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The Quality and Quantity of Light

Photography is all about chasing the light. The light you chase has quality and it has quantity. It’s the quality and quantity of light that I look for in my photographs. The rich warm tones of sunrise or sunset, the deep blue of twilight, the diffused colors of an overcast day, or the harsh shadows of midday all play a big part in the end result of my images. Understanding light will make you a better photographer.

Sunrise and Sunset: The Golden Hours

It’s anticipation of the quality of light that a beautiful sunrise bestows upon the landscape that pulls me from my warm bed or the approaching sunset that keeps me out shooting during the dinner hour. While the sun is low on the horizon bathing the world in its warm glow, the exposure is well within the range that my sensor needs in order to capture detail in both the shadows and highlights (Figure 4.1). If I turn 180 degrees toward the sun, I can photograph into the sun using the bright light as a background for an interesting silhouette (Figure 4.2). During the first hours of daylight the light is low, necessitating a tripod for stability or increasing the ISO high enough to achieve a shutter speed fast enough to hold the camera by hand. The choice is yours: greater detail versus greater noise. Knowing your camera’s capabilities enables you to make the decision that will produce great shots.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Mounting my camera on a tripod allowed me to select an aperture that would yield enough depth of field to render the lighthouse in sharp focus without worrying about the resulting slow shutter speed.

ISO 100 • 1/5 sec. • f/8 • 40mm lens

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 Facing toward the sun, I composed the scene with the sun high in the frame and behind a slender tree to reduce the extreme brightness of shooting into the sun. The long shadows from the trees provide a repeating theme of strong, vertical lines.

ISO 100 • 1/125 sec. • f/22 • 32mm

Quality of light is fleeting. It can last for a season or for a mere moment. Every February in Yosemite National Park, there is a phenomenon that lasts for about two weeks. The conditions have to be just right with no clouds to block the sun and enough water flowing over Horsetail Falls to radiate the setting sun. As the sun drops lower in the sky, the angle of light throws the canyon wall into darkness and light hits the falls, lighting them as if they were on fire (Figure 4.3). Talk about quality of light!

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 The setting sun casts its light toward Horsetail Falls, illuminating it as if it were on fire. Shooting wide open to keep a faster shutter speed was necessary because I was holding my camera in hand. A minus 1 stop of light darkened the rock wall, enhancing the light on the falls.

ISO 100 • 1/180 sec. • f/2.8 • 200mm


As the sun rises higher in the sky, the quantity of light increases, the warmth of first light fades away, and the contrast between shadow and light becomes greater. The brighter light, as the sun moves higher in the sky, means that you can shoot at a faster shutter speed or a smaller aperture without the need to increase your ISO (see Chapter 3, “Exposure Triangle”). As the light gets brighter and the contrast between shadow and light increases, rather than putting my camera away I look to the shadows as backdrops for graphic elements (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 Midday light, with its hard shadows, turns objects into graphic elements. The sun acts like a point source of light on sunny days, throwing shadows into the mix for added drama. I tend to dial in minus exposure compensation to darken the shadows, making them a deep black that makes a nice contrast against a lit subject. In this shot, minus exposure compensation darkened the shadows, making the column stand out.

ISO 200 • 1/500 sec. • f/8 • 195mm

Slot canyons are best photographed at midday when the sun is high in the sky. The light works its way into the canyon through a slim opening bouncing from one red wall to the other, bringing out the colors of the sandstone (Figure 4.5).

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 Midday light, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona. With the sun directly overhead, light penetrates into the deep canyon, bouncing off the walls and turning them to a rich, warm color. Dust falls from above into the slot canyons, and the light bounces off the dust, creating “God beams.” For this shot, minus exposure compensation increased the visibility of the shaft of light against the saturated colors of the canyon walls.

ISO 100 • 2.2 sec. • f/22 • 35mm

Diffused, Overcast Light

Overcast days light the landscape as if there was a giant softbox in the sky. Without shadows and contrast, the light is flat with more detail visible. I like overcast days when photographing mammals, birds, people, flowers, and water for the detail it provides (Figure 4.6). Avoiding the gray sky of an overcast day helps keep the exposure within my camera meter’s range and reduces distracting, overly bright areas in the frame.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 Diffused light brings out the details in mammals’ fur. Adding a 1.4X teleconverter to my 600mm lens enabled me to fill the frame with the pronghorn’s head. A tripod allowed me to shoot wide open at 1/125 of a second with my ISO set to 200 to avoid noise.

ISO 200 • 1/125 sec. • f/6.7 • 850mm


As the day wears on, the sun begins its descent and the shadows grow long once again; it’s the light that keeps me out shooting until the last rays of sun are gone. And if I’m lucky and the photo gods cooperate, I’ll keep shooting, capturing the blue cast of twilight (Figure 4.7).

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7 Twilight at Heceta Head Lighthouse, Oregon. Long after the sun had set, the sea fog began to roll in, making the spotlight more prominent in the dark.

ISO 200 • 1.5 sec. • f/2.8 • 195mm

Changing Light

Light is constantly changing. Different times of the day reveal different elements in a subject. The late afternoon light shines on the Golden Gate Bridge bringing attention to the famous red structure (Figure 4.8). As the sun drops below the horizon, the light disappears from the bridge. The image takes on the cool colors of evening (Figure 4.9). After dark, artificial lights illuminate the Golden Gate Bridge once again, brightening the red of the bridge. A long exposure with moving cars on the bridge adds light streaks, which produces the feeling of motion (Figure 4.10). Carefully planning the timing of your visit to a location, arriving early to scout and set up, and then exercising patience for the best light are key elements to taking your photographs from snapshots to great shots.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8 Late afternoon light illuminates the Golden Gate Bridge. With the camera mounted on a tripod, I was able to photograph the same subject at different times of the day into evening, illustrating the difference in light over a few hours’ time.

ISO 200 • 1/125 sec. • f/8 • 29mm


Figure 4.9 The sun drops below the horizon, plunging the Golden Gate Bridge into darkness.

ISO 200 • 3 sec. • f/8 • 29mm


Figure 4.10 Evening approaches and the bridge is lit once again, causing the bright red to stand out against the dark blue sky.

ISO 200 • 30 sec. • f/8 • 29mm

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