In a follow-up to a previous article, “A Study in Vision, Light, and Shadows”, I decided to share my thoughts and experiences on my most inspiring topic in photography – light. For simplicity, I decided to write about light in a narrow context from the perspective and experience of a landscape photographer, since outdoors scenes are what I gravitate to. Much of the analysis and discussion that follows is equally applicable to other genres of photography, such as portraits, macro, still-life, and commercial photography. In this article, I will cover broadly what quality of light means for me in landscape photography as well as discuss a variety of scenarios where the scenic photographer can use different properties of light to create a given effect. Please note that this discussion is based on my own personal observations and experiences, which may differ from those of other photographers. My goal is to help beginning landscape photographers understand the different qualities of sunlight and how this instrumental tool can be harnessed to fulfill the visualization process.
Crepuscular light in the West Fjords, Iceland
Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 G ED VR
As visual artists and photographers, when we hear or read a reference about the “quality” of light, we may ask, “What exactly does that mean?” Visual artists (painters, sketch artists, sculptors, photographers) can talk about light at length, but a consensus on just what constitutes “good light” or “bad light” can be elusive. The short, if not nebulous, answer to this question is that the quality of light may mean different things to different photographers and perhaps hold a different meaning at different stages in their discovery process. The truth is that there may not always be a “best” quality of light that is applicable to all situations or cherished by all photographers.
What are some of the qualities of light that scenic photographers seek? Is there a common denominator? Some photographers may cherish a “warm” scene . . .
Nikon D5000, Nikkor 55-200mm f/4.0-5.6 G ED VR
or a “cool” scene . . .
Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR
Some photographers may prefer to work with so-called “hard” light . . .
Nikon F6, Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 Ais, Kodak T-Max 100, Wratten #15
or “soft” light.
Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 G ED VR
Fundamentally, I view light as the requisite physical tool and aesthetic device to translate artistic vision into an image that conveys what the artist was feeling at the time of opening the shutter. Many landscape photographers (myself included) may describe and swear by “magical” light that may be difficult to express in words, but they surely know it when they see it. One of my favorite quotes from the incomparable Galen Rowell is, “My first thought is always of light“. Mr. Rowell’s philosophy is the epitome of the technical and aesthetic imperative of the photographic process. In the video clip below, please scroll to the 1:45 mark to hear Mr. Rowell speak with passion about his approach to light.
In the creation of a landscape photograph, I approach the quality of light with two interrelated properties in mind: the directionality and the color temperature. Why these two properties? The directionality of light determines the all-important quality of *shadows*, the *contrast*, and the *textures* in the landscape. Shadows, in turn, are what create depth, shape, and dimension in the scene and may also confer a provocative mood and emotion to the photograph.
To help beginning photographers understand the various properties of light, let’s take a look at a few controlled demonstrations of the directionality of light. Consider a plain sheet of crumpled copy paper. If we vary the directionality of light, would this influence the physical appearance and mood of this subject? The following photo shows the paper being illuminated solely with an overhead incandescent ceiling lamp. The directionality of this lighting is more or less even, but not completely. As you can see, there are shadows that lend a sense of shape, dimension, and texture, but the effect is neither compelling physically nor emotionally. Actually, it looks somewhat flat because the shadows are relatively flat.
Next, let’s adjust the lighting by keeping the overhead incandescent lamp on and placing a photoflood lamp in front the subject, directly behind the subject, and from both sides. Again, the lighting is roughly even. This is similar to the light of an overcast sky, for example, where sunlight is illuminating the scene from all directions (i.e., the soft box effect) and shadows are being filled in. Compared to the previous image, this subject bears a similar physical and emotional appearance – lifeless and boring.
But wait . . . what happens if we change the directionality of the light? This is where the drama unfolds. Let’s turn off the overhead ceiling lamp as well as the lamps from behind, in font, and from the right leaving only the paper illuminated from the left side at a low angle.
Wow . . . what a difference. This particular light has created a starkly different appearance and emotion. With the source of light now being unidirectional and raking across the subject at a low angle, we can perceive longer shadows, more shape and contours, more textures, and a heightened sense of depth that were minimal in the previous more evenly lit subjects. With more prominent visual cues of well-defined shadows alternating with highlights, the mind is more inspired to interpret and “see” faces, mountains, valleys, hills, defects, and creases.
What about other forms of the directionality of light? Can the visual artist and photographer still create this dramatic type of rendition without side lighting? To find out, let’s illuminate the paper solely with a lamp from behind at a low angle (i.e., backlighting):
Very interesting . . . compared to the previous image made with side lighting, there are stark similarities and differences. For one, the long shadows remain, which means we can appreciate the same physical attributes (shape, texture, depth) as well as a dramatic emotion. The difference is that the “landscape” itself has changed because of the change in the direction of the shadows. Instead of long shadows being cast perpendicular to the axis of the lens, the shadows are now being cast towards the lens. Thus, with a new pattern of alternating shadows and highlights, the mind can now interpret a completely different scene. This rendition bears “new” faces and mountains, if not a different identity. Because the shadows are different, structures that were previously seen with side lighting may be less prominent, may be no longer appreciated, or be interpreted differently by the viewer. Conclusion? Two different sources of light . . . two different sets of shadows . . . two starkly different moods and interpretations – all by virtue of directionality of the light.
OK, what would happen if we keep the light unidirectional but illuminate the subject from directly in front (i.e., light source behind the lens)? Based on the previous examples, can you predict the directionality and “quality” of the shadows? That is, what do you think the lens will “see” from this type of light? And what physical and emotional impact would this light have on the image and therefore on the viewer?
As one would expect, in comparison to side lighting and back lighting, the front lighting delivers a starkly different rendition. Because the shadows are now headed away from the lens, they are more hidden, in much the same way the shadows were hidden in the first two examples when they were filled in by more even lighting. With the shadows now more concealed from view, predictably we lose much of the physical depth, textures, shapes, and mood that were prominent with the side lighting and back lighting. The front of the subject now appears “smoother” with loss of textures, creases, and defects. Comparatively, this effect is no more compelling than the “even lighting” in the first two examples. In essence, the front lighting is similar to the quality of light that many portrait photographers use, namely front diffused lighting (i.e., butterfly lighting) to conceal wrinkles, pores, creases, and defects on the skin of the face. By concealing shadows and thus minimizing texture, the viewer interprets a softer and smoother surface. For glamour photographers, this quality of light may be what is desired for effect; but for the landscape photographer, recording these defects is *exactly* what we desire. We want to treat our audience to alluring textures, creases, deep shadows, and maybe deliver a dramatic mood and story.
As you can readily deduce from these simulations, shadows and contrast are an essential visual cue to the human mind in the perception of shape and depth in three-dimensional space. Without these visual cues, the mind would otherwise interpret a flat scene, which may not be desirable from an aesthetic standpoint. Further, these demonstrations strongly infer that the quality of light that lends itself well for landscape photography is low angle, unidirectional light from the side or directly behind the landscape. Hence, the way in which the photographer uses the direction of light to create a photograph is essential to creating the overall physical and emotional impact of an image. This beautiful phenomenon explains how a given photographer with a given artistic vision (or two different photographers with different life experiences and artistic visions) can photograph the same subject and come away with completely different images. In my humble opinion, this is the epitome of photography as a form of art. It really *is* all about the light; the “latest greatest gear” is irrelevant . . .
Now, let’s turn our attention to real life examples of the quality of light in outdoor photography.