Learning To See Light

It may seem strange to say that to become a successful photographer you have to learn to “see” light, particularly since the only way we do see anything is because of light.  In photographic terms, however, “seeing” light refers to being able to recognize – and take advantage of — the best light when it occurs.

This recognition process is crucial to nature and wildlife photographers because outdoor lighting changes throughout the day, and these changes dramatically effect the scene you’re photographing.  Only experience and awareness will teach you to recognize changing light because no camera or light meter can register the quality of light.

Outdoor photography 101 teaches us that light quality seems best in the early morning and again in late afternoon.  This light is described variously as “soft,” “cool,” “warm,” “buttery,” “sweet,” and any number of other terms.  This is when you want to be afield shooting, if you can.  Shadows are not as black, bright areas are not as bright, and details in your subject – such as the bark on a tree or the veins in a flower petal — are not burned out and lost.

By contrast, photography 101 also teaches us that light changes to “harsh,” “hot,” “hard,” or “flat” during the mid-day hours.  If possible, you want to minimize your shooting during this period because the extreme brightness does burn out detail and washes out color.

Learning to “see” light simply means recognizing when the light has made this change and knowing what it will do to your photos.  More than one photographer can tell a story about going to a spot and simply waiting for the light to change to his liking.

Of course, there are exceptions to this shoot-only-in- morning/afternoon rule, and recognizing when these exceptions occur is also part of learning to “see” light.

During the morning hours and again later in the afternoon, sunlight has a longer distance to travel to reach earth, due to the earth’s rotation and its orbit around the sun.  Because the sunlight travels further, it passes through more of the earth’s atmosphere, which is filled with molecules and particles of water, gas, dust, smoke, and pollution – all of which cause the light to scatter and spread out.  In simple terms, this makes it less bright and thus better suited for our photography.

The opposite occurs the mid-day hours when sunlight has a shorter distance to travel and thus passes through less of the atmosphere.  Because it encounters fewer obstacles that could scatter it, the light comes in more directly and is much harsher.

Now, a cloudy day mitigates this because it scatters the light – but extra thick clouds may take away too much sun for picture taking.  Then again, sometimes thick, fierce clouds just before a bad storm produce wonderful light.  Smoke and dust do the same, even though they’re much closer to the ground.

The two photos with this column were shot only minutes apart in Kenya’s Amboceli National Park and illustrate what ground dust can do to light.  One afternoon my guide and I found a huge herd of wildebeast moving in a long line across a dusty plain.  They were kicking up so much dust one photo almost appears as a black and white print, even though it was taken with Fujichrome Velvia.  In shooting that photo I blocked the sun out completely.
Then we moved 50 yards to another vantage spot in which the sun back-lit the animals.  The entire scene turned yellowish-gold as the dust scattered the sunlight.

Again, learning to recognize these changes in the light, some of which may last only five minutes or less, is what “seeing” is all about.  The word photography itself is made of two words from Greek, “photos,” which means light, and “graphos,” which means write.  Thus you might say that becoming a better photographer literally means learning to write (or “see”) with light.

You will not learn this is a single day, a week, or a month, but you can begin to see it in a few minutes if you conscientiously study both light and photos.  Shoot a simple picture of your yard or a tree in clear, early morning light, for example, focusing and composing specifically to show detail and color.  Then, shoot the very same photos from the same position around noon under a bright sun.  I promise you’ll notice a change in both the color and detail – neither will be there to the same degree in the mid-day shot.

You can do the same just by studying a scene from your kitchen or office window.  Look at it during different times of the day and you will soon begin to notice it doesn’t always look as bright or as green as before.  If you can observe a scene like this before an approaching storm, you’ll see the change even more dramatically.

That’s what learning to “see” light is all about.  Eventually you will even feel it.

As a photographer, you have to learn this because your camera doesn’t know it, and in fact, neither film nor digital imaging will “see” light exactly as your eye does (digital is closer than film).  Film, especially, loses detail in shadows and highlights, even though your eye may see them.  Thus, part of this learning process also involves realizing how your camera is going to record a scene at that moment.

Obviously, some of your photos will be taken in harsh mid-day light.  There are some technical tricks to help you (coming in Tips & Techniques 3), but you can also try to position yourself so sunlight hits your subject from the side, rather than head-on.  This is known as “side lighting,” and while it will produce some shadows, it will also enhance the texture of your subject.  In my work as a sports photographer for ESPN/Outdoors, this is something we have to do frequently.
“Back lighting,” in which you shoot into the sun, creates silhouettes that can be awesome and is always worth trying if you can isolate your subject against a clear background so its full shape will show.  Sometimes this will create a yellow halo around your subject, which can also be attractive.
“Front lighting,” in which the sun is behind you and strikes your subject straight on, will certainly illuminate the subject but it will usually erase fine detail and may also wash out color.

The best solution, of course, is to learn to “see” the best light conditions, and after a time when you can recognize them you’ll probably also develop your own descriptive term for them.


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