When I go out to shoot, I don’t ask, “What will I take today?” But rather, “What will I be given today?” – Minor White
The wonderful photographer Minor White was right. And what we are given each day is often determined by the light.
One of the most important lessons in photography is to learn to read the light, and then pick a subject that looks best in that light. An average photographer chooses subjects first. A great photographer studies the light first.
An average photographer steps out side and says, “I think I will do landscapes today”, no matter what the light looks like. A great photographer steps outside and says “The light is soft and non-directional today, so I will do flower portraits.” Or the same experienced photographer steps outside and says “The light is hard and directional, so I will do grand landscapes today.”
Early on morning I arrived at Sprague Lake with Bob (my brother-in-law and photo buddy. We were hoping for great landscape light but things looked iffy. But we were in luck. Beautiful early morning alpenglow painted the peaks across the lake.
A few minutes later clouds rolled in from the east and all of the magic light was gone. We looked at each other and said, “It’s a flower kind of day.” More about that later.
The mountains are the same in both photos. It is the light that makes the difference. A great subject in boring light is usually a boring photo. An average subject in spectacular light can make for a great photo.
A lake on a drizzly day with a flat gray sky makes for a boring photo.
The same lake in the light of the midday sun is just another average photo of a lake.
Drench that lake in the colors of a magnificent sunset and you have a great photo. The light makes all the difference in the world. A goose floating adds a nice extra touch. I was shooting the sunset when I spotted the goose and waited for it to move out of the shadows on the right.
Hard, sunny light works very well for grand landscapes. Everything really pops. Edges are defined. Shadows are bold. Warm light at sunrise and sunset helps even more. Sidelight when the sun is to your left or right makes for great landscape photos too. You get more shadows. Combining sidelight with warm early morning light makes for a dramatic combination.
On the other hand, soft light is great for flower portraits. In fact most flower species look best in soft light. Pick a day with almost no shadows. When the clouds rolled in on Bob and I (story above), we gave up on grand landscapes and started looking for flowers.
Most of the time people look best in soft light too. But that is a topic for another article.
When you head out to take pictures, ask yourself “What will
I be given today?” The answer will often have a lot to do with the light.
Location tip: If you are in Rocky Mountain National Park, Sprague Lake is one of several excellent sunrise locations.
Nature Photography Books: The Three Essentials. If you only read three nature photography books, put these on your “must read” list.
My Two Favorite Introductions to Landscape Photography. If you only get two books on landscape photography, these are the books to get.