image compared to the left, which is stark, contrasty. It’s just a function of light and shadow, no tricks.
A landscape photographer (or painter) is challenged by contrast. Too little and the scene looks flat, two dimensional. It’s what happens when you photograph scenes at high noon – there are no edge shadows to define the subjects in your image. Too much contrast and the scene looks jagged, harsh. Edge shadows show sudden changes from light to dark as if the subject is on the moon. A pleasing image has enough contrast to give the scene a three-dimensional appearance with sharp edges and perspectives without having abrupt changes from light to dark.
The early and late light, the golden hours photographers wax poetically about, essentially are times when the light is enough to start casting shadows that have a gradual change from light to dark. Enough light to define edges but diffused enough to keep the edges from being harsh. Watch how shadows change as the sun comes over the horizon, going from soft to harsh in a matter of minutes. You have to work fast to get the look you want.
See for yourself sometime; check out the same scene from early morning to noon and see how light and shadow change. What time looks best to you? Get out your camera and make some images to confirm you’re seeing what your camera is recording. Seeing the effect of light and shadow is a learned skill, not magic. You just have to look for it.