In the Language of Light concept, Available Light is everything; it is our day light, our night light, our sunrises and sunsets – without some light there are no photographs. No rocket science here so far.
I believe something that allows accomplished photographers to stand out is their understanding of a few definite properties of light and subjects, and of course, the technical knowledge of how to deal with them.
In my book Seeing the Unseen, I discussed two types of photographers – Proactive and Reactive. The latter tend to go out and see how it goes, taking it on the fly and making whatever images that they can given the available light conditions. Proactive Photographers on the other hand tend to prepare and be aware of potential conditions, with an eye for a specific scene which is already partially visualised.
Let me firstly point out, there are no right or wrong ways to be a photographer, both are equally valid and require skill and vision to produce expressive images based on experiences, whether spontaneous or partially planned. However, for people struggling to realise their full potential, or fail to make images as powerfully as they would like, an understanding of light, its interaction with subjects and a certain degree of preparation can make a monumental difference.
The Universal Variable
Light, part of the electromagnetic spectrum, gets pumped out of the sun at a constant rate, a seemingly endless stream of energy that batters our atmosphere relentlessly. Were it not for the powerful magnetic field surrounding our planet, we’d all be dead, or more likely never have evolved in the first place.
But, the quality of light that reaches our eyes as we gaze across the landscape is far from constant. In fact, the only thing that stays the same, is the fact that it’s never the same! A huge number of variables affect the strength, quality and color of the light on a daily basis.
Time of Day
To name a few.
And here’s the key to this weeks article – it is the quality of the light and how it interacts with your subject that come to determine the images you are capable of making. In other words, it’s the product of two things – Quality and Interaction.
To illustrate the point, let’s look at a few images taken from my office window. The view up to the 5500m Yulong Xue Shan is spectacular; the high altitude winds, moisture, light direction, air quality and season dictate completely what I can do on any given day. From years of experience of this peak, I know it tends to be best in the morning, when the light shines obliquely across its glaciated facets. In the spring, when the winds blow fiercely, the amount of dust in the air makes clarity an issue. The pre monsoon cloud build up in May creates intense plays of light, and so on through a plethora of variables.
In the above image, taken @ 06:11 about 28 minutes before sunrise, we are in late Blue Hour. Some warmth can be seen in the image as a result of scattered sunlight from the atmosphere. 15 seconds @ f7.1 ISO 200 captured a good exposure – 2 stops above the metered reading. (light meters don’t cope too well with Blue Hour.)
The image is generally quite low in contrast, with no clearly defined shadows. It is almost like a giant soft box, with diffused light illuminating the scene evenly.
This second image, taken 29 minutes later, is a far more contrasty scenario. The sunlight hitting the snow forced me to expose for the highlights, and that threw larger areas of the mountain into shadow. I used a 10 stop ND filter to get some streaking in the clouds with a 30s exposure. Because of the strong side light, the mountain shows more depth, shape and structure. Light may illuminate, but shadows define shape.
20 minutes later (still before 7am) – and the light has changed yet again. The more even illumination tends to create a more balanced exposure without such extremes of contrast. The other thing that is quite evident from this third image, is the more neutral tone. Gone is the Alpenglow feel, and instead we see a far more daytime light. From now, right through to perhaps an hour before sundown, we are in the realms of daylight.
As the summer sun rises in the sky, most shadows are chased away, leaving our subjects evenly lit, and due to the crystal clear mountain air, a lot of detail is evident. A circular polariser helps to enhance this contrast by darkening the sky somewhat. The above shot was taken at 13:55 and considering the time of day is remarkably clear. This image would make an ideal candidate for conversion to black and white. The absence of appealing warm light can be counteracted by reducing the image to a more graphic representation.
The view from my office faces north, and the sun illuminates the peak very nicely in the morning, but sets behind another range of mountains to the left. As the afternoon progresses, the mountain gets less defined and eventually becomes quite indistinct, even in very clear conditions. I can still produce some nice images however.
Once in a lifetime
Regardless of our planning, preparation and experience, occasionally nature just throws us a gift. Having lived in Lijiang since 2005, I have only witnessed this spectacle once. The perfect cloud, the perfect light, simply the perfect moment. The fact that I was cycling towards a lake to photograph birds was not ideal. The smallest lens in the bag was a 300/2.8, but thankfully it worked out ok.
The above image was taken early morning in December 2005 and I’ve learned a lot about landscape photography since. It was fortunate that in this case the complete dynamic range of the scene could be captured in a single exposure.
I have hundreds of images of these mountains, many from home, lots from different areas around the valley. The play of light and the affects of the conditions, timing and seasons, change the images daily.
The quality of light and how it interacts with our subjects is the trigger for our image-making. Responding to the dynamics of the scene, deciding how to represent that experience in 2 dimensions. Its all about the Language of Light.