Archive for the ‘myths’ Tag

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.

Myths of Photography: Use a Wide Angle Lens for Landscapes   11 comments

Book Cliffs, Colorado.  A landscape image at 310 mm.

Book Cliffs, Colorado. A landscape image shot just this morning at an unconventional focal length of 310 mm.

I’m starting an occasional series on common photography myths and misconceptions.  This one is pretty widespread.  It goes something like this:  “If you want to shoot landscapes, you need to do it with a wide angle lens.”  That’s often extended to “and the wider the better”.  It’s mostly assumed and not stated outright.  But it’s yet another case where good advice is stretched well beyond the original scope and meaning.

When I posted the series Learning Photography, in the part about lenses I recommended that if you’re serious about landscape photography, you really need to get a wide-angle lens.  Does that mean all good landscape photos are done with a wide-angle?  Certainly not!

I know (very good) photographers who shoot almost nothing but wide-angle landscapes, some loving the ultra-wide.  This is what they like, so I’m not knocking them at all!  But even though many of these pictures are amazing, there’s a risk of getting stuck in a rut, with images that begin to all look the same.  Little or no variety means eventual boredom, on the part of the photographer if not their viewers and fans.

Columbia River Basalt, Washington scablands.  Wide but not too wide at  28 mm.

Columbia River Basalt, Washington scablands. Wide but not too wide at 28 mm.

The fact is that landscape photos are simply images of the land (I’m including seascapes).  That’s it.  The only other limitations are what you put there.  And if you accept limits as an artist you’re shortchanging yourself.  I shoot landscapes at every focal length I have.  I’ve even done landscapes with my 600 mm. wildlife lens.

Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t feel good going out to shoot landscapes without a wide-angle lens, one shorter than 35 mm. in focal length.  A sharp zoom lens that covers about 16 mm. to at least 24 mm. is just about perfect for many landscapes.  I love that close, detailed foreground and the sense of depth you can achieve.

Panther Creek Falls, Washington.  Going wide because I was so close to the falls.

Panther Creek Falls, Washington. Going wide at 16 mm. because I was so close to the falls.

Note I am talking about 35 mm. equivalent focal lengths.  If you have a full-frame DSLR, 24 mm. is 24 mm.  If you have a crop-frame with a 1.6 factor, multiply your focal length by 1.6 to get the full-frame equivalent.  In that case a wide-angle zoom of about 11 mm. to 16 mm. would be good for wide landscape shooting.

But if you capture pretty much every landscape with a wide-angle lens, too many photos will include a lot of uninteresting stuff around the periphery of the most interesting part of the composition.  It’s a case of seeing that good photo within the larger average photo.

Many times I’ll start out with a wide-angle but then, bored with the foreground, I’ll switch to a longer lens in order to focus in on an interesting part of the scene.  Tip:  If you’re shooting wide, keep an eye on the light and be ready to quickly switch lenses or zoom in to catch smaller areas when the light falls just right.

For so-called intimate landscapes like the last two images in this post, everything is fairly close to you and elements tend to be evenly weighted in the frame.  Because of this you have to be even more careful about going too wide.  Depending on how close you are, a medium focal length (35-50 mm.) is often best in these cases.

Fall colors in rural Oregon, captured at 200 mm.

Fall colors in rural Oregon, captured at 200 mm.

The fall colors above were captured at a long focal length (200 mm.) mostly because I didn’t want to trespass.  But if I’d bothered to get permission, I would have gotten close and gone wide, to add some depth.  But I like how it turned out.  The river image below was shot at 24 mm.  But I cropped it on the computer, just a little.  I would have used 35 mm. if I had that available at the time.

So there you go!  I hope the accompanying images have convinced you how misguided it is to go out shooting landscapes with the mindset that there’s a ‘proper’ lens and focal length to use.  Happy weekend and happy shooting!

A mossy spring on the Hood River, Oregon.  24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

A mossy spring on the Hood River, Oregon. 24 mm., 0.8 sec. @ f/11, ISO 50.

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