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If there’s one lesson I’ve learned as a landscape photographer that proves its value over and over again, it’s the idea that “ideal light” is independent of the actual time of day.
That may strike you as a controversial statement. But what if you start with the premise that a successful image is fundamentally based on strong composition? Ideal light is essential because it is what gives an image a particular feeling; conveying some sense of the photographer’s emotions.
Light however, isn’t an isolated ingredient you add after that fact, as many would suggest when they proclaim that golden hour is the only valid time to photograph. Light is composition, and so it can’t be added to a composition. It interacts with what’s inside your viewfinder and suggests how best to compose an image.
So often I’ve seen photographers pack up and leave a location soon after sunrise or sunset, only to miss a better opportunity afterward. It’s as though they’re on a schedule, and the schedule dictates the window of opportunity to capture images, never mind what they’re feeling.
But the best time to make an image is when the light provides the strongest composition to convey how you feel at any particular moment in nature.
I will agree that more often than not the best time is during golden hour, given how much softer, directional, and warmer the light is. It’s when I venture out most often with my camera. But it’s not the camera or picture-making that motivates me. It’s the experiential quality of being in nature when the light, the atmosphere, and my inner world are emotionally connected.
And that can happen at any time of day, as was the case with this image made almost three hours after sunrise. What attracted me most was the hypnotic repetition of the vertical shapes with increasing variation from foreground to background; scale, spacing, tonality, frequency.
But what makes this particular composition work, what in essence creates the composition, is the light. The backlight (meaning the light is coming towards me) not only emphasizes the pattern and repetition, it simplifies it. It separates the repeating shapes from everything else (the snow,) and even strengthens it with the shadows that add depth and a simple way to lead the viewer into the picture.
Standing in front of the scene I saw this within my entire visual field—but there was lots more everywhere else; chaos. The challenge for all of us is to become aware of what we’re actually seeing, and then using the camera (through focal length, perspective, aperture, shutter) to remove everything that is not a part of that; the non—essential.
This for me, is the act of composing. Removing as much as possible until only what matters remains. What matters is what resonates; what captures our imagination, what makes us press the shutter button. And almost always that isn’t everything that’s inside the viewfinder—until you actively remove what doesn’t matter.
At the end (or the beginning) it was simply a feeling of stark contrasts—the cold forest highlighted by an overnight snowfall that reminded me that natures beauty is always available regardless of location, season, or time of day.
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Robert, I have to agree with your statements above. Yes, most photographers are looking for the golden hour and why not; the quality of that light is nothing short of amazing. I tend to try and lean a little more in the direction of composition, finding the right composition inside of the larger landscape or scene. This for me has been a driving forces that has enabled me to search for and start seeing the un-noticed or often times missed micro elements of the bigger landscape. I know for me this has not only elevated my creative mindset but also has improved my work.