The study of light is one of those things that never ends. The more I photograph light, the more I realize there is to learn about working with light and its infinite variations.
When painters paint, they create the exact type of light they want to have in their painting. Especially in landscape painting, the quality of light is paramount to the feel and mood of the work, and hence the overall ability of the painter to tell a story with his paint brush. Depending on what he/she wants to convey about a scene, a complete understanding of light and how it affects us emotionally is crucial to the success of the piece. The Hudson River School painters in particular were masters of light, both in understanding how it works, and how to use it to elicit emotion, mood, drama, and feel. They spent countless hours in nature observing light, making sketches, and thinking about how to best use is as a compositional and allegorical tool.
“A Gorge in the Mountains”, Sanford R Gifford, MET
As landscape photographers, we do not have the luxury of creating the exact type of light we want or need for a photograph. However, that does not mean we simply accept whatever light is available. I often talk about taking control of available light. This can be many things such as:
- Changing the direction of light by moving your camera relative to the subject. This can have a profound effect on both the light and shadow areas of a composition changing the way the eye travels through an image.
- Changing focal lengths to include or exclude the amount of direct light in the composition. This also affects shadows.
- Waiting for or anticipating light that is more complimentary to the subject and/or composition.
- Coming back another day or season.
But more often than not, coming back another day or season is the best choice. There’s no getting around the fact that good light is not great light. A truly successful image contains great light, and as we know, that’s often extremely elusive. Good light is fairly common if you spend enough time in nature and learn to recognize it. Great light is a gift. And when it comes, I instantly see why painters spend years developing their ability to use it as a powerful tool. We need to do the same. The study of light is one of the best things you can do to improve your ability to make successful images.
Often I’m asked to critique images and offer suggestions on what can be improved. And often the answer is “better light.” That’s not something many want to hear, because it’s out of your control. But that’s where landscape photographers pay their dues. Invest time, lots of it.