The common denominator in all photography, is light. Without light, there is no image. We can argue all day about which light is the best (I would say all is), but it’s hard to deny that light transforms any subject through its revealing qualities. Quality, quantity, color and direction of light can change how we view any given subject, including whether we think that subject is intense or serene, or important or insignificant. .
I’ve had many days in my life where I simply drove around looking for photo opportunities. More often than not, it was not the thought of a subject that moved me out the door to my car, it was the light. I was in essence, looking for something to put “in” the light.
I know that old lighthouses are considered a cliché by many when it comes to photographic subjects. Dramatic light produced by a mix of blue skies, white clouds and storm clouds in the late afternoon, make any subject interesting. The conditions almost create a “tunnel of light” effect. An 18mm wide-angle lens accentuates that effect.
This is an old small format (35mm) film picture made in the early 1990s in Arches N. P., Utah. I had already made some sunrise (it’s about the light!) landscapes with my medium format gear, and decided to change to 35mm in an attempt to make some lizard pictures, while the light was still warm. Warm sidelight will create lush colors and detail in a lizard just as it will on the land. I was having no luck with lizards so I looked up and saw this image first with my eyes and then with my mind. The sandstone is already a warm color but adding some warm light to it, not only accentuated that warmth, but it separates it from the cool blue sky. The sidelight, also creates small shadows in the rock, which brings out the detail and texture. It would have done the same thing with a lizard.
I’ve shown this image before, but it really does give us the definition of very late (or very early) light and how it can transform, a very ordinary subject into something special. In average light, this subject would be looked at by most people, including photographers, as just some weeds. I was teaching a workshop at the time and this gave me the perfect opportunity to teach (preach?) about light. I also took the opportunity to move our camera positions in order to put a deep shadow in back of the subject, which provided more contrast (separation), making the golden grasses stand out even more.
Of course, when you point a camera directly at the rising or setting sun, the colors are often very reddish. This image made at Cave Point, Lake Michigan, in Door County, Wisconsin has some rare detail for this sort of image due to the white snow and ice on the waters close to shore.
This is a medium format film image and I used a handheld 1% exposure meter, pointing it at the most mid toned area of the sky. How can I remember that? I don’t remember doing all that but I know (and knew) how to expose for what I want the finished image to look like. Committing oneself to automatic patterns in order to take care of the Xs and Os of photography, frees us up to be creative. You can always change the technical decisions you make, but when you have a habit of doing what works, you will make fewer mistakes.
Straight (non sunrise or sunset) front light has a purpose as well. That front light is less flat and more colorful during winter and early spring in northern locations. This natural history image of a pair of mated Bald Eagles at the nest, works well with this early March photo made in northern Wisconsin. The low-level front light of that time of year helps keep the sky blue and provides “eye candy” in the form of color and detail, despite the fact that the light is from the front.
Backlight is always risky business but even with wildlife, it can be beautiful under the right circumstances.
I photographed these Pronghorn in Colorado (high elevation) in July. The high elevation helped to filter the light a little softer than it would be a lower elevations. I helped make this picture because I could see that the sunlit foreground was reflecting back a little bit into the front of the animals.
Dappled light created on a sunny day by broken bits of cloud cover, is usually avoided by most photographers especially wildlife photographers. I think it “can” provide mystery, drama and art to otherwise mundane images. Of course it helps to have a beautiful animal to photograph who just naturally creates their own art.
Dappled light can also make landscapes more intriguing. This old shot from (again) Arches N. P. was grabbed by me as I was on my way out of the park. I quickly set up my camera and tripod and made my pictures. Shortly thereafter, the clouds moved out and this scene was quite bland and featureless. The fact that the “spotlight” affect is on the beautiful Lasalle Mountains also helps.
Slight sidelight will provide the photographer with subjects that are full lit, as the light is mostly frontal, but with the addition of some shadows to add a somewhat dramatic but pleasing element to your picture.
These images are those of Yellow-bellied Marmots, and a Pika. They were created in Rocky Mt. N. P., Colorado.
High bright light will often work well with wildlife. A thin cloud layer over a bright sun, acts like a giant diffuser, similar to what might be used in a model shoot. It takes the harshness out of the image, while leaving your subject (s) very well-lit.
The first picture is that of a Canada Goose Gosling, and the second a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel.
There are certain subjects where I consider soft, overcast light to be the most beautiful light there is. Overcast conditions actually reduce contrast, (yes contrast is a type light that I often love), and reveal all the subtle details of color and tone. It saturates gently but does so thoroughly.
These first two images of fall Aspen Trees in western Wyoming contain all of the glory of their autumn color, but do so with gentle loving care.
Flowers are another subject that benefits from soft light. This picture was made deep in a forest and those flowers would have very likely been covered in spotty light on a sunny day. These woodland flowers are glorified by the overcast.
Basic landscapes such as this one of Mesa Falls in eastern Idaho, can benefit from the gentle approach of a cloudy day. There is inherent subject contrast in this image due to the different ways we think of soft water (from a slow shutter speed), green plants, and hard rock. If this would have been done in sunshine, I would have opted for a fast shutter speed to stop the water drops and show the power of this rather large waterfall, and proving that all light can be good light.
Most of my cloudy day landscapes are created with the sky omitted from the composition. If the sky provides interesting cloud forms, especially those of storms, I will show them in the finished image. The autumn scene with the mountain is a good example.
I have written over 900 posts here at Earth Images and at least a few dozen deal primarily with the subject of light. In places like Flickr Photos and Facebook, when people comment on photos from others, they often mention the light. The fact that so many are seeing the light is a major step up from just a few years ago. That being said, I can tell, that most commentators, really don’t know what it is about the light that they like. When they began to learn to recognize the specifics about the light and what they find interesting about it, only then will they be able to harness that vision and turn it into a useful, and creative tool for making the images that they want.
Long, live the light, Wayne