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Taking Your Photography to the “Next Level” (3)

Low angled, early morning light just after sunrise

Shoot When the Light is Right

The quality of lighting on the subject is the “be all and end all” of photography. You can have all the other elements in place, good shooting technique, spectacular subject, the right equipment—but if the light quality is not good, you are going to get “ho-hum” results at best.

How often have you photographed on a beautiful day (e.g., at the beach, or on the lake or at the ski slopes), shot a gorgeous scene, and then been underwhelmed by the resulting image? It just doesn’t look like that calendar shot or magazine image you had in your mind’s eye. You would think that when we see the beautiful sunshine and colors would be the best time to capture them with a camera. But it isn’t. Why not?

The quality of light is the “be all and end all” of photography

Arguably, the two most incredible “technologies” known to man are the human brain and eye. No man-made technology matches their capabilities. Yet to someone who doesn’t understand the differences between the human eye-brain combination and the photographic process, that very technology can be a significant stumbling block to making good photographic images. We let the eye-brain technology fool us. The eye is capable of seeing a huge range of light to darkness (sometimes referred to photographically as “contrast range”). Currently, the best camera/lens combination is severely limited in the contrast range it can “see” and importantly, capture (however, for a different view of this subject, see High Dynamic Range Photography). We measure the “steps” of contrast range in “exposure values” (EV), or “f-stops.” To put this in perspective, a camera can currently capture perhaps 7 of these steps accurately. They human eye can register and see thousands of these steps. The brain then “corrects” these values so that we actually “see” thing that simply cannot be captured by the camera.

early, bright overcast conditions make this image possible

This means that as photographers we must seek lighting conditions that allow us to capture the subject in a limited contrast range. And, there are simply limited times during the day that fit this criteria. The two most common times center around sunrise and sunset. I think I have mentioned the words, “work,” “commitment,” and “inconvenience,” previously. In order to be in place to make an image during these “best light” times of the day, you have to get out of bed very early in the morning and often be on location during regular “mealtimes.” But do it you must, if you want good results. The twilight glow immediately before sunrise is, in my view, one of the best times to catch magical lighting. From then until the sun gets too high, creating two much contrast, is usually a very short window and you need to be there and be ready. Likewise, there is usually a short window just before sunset and then the twilight just after the sun disappears.

It is primarily a matter of the angle of light

What is so special about these times? It is primarily a matter of the angle of light. When the sun first rises, and when it sets, its low angle cuts through the atmosphere (and its impurities) at an angle which creates wonderful, soft, glowing colors, without high contrast. These are the images captured by the camera that are truly memorable and spectacular in print. Because of the way the earth moves around the sun, lighting angles (as do daylight hours) vary with the seasons. During the later Fall and Winter months, the sun is often at a low angle for much longer periods and it is often possible to shoot for longer periods of time after the sun rises and particularly before it sets. This is one of the things that makes Fall in the continental U.S. such a great time to photograph nature.

There are other lighting conditions that can create good images. When the weather (and thus, the light) is changing (i.e., just before or after a storm breaks), dramatic lighting conditions can occur, with shafts of light and lighting at dramatic angles. And, certain subjects lend themselves to days of bright overcast lighting conditions. The overcast skies filter the light and create a much lower contrast, even lighting. This condition is a good time for shooting bright colors (as long as you do not have to include the overcast sky as part of the image), as the low-contrast allows the camera sensor to capture the full range of color. It is also a good condition in which to shoot things like close-ups of flowers and shots of waterfalls.

Controlling the Light

What has been said so far might lead one to think that there is no point in shooting unless these lighting conditions are present. Indeed, one of my most valued mentors and a highly talented professional, Jim Moore, intimated exactly that point to me recently. So what do we do during the “bad light”? As a rule, I try to shoot during the “good light” periods. During the middle of the day, or in those times when it just doesn’t happen (rainy or cloudy overcast mornings or evenings), if I am on a photo shoot, I use those times to “scout” locations and sometimes to take “practice” shots to analyze compositional opportunities (which has really only been made possible by the advent of the digital age). On balance, it is probably the most photographically productive use of those times.

But what if you are on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or a location that you cannot simply return to—or wait out until the conditions are present? There are some things you can do to alter or “control” the conditions, depending on the subject and how you plan to depict the image.

Use a Polarizer – A polarizing filteris probably the most useful tool I carry. I have been able to “save” images during times of the day when it is really too bright to capture the image under ideal light. It is not a “fix-all,” but it can in limited instances, be used to equalize or knock down some of the contrast. It is probably best used around highly reflective surfaces like water.

This high contrast, late morning shot was made using a polarizing filter

Neutral Density Filters – A second filter that can be very useful is a neutral density (ND) filter. Its function is to filter out some of the light reaching the sensor, but in a neutral way. The polarizing filter actually filters out some of the blue light rays which tend to be haphazard and therefore create unwanted directional reflections. So it is a discriminating filter. The ND filter should be (some less expensive filters can have color casts) non-discriminating. While this will not change the quality of the light, there are, again, limited instances in which you might be able to “save” an otherwise un-makeable image. These filters are made in the same “steps” as we measure light in for photography. I carry several, including 2, 4 and 6 stop variations. It is possible to “stack” them to get other combinations.

Back in the film era, the filter in the family that was a serious difference maker was the split neutral density filter. This filter would have approximately 1/2 its surface as a ND filter and the other 1/2 clear. The technique involves placing the clear part over the shadow area and the ND part over the bright area. The theoretical result is again to “flatten” the contrast between these areas of the image. Again, they come in different “stop-values.” The difficulty was always getting the line placed correctly. With images that had jagged lines (e.g., a mountain range top where the sky was bright but the mountain in shadow) are always difficult. There are filters with a “hard” line of demarcation and filters with a gradual or soft line. Many photographers continue to use these filters very successfully. I never really got results I liked with them. With digital images there are techniques that work better for me, using blending and HDR techniques, after taking a series of different exposures in the field. Keep in mind that anything you place in front of the lens is going to degrade the image quality some. It is a matter of degree.

Use Flash – Another way to “flatten” contrast differences, particularly in bright sunlight, is to use flash. What? Flash on a bright sunny day? Seems pretty counter-intuitive. The old Kodak film used to come with a little folded up insert that had photographic “tips” among other things. One of them was to put the sun over your shoulder. That would make sure the subject was lit. So you are on the beach, taking a family portrait, you remember that adage, and you put the sun over your shoulder to have the people’s faces properly lit. What do their eyes look like? All squinty and closed! But if you turn them so they are not looking directly into the sun, in order to properly expose the bright beach scene, their faces will be in shadow. Learning to use your electronic flash to “fill” in some of that shadow, will produce surprisingly nice results. I use a remote cord to get the flash unit off the camera. Sometimes that might mean you need an “assistant” to hold the flash unit.

Screens and Reflectors – If the subject is small enough, you can also filter the sun with a translucent screen of some sort to flatten the light or use a reflecting panel to fill in shadow areas to “flatten” contrast. Photographic companies make any number of these contraptions, but with a little ingenuity, you can make your own. Use cheesecloth and some suitable framing material (pvc pipe works), foamcore, and aluminum foils as materials.

If the light quality is not good, you are going to get “ho-hum” results

The bottom line here is that if you want dramatic, memorable, art quality images you need to learn to work with the light, recognize good quality of lighting, and be willing to get out of bed early and be willing to miss a mealtime!


5 Responses

  1. Another good post in a great series, Andy.

    I usually repeat this 2-3 times during a workshop to keep students focused: “The landscape/nature photographer should always be thinking the acronym LAFSS: Light Always First, Subject Second.”

    I think I know where you’re going in the next post, but I’ll wait to enjoy it too.

  2. Andy, really nice article.

    I took a photo workshop from Chas Glatzer whose website is http://www.shootthelight.com/. While I had done a lot of photography before that workshop, he was the one who left me with the message that it is not the subject you photograph, it is the light on the subject. He couldn’t be more right and your article also makes that clear.

    Great light on a good subject can make a great photo. Poor light on a great subject will never make a great photo.


    • Thanks, Al. I have many photographs that are composed the way I would like them, but have been taken in poor light. There is just nothing you can do to make them anything more than a snapshot if the light isn’t right. I like Jim’s acronym.

  3. Good article Andy! I always have in my bag my polarizer, a ND filter, and I still use ND Grads quite a bit. I do take it as a bit of a challenge when in a “bad light” situation. Instead of just packing it up and dismissing it, I tend to think, “OK – what subject does this light fit the best?”

    • Thanks, Mark. I understand what you are saying. Especially when you spend $$$ and take time off to travel to a location. You want to make the most of every hour. But I sure you will agree that, try as you might, there are simply some times that the light is just “bad.” At those times, I favor either scouting, eating and resting, or taking “practice” composition shots (something we just didn’t do in the days of film).

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