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On Light

Failing to see this can get you stuck in a rut as a photographer. You keep shooting and shooting, even travel to iconic locations and keep getting pictures that are average at best.

Conversely, some subjects don’t seem worth shooting – until the golden hour’s light hits them. I took a short walk in a nearby forest to shoot a picture in golden hour and process it with a different workflow I got from a tutorial video. I was looking for some branches forming a pattern or pointing at the sun. I couldn’t find any such subject and the sun rose ever higher. In order not to return home empty-handed I settled for a rather weak composition involving some mushrooms. And then I waited for the sun to light them from one side.

Here’s how that turned out and what I was able to do with it.

Despite it’s simple composition, the mushrooms blow Ashness Bridge out of the water, because I waited for the light to hit my subject at just the right angle.

If the light sucks, then it doesn’t matter how grand and gorgeous your subject is. You will return home with an average picture.

Light adds contrast, where there is light there is shadow. And it’s not just the obvious shadows objects in your scene cast, but the tiny shadows that the textures of those objects cast as well. For that to work the light must hit your subject at a low angle, because that’s when the shadows are longest and the effect becomes visible.

At what time of day does the light hit objects at a low angle? In golden hour! Not only do you get golden light then, but the light hits at a low angle and casts thousands of shadows, large and tiny ones. It’s what gives your scene depth and a 3d-ish look. If you shoot in diffused light or at noon you will miss out on that. There are exceptions, of course, but the general rule – that light is more important than your subject – still holds.

So, instead of going for a shoot because you have some time to kill, think about the light first and foremost. What am I going to shoot? Does the light work for that kind of photograph? If the answer is no, save yourself the hassle of taking average pictures that day and instead use the time for scouting. Find interesting compositions and then think hard about what kind of light you’d need to make this a great picture. When that day comes, when the time is right, return to that location and reap the rewards. That’s how you get keepers, not by pointing your camera at anything that look interesting somehow and shooting on a whim.

2 thoughts on On Light

  1. An interesting point that you make about light Thorsten. For me ‘good’ light isn’t necessarily the gorgeous light that you get during golden hour. Some subjects are better suited to a moodier atmosphere that requires heavy, overcast skies. I have recently decided that there is no such thing as bad light, only the wrong subject! Love the shot of the mushrooms by the way.

  2. That would be the exceptions I mentioned. Dramatic skies are far and few between though, most of the time “overcast” means grey, uniform skies with no detail whatsoever and you’ll have no other choice than to find a subject that doesn’t include the sky. Most people take to the woods then, but woodland has its own challenges and many, many photographers (Thomas Heaton included) struggle in these places. And even if you can come up with something interesting, the crucial factor will still be light. That mushroom shot wouldn’t have worked in overcast weather.

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