Photography is all about light. In fact, the word photography comes from the Greek words phos (light) and graphe (drawing) together meaning drawing with light. Many photographers want to know if there is a perfect “light?” Can there be an ideal combination of place, time, and season that will make the perfect photograph? Perhaps there is a holy grail of light that should be pursued by anyone who holds a camera in their hands. But instead of searching for hidden treasure maybe a different idea should be explored. The beauty of photography is that any type of light can contribute to a good photograph. The real secret is being able to see the potential, to understand the elements of light—its color, its direction, when it makes an object look peaceful and serene and when it makes that same object harsh and severe. Perhaps photographers should think less about searching for the perfect light and more about knowing how to make the light perfect in any situation.
To start understanding light you have to understand your light source. What is the quality of light? Does it have a color cast? How can you better use the light to enhance your subject or is the light itself your subject? Starting at the beginning, let’s explore light.
Quality of Light. To start understanding quality of light, look at how a subject is illuminated. Are there hard or soft shadows? Are there shadows at all? Hard light is usually characterized by dark well defined shadows. This scenario is usually created by a direct source that is a large distance from the subject relative to its size. The sun and a light bulb without a lampshade are examples of hard light sources. The shadows created by these sources result in a high contrast scene between the subject and the spaces in shadow. This contrast generates tension in an image and builds a sense of drama in the composition. On the other end of the spectrum, there is soft light which is characterized by soft shadows or no shadow at all. Soft light is the result of a diffused light source. A few examples of diffused light are a cloud covered sun, trees shading a subject, or a diffusion disk over a flower. The light is effectively spread out by whatever is between the source and the subject creating a more even light. Without the contrast of deep shadow and a more evenly lit scene, soft light is usually effective for creating a more tranquil, less dramatic mood.
Color of Light. The human eye is sensitive to a large range of colors. However when it comes to a color cast in light, our eyes and brain work together to compensate for any color variation outside of white light. For example, an object such as an apple viewed under various light sources such as sun light, tungsten light, candle light or fluorescent light will always appear to be red. In truth the color of the apple will be affected by the color of the light. The apple in candle light will be more orange where the apple in fluorescent light will be slightly green. While our eyes automatically adjust in different light, your camera may not correct for the color differences. Even the auto white balance on your camera can be fooled which is why it is important to understand the color present in the light you are photographing. Artificial light sources quite often have a color cast depending on the materials used to produce the light. Florescent lights tend to be green, tungsten light produced by household light bulbs have a yellow tint, mercury-vapor lights have a cyan-green color cast and neon lights can be a variety of colors. If you are photographing in artificial light consider how the color of the light source will affect your image. Does the green in the overhead fluorescent bulbs add to the image or will it detract? Is the glowing blue green of vapor lights a good effect in my night cityscape or do you need to use your white balance to correct for that color cast?
Even natural light has different colors depending on the position of the sun in the sky. At midday the light appears to be white and pure and in the morning or evening the light changes color from orange to red as the angle of light is just right, scattering through the particulate matter in the atmosphere. Open shade and cloudy days although both shade, have different hues of blue color. As you photograph, inside, outside, day or night, be aware that the color of a light illuminating a subject can greatly affect the mood or tone the subject assumes in your image. If you are looking at a spectacular landscape think about the things you are drawn to. Look specifically at the light on the landscape and determine if the current lighting is the best way to capture the feel you want. Landscape photographers are instructed to photograph in the morning or evening but have you ever thought about why? At noon the light is bright and hard. Due to the white nature of its color at this time of day, the colors in the landscape are washed out. In the morning and evening, the light is warmer and the same scene is infused with this warmth enhancing the richness of the natural colors.
Light as a Subject. Sometimes the way the light comes through a window in the morning, or pokes holes in the fog, drapes around a tree and then slides across the lawn, is more than enough inspiration to pull out your camera and shoot away. When the light or combination of light and shadow are the subject of your image you must be very deliberate about what you include and what you exclude. Its easy to include more than is necessary in images about contrast and light. Not only do you need to consider the most effective composition but also the most effective exposure. Determining the best exposure means that often you abandon the correct exposure for one that is over or under exposed to give the image the feel you want. The best way to play with the effects of exposure is to bracket. Don’t be afraid to try every exposure in the seven stop range. You may be surprised to find that the image you like the best was the last combination of shutter speed and aperture you would have imagined would work.
Now with a few basic principles of light, look around. Look at the quality, the color of light, pay attention to the shadows or source of diffusion. Photograph in every type of light but do it for the sake of the image not because the rules told you to photograph in the morning. You may hold a high end piece of technology up to your eye but you are the brains behind the lens. Do as the word implies, paint with light.
Doug Johnson Talks about Quality of Light for Landscape PhotographyAs Interviewed by Bob McGowan
For this month’s issue, I contacted Doug Johnson, photographer extraordinaire, instructor, lover of nature and all around great guy. Doug has been a student, assistant or instructor for a long list of RMSP courses including: Summer Intensive, Basic Photography, Northern California’s Rugged Coast: Marin to Monterey, Crown of the Continent: Glacier National Park, and Land of Extremes: Death Valley National Park to name a few. As one of our many capable instructors, I spoke with Doug to get his insight into the importance of quality of light when it comes to landscape photography and the workshops he leads.
What is your personal philosophy on photography and teaching? In a world I perceive to be randomly chaotic, I feel there lies a simple, benevolent spirit in all things, from which I cannot separate myself. When I look through the camera, framed within dimensions, I allow myself to clarify, compose and remove any discord to form a simple image. This is an image my mind’s eye creates to stay in touch with that…spirit. My teaching philosophy is fun, visionary and full of creative persistence. I learn as much from my teaching experience as my students learn from me. The communication of knowledge and experience is always a two-way street.
Would you mind sharing with us a bit about yourself?I’m a freelance documentary, editorial and fine art photographer currently living in Missoula, Montana. I attended RMSP’s Summer Intensive course ten years ago and began instructing photography workshops soon after graduating. I’m originally from Colorado where I was educated in meteorology and then worked as an outdoor educator for nearly twenty years, passionately teaching people backcountry skills in orienteering, mountaineering, avalanche awareness and wilderness first aid. I have one child, a furry golden retriever mix, named Dineh, who picked me out when she was people shopping at the pound. Discovery is finding something…I found photography and my discovery began. Ten years later, I’m still finding photography everywhere I go. I’ve come to recognize it is within the “finding”, not the “finding something”, that is true discovery. When planning a photography workshop are you concerned with meeting a certain schedule? I do not concern myself with meeting a pre-planned schedule of meeting or shooting times for a matter of convenience. Any landscape workshop itinerary should ultimately be planned around when the best quality of natural light happens in order to capture the essence of the landscape. The lectures, meals and sleep schedules support the field experiences. What time of day provides the best lighting for landscape photography and why?The field shooting times (on a workshop) are really dependent on the subject matter and how we want it to be perceived. In most natural landscapes, if the sky is cloudless or partially cloudy, the best opportunity to add color, drama and depth to the subject matter is the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. This time is commonly known as the “magic hour” or civil twilight. If the skies are cloudy or overcast, we can photograph during all times of the day and compose more intimate scenes that show subtle details of subjects like the soft texture of plants leaves or the quiet dance of a river’s current.
What factors do you consider when deciding when and where to hold a field shoot with your participants? It’s definitely a two part process. First, the subject matter has to be appealing and exciting. Second, is to determine when the quality of light will support and communicate the excitement we feel about the subject matter in a photograph. I try to consider both of these elements when deciding when and where to shoot on any particular day.
When it comes to flowing water, ie: rivers or streams, what sort of lighting conditions do you feel are ideal for this subject matter? A soft quality to the light is ideal for capturing the movement in flowing water. Soft light enables the viewer to closely study all the intricate details in the movement itself, whether it’s the power of a waterfall or movements of a babbling stream. This type of lighting can be produced by overcast skies or by shadows from trees, canyons or mountains.
Do you factor in the weather when planning workshops? The weather plays an intricate role in planning the itinerary for any landscape workshop. The goal is to be in the best place at the right time. This way we can utilize the light the weather provides to capture the essence of the landscape we are a part of.
In terms of combinations, what national parks or scenic areas are some of your favorites and in what type of ideal lighting conditions?It’s difficult to name favorites because every national park is so unique in its own way, but I’ll name a few just for fun. Zion National Park during fall color, under the soft light of an overcast day…absolutely stunning! How about Death Valley National Park in November during the hour of civil twilight after the sun has set, when the brilliance of color in the golden dunes begin to fade, and the high cirrus clouds explode into hues of red and orange? Magical!Are there any additional factors you would include when considering lighting conditions and subject matter?Light is the most important tool we use to communicate our feelings about the subject. Whether it’s a soft color quality of light to show the stillness and detail in a beautiful flower or hard, warm side light to show the color and texture of an old barn, light is the essence of the moment. Equipment Suggestions for Landscape PhotographyFor any landscape workshop, unless it’s strictly macro or wildlife, a good focal to range to consider is about 28mm-300mm. If a digital camera has a conversion factor and most do, except for some professional model bodies, this will translate the focal lengths between 18mm-200mm. Manufacturers do make one lens that nearly covers this range, but these lenses can exhibit some chromatic aberrations in the middle and on the edges of the image circle. A better approach is to utilize a series of three lenses; 12-24mm, 28-70mm and 70-200mm. These lenses are very sharp and they will be faster in terms of f-stop as well. As with any photographic purchase, I would advise participants to do their homework and find out what are the best options for their budget and shooting personality.
If they do not own a polarizer, it would be a good time to buy one. This is the one filter digital photographers shouldn’t be without. The filter will enhance many visual characteristics like color and contrast, and yes, even more. It becomes extremely difficult even for the consummate Photoshop® user in post process to replicate what a polarizer can do on a lens at the time of capture. Also, a good steady tripod is imperative for low light situations to create beautifully sharp images.
Due to Neil’s teaching schedule he will be back next month with an article on Digital SLRs
If you enjoyed Doug Johnson’s interview you may want to consider some of his workshops in 2007 and 2008.
Coast of Maine and Acadia National Park October 6-12, 2007Land of Extremes: Death Valley National Park Nov 11-17, 2007For more information about the following 2008 workshops Doug is instructing please call the office.
Basic Photography Advanced Photography: Seattle, WA Crown of the Continent: Glacier National Park Sunrises, Sunsets and Flowing Water Alaskan Adventure Indian Summer on the Upper Peninsula Land of Extremes: Death Valley National Park
Additional resources on Light and/or Landscape PhotographyOutdoor Photographer magazine www.outdoorphotographer.comThe Luminous Landscape web site http://www.luminous-landscape.com/John Fielder's "Photographing the Landscape"Charlie Waite's "Seeing Landscapes"Jim Zuckerman’s “Techniques of Natural Light Photography”