Friday Foto Talk: Myths of Photography – The Tyranny of Light   24 comments

Beautiful light floods the Columbia River in Oregon at sunrise, and Beacon Rock (my subject) is almost lost as a result.

Beautiful light floods the Columbia River in Oregon at sunrise, and Beacon Rock (my subject) is almost lost as a result.

You hear all the time about the importance of light in photography.  And most often light is combined with rich color as being one and the same thing.  I believe there is a myth now being perpetuated among landscape photographers in particular.  It’s that light and natural color saturation are to be sought out and “obtained” in your photos, almost to the exclusion of all else.

I’ve said quite a number of times in this blog that light is important.  And it is!  Quality of light, specifically how rich and soft it is, is certainly worth seeking out, for any subject or type of photography.  But I think many of us have gone too far.

By the way, most of the photos in this post I’ve never posted (even on Facebook) and they don’t appear on my website.  Enjoy!

A tree with light on the Oklahoma prairies. Because it's in silhouette, the light & color behind it can be almost as fine as it wants to be.

A tree with light on the Oklahoma prairies. Because it’s in silhouette, the light & color behind it can be almost as fine as it wants to be.

Here are a few things about light that I think you should give some thought to:

  • Light will come.  This is the best thing about light on planet Earth.  It is so varied, so wonderful in its ability to reinvent itself every single day, that if you’re patient, the light you wish for will come.  It’s not just that, if you’re patient and persistent, you don’t need to settle for “sub-par” light.  The truth is that you can shoot that “knock your socks off” light one night, and then the next night get nice, subtle light that’s more appropriate for your subject.
  • Have you digested that last point?  Light, though very important, should in most cases not trump subject.  You can even add composition as being more important than light.  Composition and subject are so tightly tied together that it’s near impossible to think of them as being separate.  If you let it, light can be the subject.  Then you’ve succeeded in making a photo that, while it will invariably get plenty of wows and love on the internet, is just another photo (among millions) that is about light.
Light that was just too good. I decreased saturation for this sunset along the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma, but it's still a photo that is 'about the light'.

Light that was just too good. I decreased saturation for this sunset along the Cimarron River in western Oklahoma, but it’s still a photo that is ‘about the light’.

  • Do not shoot the light.  Now I’ll admit when I see great light I go like a madman looking for something to shoot.  It is part of what being a photographer is all about.  Don’t fight that, it’s fun!  All I’m saying is that if you regard your photography as an art form, your process should be much more about subject and composition first, then light.  If you put light first you’re setting yourself up for getting away from using photography as a way to express yourself, which is the point as far as I’m concerned.
The subject in this image from Snow Canyon, Utah is lichen. The light is good but I don't think it overwhelms the subject.

The subject in this image from Snow Canyon, Utah is lichen. The light is good but I don’t think it overwhelms the subject.  This is an exception, as it appears on my website because I liche it!

  • Think of light as just one more element in your photograph.  You have two choices with natural light.  Either make the best of what you’ve got in front of you or come back tomorrow, or the next day, or next week.  If you have a favorite spot near home that you return to time and time again, and then go on a trip where you have but one chance at a given location, you know what a tyrannical master light can be.  But think of it like a model who doesn’t show up one day.  Give her another chance and she’ll probably show the next day.
The sunstar (most call it a sunburst) is probably too prominent, but at least the subtle light/color doesn't take away from these ferric concretions eroding out of sandstone near Page, Arizona.

The sunstar (aka sunburst) is probably too prominent, but at least the subtle light & color doesn’t take away from these ferric concretions eroding out of sandstone near Page, Arizona.  I promise I didn’t place them, I don’t do that!

  • There is such a thing as light that is too good.  There is no photographer I know who will agree with that statement when I say it like that.  But now, after some years of chasing light, I know it to be true.  Everything depends on your subject and composition.  But sometimes, the light just seems to be so good that it swamps your subject.  Or, to put it another way, that stupendous light tends to overwhelm the intention of your photograph, whether you realize it at the time or not.  If you’re a typical photographer who’s in love with great light, I’m guessing you’re not aware of it when it happens.
Harsh and disagreeable light was what I had here at East Zion, but a cute bighorn lamb negotiating the terrain is the story.

Harsh and disagreeable light was what I had here at East Zion, but a cute bighorn lamb negotiating the terrain is the story.

  • As you mature as a photographer, you’ll come to desire different light for different subjects and compositions.  There is no such thing as light that is perfect for everything.  It all depends on what you want to do with that light.  Of course it doesn’t hurt to experiment, to try unconventional light for your subject.  But if you can figure that out you’re pretty far along in knowing both photography and your own style.

I do believe I’ve said all there is to say about this subject.  In fact I’ve never heard anyone in photography talk about this, and I think it may be the most important of my photo-related posts.  But if you know of some book or blog that talks about light this way, please enlighten me!  Hope your holiday preparations are coming along nicely.  Happy shooting, and use that light judiciously!

I'll end with a shot from a sunset that I've never posted anything from, in Montana's Flathead Valley. I couldn't do anything with this light because it suffused and overwhelmed the available subjects: subtle old cabins and grasslands in maybe my favorite valley draining the west side of the Rockies.

I’ll end with a shot from a sunset that I’ve never posted anything from, in Montana’s Flathead Valley. I couldn’t do anything with this light because it suffused and overwhelmed the available subjects, subtle old cabins and grasslands in probably my favorite valley in the northern Rockies.

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24 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Myths of Photography – The Tyranny of Light

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  1. Well, this is an amazing series of great photos with a lot of fine light.
    Well done!
    I hope your next year will be full of light and peace 🙂
    And I wish you a Merry Christmas.

  2. Really interesting and considered post. Yes, I’ve often thought that light is like a diva–whens she deigns to show up, she wants all the attention. As you so wisely point out, sometimes it’s important not to swoon in her presence and lose perspective on what we’re really looking at. By the way, love that lichen photo. Happy holidays, and happy photo foraging.

    Melissa Shaw-Smith
    • Thank you Melissa, I always appreciate your viewpoint (and your poems). So like a diva light is! I think it’s most distracting when the light literally envelops you, as at sunrise or sunset when a storm is almost upon you or has just departed. It’s such magic when that happens, and so rare. But photos are very hard to accomplish.

  3. Wonderful colours and tones in theres images.

  4. Gorgeous layers of nature…

  5. Great post! When I first took up landscape photography, I thought I was only supposed to photograph at sunset and sunrise, and only then when the colors were great. You are correct that almost all the books and blogs hammer this point as though it’s law. I love sunrise and sunset light as much as anybody, but I’m so glad I’ve moved beyond the compulsion to photograph only at these times. I’ll photograph any time of day now, in any kind of light. I do know of one other person who has made this same point: David Hyde, the son of color landscape pioneer Philip Hyde. David says his father photographed any time of day, many times in the middle of the day, and considered sunsets cliche. When I first saw Philip Hyde’s photographs, they were such a revelation and breath of fresh air, especially when put next to the types of images that rise to the top of social media sites these days.

    • So true, and I follow David on Twitter. It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at older images of Philip, but there are a few people around doing images that aren’t all about color and light. I’m sort of in the middle on it actually, and can never think of sunsets as cliche. Shooting the actual setting sun can get old of course. I’ll shoot any time of day, but morning and evening continue to be my main times. But I’ve always thought it’s an idea that is taken too far, like many things.

  6. Beautiful images, non surprise there. Your informative words have already helped me improve my focus (the word used in the, “to concentrate on” sense) when evaluating an opportunity. I recently captured a sunset while in Aruba, where, while quickly exposing at numerous settings, arrived at a capture that told of the feeling, the aura that I personally had about the moment. Being there…, on a warm beach – evening after a good day; tiki bar with very amicable and relaxed souls.. it all came together in the final photo my to express …being there. The photographic focus in this case was the chance passing of the young lady as the sun quietly set behind. (You can see this in my latest post.)
    I also like and experience an even better appreiciation on your posts when you identify your photos locations, and I envy your travels. M 🙂

    • Thanks so much MV, I really appreciate that you’ve gotten the (very simple) point I’m so often trying to make in this blog. That is, the goal isn’t capturing great light, color or anything except for the feel of being there, the message that your subject is silently communicating. I’ll check out your post!

  7. A fine set of images Michael – as ever.

  8. We love the Flathead Valley too. Thanks for this great post about light. Your posts are consistently interesting and enlightening for me as a photographer. Thank you so much for taking the time and thought to write them.

    • I really appreciate your reading them Lenore. I’m actually quite happy when people just look at the pictures, and I think I tend to be too wordy for most blog-goers. I enjoy writing/reading blogs more than any other social media.

  9. A very good point you make here. Not to get so excited by the light and forget the composition. Some beautiful photos to illustrate it too, thanks for sharing them.

    • Thank you Katie! I think it’s something that eventually happens to every photographer. We realize that, despite that fantastic light we got the other night (or perhaps because of it, or a combination of both), we didn’t get a shot that matches the promise. The only conclusion I can figure out is that light matters less than we think.

  10. Happy Holidays! This post and especially the photos are so good for my soul. Your blog has been a great gift. It has helped me to learn and ponder the beauty of photography. In a crazy way you are helping me to appreciate my photos. I’m not in your pro league, but I love doing photography and learning more about what I’m dong. The more I learn the closer I can get the photos I want. I hope I haven’t shared this before but when we were leaving Yellowstone we went about 200 ft. and I said to daughter who was driving (the whole trip) “Stop the car!” It was about 7:00 am and Old Faithful was backlit by the sun with an exceptionally dramatic sky. She was nice; I quickly got some shots and we were on our way. Wish you all the best for a Happy New Year

  11. Beautiful Galleries with good advises thanks for that. Check out my pics too. 🙂
    Have a nice day

  12. Very interesting and enlightening take on the subject of light

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