“It’s all about the light!” How often do we hear this refrain when discussing photography? But, there are many times we don’t see the light for what it is.
In part one of this article series, we talked about how light is recorded and translated into a digital image. We also reviewed the concept of dynamic range and how to read and use histograms to maximize the dynamic range in your photographs. Part two is about learning to “see” the light and understand how a scene will translate to a digital image.
Capturing perfect light in your images depends on two things: your ability to see it accurately, and your ability to capture the light within the limits of the dynamic range of your camera. The light falling on a landscape can be a complex mix of both direct and indirect light. It is critical to understand how to balance complex lighting patterns in a single image.
Including the light source in a scene increases the contrast ratio, makes it more difficult to calculate an accurate exposure and often results in a photograph that is less appealing to our eye. Trained photographers often work with reflected light or “luminance” light, excluding the source in their compositions.
In nature, the atmosphere enhances the quality of the light. Clouds and moisture in the sky scatter the light, diffusing it. This scattered soft light results in lowering the contrast in the scene, typically creating the ideal dynamic range for your digital camera.
Capturing light isn’t just about how much light exists but also about considering the source and quality of light. Light comes from three directions:
- Direct light
- Back light
- Side light
In addition to these types of directional light, there is the quality of light, often described as soft, hard and low light.
Pre-Visualizing Post-Processing Potential
Let’s face it, the light is not always perfect. In these more common conditions, there are still many pictures to be created, and with an understanding of editing, you will be able to pre-visualize the potential. What helps me understand the light in these situations is to divide the scene into regions of similar densities. I first consider all the darker regions, then the midtone regions, and finally the highlight regions. Any value between 30 percent and 70 percent is a midtone. Above those values are highlights and whites; below are shadows and blacks.
Most landscape photography occurs during sunrise or sunset. When I plan to photograph either, I sometimes break the rules and include the sun itself, but I carefully capture the moment when the sun is barely showing above the horizon. I capture this exact moment for three reasons. First, the sun will create a special type of lens flare (called a “star”) with all the rays pointing downward rather than pointing in all directions. Second, the sun will add less contrast to the scene of the landscape in front of my camera when it is partially obscured by the horizon. The third consideration when photographing a sunrise/sunset is focal length. If I use a very wide-angle lens, 24mm or wider, the sun itself will be tiny. By using a wide-angle lens, I am revealing more around the sun than the sun itself, a combination of the backlight, reflected light and soft shadows. Over the years that I’ve photographed the sunrise and sunset, I’ve become more interested in this light surrounding the sun itself. Eventually, many of my favorite scenes captured at sunrise or sunset were looking away from the sun.
As I became more intrigued with reflective light, I found myself working on cloudy days. The cloud cover forced me to observe non-directional light and color. We acknowledge color the way our eyes perceive it, and moreover, the way we personalize it. Not only do many of us see a particular hue of color differently than others, but this also has an effect on our perception of the image we’re viewing.
Contrast has a way of overshadowing color. For example, if you look at a grass lawn on a sunny day, it looks green. If you look at that same lawn on a cloudy day, you will most likely notice all the different shades of green, some with yellow and some with darker greens. This low-contrast light helps us acknowledge subtle nuances in colors. Acknowledging subtle differences in the color of light, especially ambient light, is critical to understanding light itself.
On this cloudy day in Svalbard (above), a fog bank arrived, scattering the harsh sun into a soft cast. Notice the blue light in the fog being reflected up from the surrounding ocean. Also, notice the yellow in the bear’s coat. Polar bears often get seal oil stuck in their coats. This seal oil grows algae and gives the coat a yellow-green cast. All these colors would not be as apparent in full sun, and the coat of the polar bear would appear white.
Blue hour is a great example of a natural color cast. During this time of dawn and dusk, the sun is just far enough below the horizon that the sunlight’s blue wavelengths dominate the spectrum because the longer reddish wavelengths are absorbed in the Earth’s ozone. This blue cast of light is natural and must be acknowledged. And once you do, you see that it’s creating a blue cast on everything around you.
When you become aware of color casts, you’ll begin noticing similar subtle differences throughout the day, for example, at sunrise versus an hour later. As the sun rises through the Earth’s atmosphere, the color of the sunlight becomes closer to white and less red.
However, you can determine how much of that blue cast you want showing in your final image by setting a manual white balance in your camera or changing the white balance in your post-processing software. The color cast can be described using the Kelvin color scale, in which the higher numbers are bluer and the lower numbers more yellow. You can reference a Kelvin color scale to view all the potential options. The temperature on a sunny day is 5,500 Kelvin. The temperature of an incandescent light bulb is 2,700 Kelvin, and the temperature of blue hour is around 10,000–15,000 Kelvin, depending on your latitude. Most editing software includes a tool to adjust the Kelvin white balance in an image. The tool in Lightroom is in the Develop module and is located at the top of the Basic Panel and called Temp and Tint. These two sliders are designed to compensate for a color cast. For example, if you move the slider to a lower Kelvin number, you compensate for an image captured in a setting with a much higher Kelvin setting. Two sliders give you the opportunity to move the white balance point within a color sphere. This allows you to move that point up and down as well as back and forth.
The images above were captured in the early morning during a pink cast. The sun was still below the horizon and reddish sunlight was striking the high clouds, which were reflecting that same reddish cast onto the entire scene. The top image was captured using the auto white balance in the camera. The image on the bottom shows what happens when a manual white balance is set on the white wall of the church on the hill. Notice how much pink is removed from the scene. The bottom version has an accurate white balance set for this scene. The subjective decision every photographer must make is how much of this natural cast they should leave in the final image.
Direct, middle-of-the-day sunlight is difficult to photograph. Shadows are dark, and there’s usually little contour in the landscape and lots of haze. There’s often so much haze that it’s difficult to see through. These conditions are definitely not something I look for, but despite all that, there can be some interesting photographic opportunities. First, I often think in black and white. I do this because the colors are typically oversaturated with all of the light, and the haze is easier to remove in black and white processing. This all depends on where you are and if there is enough visibility. Wildlife, interesting geology and dynamic shadows can all have photographic merit.
During these times, I find several aspects of the light intriguing. A cloudless sky becomes a blank canvas to be used as a background. Subjects can be placed compositionally against this backdrop and profiled. Shadows can be used as graphic elements to lead the eye where no detail is needed.
We’ve talked about different types of light and ways to learn to pre-visualize how the subtleties of light in a scene will be captured by your camera. In part three of this series, we’ll bring all of these concepts together as we work through the post-processing steps to help you realize that vision.
This three-part article series is excerpted from The Art of Luminosity by Marc Muench, available as a free download at muenchworkshops.com/ebook.