Light

Maybe it seems silly to talk about light and photography. It seems obvious. But light is one of the things many photographers obsess about, worry about, plan around. Good light, bad light, golden hour, etc.

As photographers we need to need to be very aware of light. We cannot make photographs without light. The light we have at any given time strongly influences the pictures we make. Let’s talk about awareness of it rather than trying to tell you what light you should or shouldn’t use.

“Good” light

Good light. Ah, the holy grail. Many people search for it all the time. I know photographers who will not take their cameras out unless the light is “right”. Sometimes, I confess, I do it myself. You know, its a blizzard out, I won’t bother. The light isn’t right.

This very elitist view is unfortunate, but people come to the attitude honestly, because that is what many instructors teach. They say you have to research a location, find the exact right time of year and angle of light for a particular landscape subject. Then hope the weather cooperates on the one hour window have you allowed yourself to shoot your subject.

And “golden hour”, the prime time for all outdoor photographers. Many people are taught that it is worthless to even try to shoot after the sun has been up an hour and until an hour before it sets. Learn to think different. You are needlessly limiting your opportunities.

If your thing is shooting portraits perhaps you prefer an overcast, soft light day. This makes gentle, even, predictable light for excellent results. No doubt, but how many of those ideal times do you have? And how many good opportunities do you miss because the light is not exactly the way you want?

“Bad” light

Photo instructors teach, or at least imply, that there is bad light that should be avoided. The harsh light of midday is a prime example. It is made to seem that no self respecting photographer goes out to try to shoot when the sun is high overhead. The shadows are harsh and the light is flat and boring. At least, that is what they say.

Or maybe it is a uniformly overcast day with a bright but featureless sky. Terrible we are taught. There is little tonal separation and the sky is flat and boring. You can’t shoot good landscapes then.

Or after sunset when there is no direct light and the exposure times are getting long. That is another time people pack up their equipment to leave.

Or even if you are shooting in midday (shame on you) but you forgot to being your 11 stop neutral density filter to being the light levels down enough to do a 10 second exposure of that waterfall to streak the water like you intend. That must mean the light is bad. Or…

Adaptable

OK. If you have held on this long you will probably get that I’m suggesting that light is not good or bad, it just is. Use the light you have. Embrace it and figure out the best way to use it. In most of the examples I cited above the photographer had a fixed expectation of what they wanted to see and shoot. If the light did not match their expectations, it must be “bad”.

Most of us do not have the resources of, say, National Geographic funding our shoots. If we take a trip to a location we have been wanting to photograph, we can’t just hunker down and wait it out for a week or 2 if the weather is not what we wanted. We have to be flexible and adaptable.

If we get to our location and it is closed for some reason, we cannot change that. But we can find something else maybe even more interesting. Same with the light. Figure out what works right now. What you end up with may be better than what you planned.

Try practicing this flexibility. It is a great creativity exercise. An attitude and practice is what Jay Maisel calls “going out empty“. That is, leave your expectations at home. Just wander around and learn to see things that are interesting. Things the light works for. Things that excite you. In doing this you develop the skill to be able to work with what you have before you. To let the conditions, including the light, guide what you do. But no matter the conditions, to be able to make interesting pictures.

Street photographers are probably better at this than most of us. They have to be adaptable. Light not working here? Move. Can’t find the subject you had in mind? Get interested in what is there. They are used to letting their creativity guide them to good shots.

Awareness

I’m afraid too many instructors train their students to be internally focused. To have a preconceived idea of what they are going to shoot and to reject anything else. There are certain times when a fixed idea of what you want is required, but for most of us, it does not have to be the normal pattern.

I encourage you to instead be aware of the light, of the surroundings, of the activity or the scenes around us and flow with it. Use your creativity to make something interesting out of what you find rather than coming home disappointed because you did not find exactly what you intended.

Take the photo at the top of this article for example. Midday, flat light, hazy, featureless sky, not what I would usually look for. But I think this works. 🙂

Maybe it is too far of a stretch, but it seems to be an attitude of gratitude. Be thankful for what you have and learn to find surprises that delight everyday. Who knows where it will take you?

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