Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles – Light   5 comments

Sunrise over the Olympic Mtns., Washington state.

Good photography is all about overcoming obstacles.  And not just those easy ones like how to afford a good camera, or which tripod to buy.  It’s about tackling problems both internal and external, those you create yourself along with the ones that are present whether you decide to photograph or not.

Light is one of photography’s most important variables.  Light is so important I can only write about it with the expectation that I’ll be leaving a lot out and of necessity coming back to the topic in future posts.  I’ll also be discussing a thing of beauty (top image), which is never smart (and which I never claimed to be)

Obstacles related to light are many.  There is, for example, the struggle to get your butt out of bed at zero dark thirty to catch great morning light, a seemingly insurmountable obstacle at times.  This post will concentrate on finding the right sort of natural light for landscape and nature subjects.  It’s all about making compromises.

Night light:  It's rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn't been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Night light: It’s rare for me to post a sky-only image, and if the setting moon hadn’t been playing an intriguing game of peekaboo with low clouds over the mountains, I would not have shot it.

Finding the Right Light

In natural light, this usually means shooting in the golden hours (or at least with a low sun).  However, it’s not a good idea to be rigid about light.  Sometimes you want bright overcast, other times rainy and overcast, and still others dark, stormy skies.  Sometimes (not often) you even want mid-afternoon light.  And don’t forget about the night (image above), where the light of stars, moon and various ambient sources both natural and human can give you the right look for certain subjects.

How does one know what light works best for a given subject?  My advice for this topic more than any other in photography, is to not look to be taught by others.  Instead, shoot relentlessly and experiment continually.  Become an observant “student of light” and you’ll eventually attain a genuine feel for what light to shoot a given subject in.  After all, you learn the most about light when you use only light as a teacher; you don’t need anyone else, no matter how much expertise they have.

It also takes perseverance to shoot in ideal light.  That’s because, even though you do everything else right, Mother Nature will simply chuckle and at the last minute throw you a curve.  Clouds move in, or clear out.  Light with deep contrast becomes flat for no discernible reason.  Don’t despair; return another day and try again.  The important thing is to take the time to shoot things in the right light, even if that means repeatedly missing dinner or dragging yourself out of bed before dawn.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.

Excellent light falls on mossy pilings at sunset along the lower Columbia River in Oregon.


Shooting Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park represents a somewhat unconventional example.  The thermal pools generally don’t show their characteristically deep blues at sunrise or sunset.  They are at their most colorful with a higher sun angle.  But light on the landscape around the pool is better with a lower sun, so an obstacle related to light pops up if you’re trying to capture Grand Prismatic at its bluest.

During one visit, I wanted to capture the spring in just this way.  I wanted to feature the sapphire color of the mineral-rich water.  I wanted to include a bit of the surroundings to avoid a totally abstract look and lend a sense of place.  Also, as usual, I wanted a composition that differed from the others I had seen, my own unique take on it.

It was obvious that I needed to compromise on the time of day.  By shooting later in the afternoon, I’d risk losing the blue color.  But risks are necessary in photography, especially when dealing with natural light.  The hill sitting just west of Grand Prismatic provided an opportunity.  I thought if I got up higher and had the sun at my back, I might still, because of the angles involved, see that nice blue hue even with a sun that was starting to sink (and cast nice enough light on the pool’s surroundings).

I climbed the hill and, working around a lot of obstructing trees, finally got a clean composition just before the sun sank too low and the pool lost its color.  The hill in the past has been a popular place to shoot this spring from.  But the trees grow higher each year, blocking the view.  It’s an example of not only finding the right light but also handling physical obstacles (discussed in a post to come) to get a good point of view.  The lower sun provided a bonus in addition to good foreground light.  It caused a long shadow to be cast behind a lone snag.

Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring an hour or so before sunset.

That’s it for this Friday.  A long one, but there’s so much to say about light.  I’ll end with one more thought: may you have the best of light this weekend and for all your photo ventures.

The Source: Sunset over Roatan.

5 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Overcoming Obstacles – Light

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  1. Great post and nice observations, especially about light. I find that photography is a constant battle with light. It is one thing to photograph the area you live in because it’s easy to wait for the light to be perfect. When traveling to those once in a lifetime destinations though, the story is much different. There we need to make the best of the situation the sky hands us. I guess that is where technical skills and artistic vision pays off.

    • So true Rich. It’s one reason I now plan longer trips and fewer places if at all possible. But working within limits of any kind forces you to become a better photographer. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Love the Friday Foto Talk. I’m going to Yellowstone early Sept. and a friend has loaned me his 400mm lens. Sure is going to be heavy with the heavy tripod on a 2 day 6 mile walk! Husband and daughter said they’d help. AND how to you carry your big lens? It doesn’t fit in my camera backpack. So anyway, you’ve made me more eager than ever to get to Yellowstone!

    • Thanks Annette! I never have hikes with a really big lens at Yellowstone. On short walks there I just sling the tripod and lens over my shoulder. I have hiked with one before, in Africa. It basically either fits in your backpack or it goes in its own case, which you attach to one or both of the backpack straps in front. I have a 150-600 mm. zoom now that will probably be stuck in my pack while my camera & 1 lens goes in a Lowepro Toploader in the front, attached to the straps or in a chest harness. A big lens in your pack usually makes it so you can’t fit a camera in the backpack, and you can always get one of those neoprene wraps to help protect the lens if necessary. You can even use a regular backpack and get a very large wrap to go around both camera & lens. Clothes could also help protect it. A chest pack (or Lowepro Toploader) could hold a couple extra lenses in front. For any of this it’s key to have a pack that rides well and is very comfortable under load (which leaves out most camera backpacks unfortunately).

  3. This photogshould be wroking for National Geographic.

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