Learning to See Light

Sat May 20 2017

Photography is impossible without light. On the surface, it seems like an obvious statement. Images are created through light entering the lens and recording images on film or a digital sensor. We open the aperture of our lens to expose that light for a certain period of time, depending on light conditions, to make this happen.

But have you ever wondered why your pictures are drab, or lack that extra “oomph” that you thought you saw when taking the picture? This is where light really becomes important, in creating that division between a good image and a great one. We have to be able to see light in all its qualities, and help our camera see that light the same way our eyes do.

This is one area where it helps to have learned photography in the film days. Standard film is rated for a certain type of light – bright sunshine. You had to know the parameters of when that film worked at its optimum efficiency to know when to shoot it – not only time of day but location. If you were not operating within that optimum range of light, you either compensated with a filter or you chose a different type of film (one rated for indoor – tungsten light, for example). On a cloudy day, you would put a warming (81A or 81B) filter, or you might use a color compensating filter in a thick rainforest to countermand the moisture that would turn your scene blueish green.

Nowadays, you can overcome these challenges with your white balance setting – no need to change film to match the light or put on a filter. But you still need to know how to see light. And some of those lighting conditions that affected film will also affect your digital camera.

Have you ever heard of “warm” light or “cool” light? These terms are based on both measurable conditions and perception. Think of that light you see first thing in the morning, or late in the evening. It casts a gold, luscious hue across the landscape, adding a sense of warmth to the landscape even on a cold day. Similarly, in the middle of the day when the sun is high, everything seems to take on a blueish, cool hue, present a stark, contrasting world of harsh shadows. These are based on the temperature of the sunlight as measured in degrees Kelvin. Primarily, it is caused by the sunlight’s passage through our atmosphere, and how much atmosphere is in between you and the sun.

Between the two, that warm, golden light is simply much more appealing. It is why photographers work on the margins of the day to capture their more compelling images. A great way to see the difference is to photograph the exact same scene, with the exact same composition, throughout the day – from first light to last light. See how the quality of the light makes you feel about the scene, how shadows affect detail and contrast.

The other part of seeing light aside from understanding the quality of light is how light affects the subject. Morning or evening light are not only great for quality of light, but for adding texture to the landscape. Mountain ridges, rocks, and sand dunes are more defined, more pronounced when there are shadows from low light that define their details. These details are lost at midday when the sun is shining from directly overhead. The same subject will have a different feel when it is front-light, side-lit or back-lit. Those variations in lighting will bring out different details or change the mood of the subject entirely. Silhouettes are great for creating striking, graphic images that pare the landscape down to its bare essence.

But always remember that your camera is far more limited than your eyes in rendering details across the spectrum from pure black to bright white. You can stand in a shaded scene and see details in the shadow as well as the brightly-lit areas in the distance. Cameras cannot do that. Even the newer, more professional-grade cameras still have limitations in seeing those details across the far ends of the dynamic range. That is why many use a photo technique called HDR – high dynamic range – photography. The photographer captures the same image using multiple photos, each captured at a different exposure. The photos are blending using software to combine the “best” exposures throughout the scene to form a single image. The concept is based on a technique that was employed in the film and darkroom days of taking two exposures – one for the bright area and one for the dark area – and combining the two images during printing.

But HDR photography is a poor substitute for careful composition, technique and exposure, and often produces rather garish results. The best approach is to realize your camera’s limitations and address them in the field. One of the common landscape challenges you can find in landscape photography is photographing a scene where the foreground is in shade but the background is in full sun. A straight exposure will either make the foreground too dark or the background overexposed. We overcome this by using tools that can help the camera overcome its shortcomings. The principal tool is a graduated neutral density filter – half gray and half clear – it darkens (with a neutral gray tone) the area that is bright and allows the foreground (covered by the clear area of the filter) to get a longer exposure. The end result in most cases will be the same as an HDR image, but will look more natural and allow you to control the exposure in camera and in the field.

The other part of overcoming your camera’s shortcomings involves time in the digital darkroom. Due to some rather egregious abuses by some photographers, “Photoshop” has now become a verb that represents some sort of wrongdoing (“Did you Photoshop this?”). But Photoshop or similar photo processing software is an essential part of completing the image. Ansel Adams didn’t stop with taking a photo, and neither should you. In addition to your camera’s inability to record light across the dynamic spectrum, it often pales (literally) in the quality of color as well. Dodging and burning an image (lightening the dark areas and darkening the bright) as well as increasing contrast and hue were all part of the wet, film darkroom process. There is no reason to not use those tools in the digital darkroom as well. Because, again, we are helping our camera to record a scene the way our eyes saw it.

Photography is more than recording a scene or a moment. It is recording light in all its wondrous qualities. The better we can learn to see that light and help our camera process it, the more compelling images we will produce.

dynamic shadow and light
ambient light