When I first really grasped the importance of light (and its brother, shadow), my photography vastly improved. I heard everyone talking about light but didn’t really get it for about a year or two. I was focused on what camera, lens, f-stop, shutter speed, etc. to use, but when I attended one of my first photo workshops, the instructor gave a slide presentation that stopped me in my tracks. His photos were all waaaaaaaaaay better than mine. Sometimes when shooting the same subject, my images weren’t anywhere close to his, so I asked him why. He simply said, “Light!”
If you can understand how light works, you’ll make better photos. Great light is everything to a great image, but what is great light? It’s subjective and situational. Whether or not you agree with my own choices in the images below, just thinking about this topic will make you better at photography. In other words, just contemplating the question, “What is great light?” will make you better.
Before we get to the images we should start with the basics. I’m not going to go very deep here due to lack of space, but I will give you the data you need to do further research. Here are the four things I think you should know more about when you’re studying light:
1. How much light is there to work with?
2. What direction is it coming from and where are the shadows in relation to that direction?
3. What color is the light?
4. How close or far is the light, is it harsh or soft, diffused or direct, what is its quality?
To start seeing the light, you need to make a conscious effort to think about all the questions I listed above. You need to think about them each and every time you press the shutter button. Eventually, it becomes second nature, just like driving. At first you have to concentrate very hard on what pedal to push when, but after a little while you don’t even think about how to operate the vehicle. You just drive.
To get to the point where this is all second nature to you, it’s best to start by studying other people’s work. Looking at published photographs is one of the best ways to improve all aspects of your photography. Good writers read to become better writers. Good photographers look at lots of photos to become better photographers.
To that end, I thought it might be helpful if I posted a few photos and briefly discussed the light and its impact on the image. Let’s begin with one of my favorite images in my portfolio. It’s from the Lower Antelope Corkscrew Canyon (Hasdestwazi), that is the Slot Canyons in Page, Arizona.
While many photographs have been published from this area, it doesn’t diminish the thrill of making your own. I made this one in 1997 right before the flood. There isn’t much light here. It’s strongest midday when the sun is directly over the slot. By the time it filters down 100′ or more, it’s minimal. Exposures are typically in the 30–50-second range at ISO 50. The direction of the light is unusual in that it’s right on top of the subject—the rock formations. Normally a strong light shining straight down on the subject is unflattering. Here’s a rare exception. The slot canyons offer only this one option; the light has to come from the top. The color of the light is influenced by the subject. In this case red. I made this image on Fuji Velvia slide film. The shift to purple at the bottom of the image is the result of reciprocity failure. That’s something you don’t have to worry about with digital. The light on this day was diffused due to clouds, but still fairly strong.
The next image was made at a beautiful but underphotographed place called the Palouse in eastern Washington state. The old grain elevator is easily photographed with a long lens from Steptoe Butte. But if the light isn’t extraordinary, the image is flat and boring. This is a perfect example of how light can take a mundane object like a grain elevator in a field, and turn it into something special.
The light that day was strong but patchy due to clouds. I had to wait for the clouds to move around enough to get a good light pattern on the subject. The light is low in the sky because it’s around sunrise. This creates a side-lighting pattern, which is great for landscapes since it adds texture to the image. The light is very yellow due to the sunrise. This yellow cast seemed appropriate for this image because the fields turn to a golden yellow hue when the wheat comes in. The light was very direct in some places and softer in others due to the clouds. This interplay between light and shadow is where great images come from.
The next image was made in Yosemite National Park. It’s an HDR image that fairly accurately represents what I saw with my naked eye that day. Not everyone likes it but I do. The purpose of using it here is to show how dramatically light can impact an image, even when shooting HDR.
There wasn’t much light at all on the foreground. Even an hour after sunrise in Yosemite, much of the valley is in shadow. In the old days using film, I would have had to make a choice: I would either expose for the foreground and the mountain and background would blow out, or I could expose for the mountain and the light striking it but the shadows would block up and turn black. Thanks to digital and HDR, I didn’t have to choose. I made five exposures one stop apart and merged them using Photomatix Pro. The strong light hitting the mountain didn’t blow out and the shadowy foreground didn’t block up, despite the wide dynamic range of the image. The light is again low in the sky. This is often key to getting great natural light shots outdoors. Get up early and shoot around sunrise or skip dinner and get the lovely light that comes at sunset. Both times of day will yield a photo with light coming in from a lower direction, which is almost always more interesting than a light coming directly from above. The light was influenced by the orange/red hue of the rock in the background, but a bit blue in the shadows. This is something you can work on in post if you don’t like the blue hue, or you can leave it if you prefer a more natural look.
The next image was made just outside Zion National Park in Utah. The weather played a big role in this shot. The light was literally changing by the minute. First, the mountain was in total shade, then harsh light, then the clouds moved in and everything was different yet again. There’s more than enough light here to work with. The interplay with light and shadow is what attracted me to this image. The light is coming from an early morning sun angle, so it’s not as low as it would be at sunrise or sunset, but still low enough in the sky to create some side lighting and to impact the clouds. The light was very blue, so I added an 81A filter to remove the blue cast and let the natural color of the rock shine through. The clouds created a nice, creamy light source that was diffused and easy on the eyes.
The last picture in this post is from Saguaro National Park. I actually made this image in the ’90s when the place was just a national monument. The key here is there’s very little light since it’s sunset. There’s enough to create a halo on the backs of the cactus spines, which is your hint that this image was 100% backlit. The sun was directly behind the cactus, creating the backlighting effect that gives the image more character than usual. The light is very low on the horizon and has the typical hues you would find at sunset. Because there’s little direct sun in the photo, it’s soft, and it’s mostly obscured by the cactus, so we get a silhouette.
To recap all this in a slightly different way: Study the light. Learn as much as you can about it, particularly outdoors. Try photographing the same subject from the same angle with the same camera, lens, and all the same settings at different times during the day. You’ll note how much the changing light conditions impact your photographs. Then search those images asking yourself why you see what you see. That process will make you a better photographer.
ALL PHOTOS BY SCOTT BOURNE