Quality of Light

Today’s subject certainly isn’t a new one for myself, or photographers in general. Examing the light is my favorite part of photography, and it was my favorite photographic subject to teach. An yes, I’ve written about it on this blog many times before, and shown each of today’s pictures at least once before.

Photography is about capturing light, or better said, capturing the essence of light. Even if it’s reality you’re after, light can be the most spectacular reality that awaits you and your camera.  Composition, including lens choice (wide, medium, telephoto etc.), and exposure (deep and dark or bright and wispy) affect the color of light dramatically. Therefore, this subject is always somewhat subjective to the personal tastes of the photographer.

Most of the photos I am showing today, are direct sunrise/sunsets. Many of my first successes in nature photography, in books, magazines and calendars, were of this genre. With that said, I’ve also included some examples of other kinds of light.

Making a picture directly at a source of light, that being the sun if you are photographing nature, does not necessarily mean the golden or red colors of sunrise sunset. Those shafts of sunlight that are formed when they bend around the edges, or streak through the openings, of trees or clouds, may not deliver the color of light that we search for right at sunrise/sunset, but the quality of light cannot not be ignored.1MoreSlides 014


Late or early in the day when the sun begins to create long shadows on portions of the land, is a powerful time for the photographer. It is a time of stunning contrasts as it sets down lines between light and dark. In mountain or canyon country where rocks jut into the sky, this phenomenon begins to take effect well before the sun drops low into that sky. That means the color may be not that of sunset, but the quality of light is still prime. Late or early in the day, but before or after the golden rays of sunrise/sunset, the light has a quality of crispness and definition. This is Black Canyon of The Gunnison in Colorado.3BLCanSanJuan 055

Of course when the first/last rays of golden or red light begin to skim the surface, looking in the opposite of direction of actual sun can produce stunning and inspiring colors. This is especially true when the subject being struck by the sun, is Navajo Sandstone in Arches N. P. in Utah.4WFalls 035bbb

I found out long ago that overcast light not only has value, but it has its own artistic quality. I never headed home from a day of landscape or macro photography,  just because the sun was behind some clouds. In fact at times, it was those clouds that got me out of the house.

This simple landscape of an interesting plant along a river in Aransas NWR in east Texas, is not very spectacular, but it would likely look hideous if the sun had been out when I made it. The quality of light can be bad for certain subjects, and often it is the sun (light itself) that makes it so.5AransasNWR

It’s winter in the Northland and there’s not more beautiful quality of light for a group of ice castles, than that of an overcast day. The quality of light here is beautiful.6Slides5 016

Mostly when I think of high quality light, especially where land and/or water are concerned, I think of sunrise or sunset. With HDR (high dynamic range) imaging and its ability to retain detail in what would otherwise be silhouettes, much of the total color and silhouetting in sunrise/sunset in photos is disappearing. I like what can be done with HDR, but I love what can be done without it. There is great fellowship in the quality and color of light in the images below, yet each image stands on its own.

Most of my exposures were made by metering just away from the brightest part of the scene. That keeps the exposure down with a lot of color saturation in the sky, without turning the image to just color, with no shape and form. If I were making an HDR image of any one of these scenes, I would do the same thing and then without moving the camera, I would take two more exposures one under, and one over my prime exposure. I would then combine them in the editing process. HDR can make nice images but my preference is the slightly more creative interpretation of using that single exposure, and letting the rest fall where it may.7bDSC_2997


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How much light does there have to be in a sunrise/sunset shot for it to be about the color of light?

This first image shows a lot of spectacular sky. I always loved making pictures like this and I think the quality of light, and the simple but potent statement it makes, is very powerful in this picture.50DSC_3000

Not a lot of light in this image, which was made at White Sands, New Mexico. The quality of that light is amazing but it barely casts light on any of the image. This photo is more about pure light than any that I’ve shown you today.52DSC_0285

If you have a whole scene, how much of the light (sunrise) area do you need to show for a quality image. I actually think that this stormy sunrise over Lake Michigan is the most powerful image in today’s gathering of pictures. One little sliver is all you need. Do you agree that the quality of light, including in the stormy and the gray sky, and the shimmer on the lake, and the splash of color at the horizon, is really all beautiful? Can an image, that when dissected down to its individual parts, is not all-powerful, become such when you view the “whole” picture?53SrWh 031bbb

Any image no matter how simple or complex, will at first, and often at the end, be viewed in its entirety. The quality of light, whatever that may be, and no matter how different the light is in different portions of an image, will profoundly affect whether we ultimately accept or reject that image. Photography is about light.

May the light be with you,                                                                                                                       Wayne

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