OP – The Blog

August 6th, 2013

Light Against Dark, Dark Against Light

Posted By Michael Frye
Dogwood blossoms, Yosemite. These backlit flowers stand out cleanly against a dark, shaded background.

Dogwood blossoms, Yosemite. These backlit flowers stand out cleanly against a dark, shaded background.


Light Against Dark

Many of the most effective photographs share a simple lighting concept: they either place a light subject against a dark background, or a dark subject against a light background.

This first photograph of two dogwood blossoms is a perfect example of a light subject against a dark background. In fact the background isn’t just dark; it’s completely black, so there’s nothing to compete visually with the flowers. The contrast creates a simple and dramatic image.

This light-against-dark situation is what makes photographs of Horsetail Fall so striking when conditions are right. The waterfall stands out because it’s brighter than the surrounding cliffs – and, of course, because of the color.

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite. Another backlit, translucent subject against a dark background.

Horsetail Fall at sunset, Yosemite. Another backlit, translucent subject against a dark background.


Dark Against Light

The opposite scenario – dark against light – can be equally effective if the subject has an interesting shape. Since the dark subject will probably appear as a silhouette, all the viewer will see is its outline, so that shape has to be compelling.

This photograph of gulls on an abandoned pier has long been one of my most popular images, and a big reason for its popularity is the simple, clean contrast of dark shapes against a light background. (The background is water with sunlight reflecting off of it.)

Gulls on an abandoned pier, Mountain View Shoreline Park, California. A classic dark-against-light silhouette.

Gulls on an abandoned pier, Mountain View Shoreline Park, California. A classic dark-against-light silhouette.

Mixtures

Most photographs aren’t as simple as these three examples; they usually have a mixture of light-against-dark and dark-against-light. The important thing is that the key elements of the composition must stand out against their surroundings.

This photograph of El Capitan has dark-against-light silhouettes of the trees and their reflections, but El Capitan and its surrounding clouds are bright areas juxtaposed against the darker sky and trees. Yet either way, all the key elements and shapes stand out clearly. In fact the image can be seen as bands of light and dark areas, with a dark band at the top, then a light band, another dark band, another light band, and then a dark triangle in the lower-left corner.

Clearing storm, El Capitan and the Merced River, winter, Yosemite. This image has both light-against-dark and dark-against-light juxtapositions.

Clearing storm, El Capitan and the Merced River, winter, Yosemite. This image has both light-against-dark and dark-against-light juxtapositions.


Finding Contrast

While the concept of juxtaposing light against dark or dark against light is easy to grasp, finding these situations is more difficult. The most important step is just to realize the power of these lighting conditions, and look for them. Also, remember that the low-angle light just after sunrise and just before sunset creates the greatest contrast and cleanest juxtapositions.

Dark-against-light silhouettes appear most often with backlight (looking toward the sun), as with the photograph of gulls on a pier above. But some of the most interesting silhouettes occur with a shaded foreground object against a frontlit background. This image of a Joshua tree was made just after sunrise. The sun had reached the rocks in the background, while the tree was still shaded by a small ridge behind me. Minutes after I made this photograph the sun hit the Joshua tree, and the contrast was gone.

Joshua tree with moon at sunrise, Joshua Tree National Park, California. A frontlit silhouette, with the shaded tree against a sunlit background.

Joshua tree with moon at sunrise, Joshua Tree National Park, California. A frontlit silhouette, with the shaded tree against a sunlit background.

Backlight can also create the opposite effect – light-against-dark – when the subject is translucent. Placing a backlit, translucent subject against a shaded background creates strong contrast, as we saw in the first two images here of the dogwood blossoms and Horsetail Fall.

Light-against dark situations also frequently occur with low-angle sidelight, where the sunlight rakes across an object, but leaves the background in the shade, as in this photograph of cottonwood trees along the edge of the Merced River. I accentuated the contrast by deepening the blacks in Lightroom.

Cottonwood trees in the Merced River, Yosemite. Sidelight illuminated the tree while leaving the background in the shade.

Cottonwood trees in the Merced River, Yosemite. Sidelight illuminated the tree while leaving the background in the shade.


The Edge of Light

In short, you’re looking for what my friend G Dan Mitchell calls “the edge of light,” where sun meets shade. Anytime you see this you’ve found a situation with great photographic potential.

Below you’ll find a few more light-against-dark and dark-against-light images, with brief descriptions of the lighting situation. And, as always, I welcome your input; if you’ve photographed a scene with this kind of strong luminance contrast, please post a link to the image in the comments!

And once again, I want to express my appreciation for the wonderful response to my new ebook, Landscapes in Lightroom 5. Thank you all so much! As I said in my previous post, we’ve extended the early-bird discount until midnight tonight, so you still have a chance to get 20% off on the ebook by using the code lr520 when you check out.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Photographing Reflections: Beyond the Mirror; Light and Mood With Intimate Landscapes

Autumn morning, Half Dome and elm tree, Yosemite. This  main features of this image, like the trees and Half Dome, stand out as dark-against-light silhouettes. The lighting direction is obvious.

Autumn morning, Half Dome and elm tree, Yosemite. The main features of this image, like the trees and Half Dome, stand out as dark-against-light silhouettes. The lighting direction is obvious.

Ross's geese taking flight at sunset, Central Valley, California. This image has lots of repeating shapes shown as silhouettes.

Ross’s geese taking flight at sunset, Central Valley, California. Lots of repeating shapes shown as silhouettes.

California black oaks and mist, Yosemite. Another backlit, dark-against-light, silhouette image.

California black oaks and mist, Yosemite. Another backlit, dark-against-light silhouette image.

Great egret, Ding Darling NWR, Florida. Low sidelight illuminated the egret, but the edge of the pond behind the bird was in the shade.

Great egret, Ding Darling NWR, Florida. Low sidelight illuminated the egret, but the edge of the pond behind the bird was in the shade, creating a perfect light-against-dark situation.


Willow leaves in a pond, Yosemite. The leaves and pond were in the shade, but catching the gold-colored reflection of a cliff in the sun. A polarizing filter helped to darken the water.

Willow leaves in a pond, Yosemite. The leaves and pond were in the shade, but the edges of the leaves were reflecting the golden color of a cliff at sunset. A polarizing filter helped to darken the water.

Bridalveil Fall and rainbow, Yosemite. Sun breaking through clouds created occasional spots of sunlight on the waterfall. I waited and hoped for a moment like this, when the sun spotlit the waterfall created natural vignetting.

Bridalveil Fall and rainbow, Yosemite. Beams of sunlight were breaking through clouds and occasionally wandering through this scene. I waited and hoped for a moment like this, when the sun spotlit the fall and created natural vignetting.

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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Please leave a comment

  1. Jennifer Sturch Says:

    Mr. Frye,

    Your work is stunning! I’m a new photographer and I love it. This is a wonderful blog and incredibly helpful to me, so I thank you for sharing your knowledge and photographs.

    I love nature and take mostly nature shots, but I live in the city! There is nature everywhere, however – thank goodness for savvy landscape architects, nature preserves and “museums”.

    There is a Butterfly House here in Dallas that I sat in one day for about two hours. It was incredibly hot for sitting so long, but I’ve learned that you just have to be patient with nature because it does what it needs to do in it’s own time. And the light in the space was pretty dramatic as the ceiling and walls were all glass, and then the abundance of foliage all around created stark shadows.

    One of my favorite shots of the day was being able to capture a little guy on a leaf above me, his wings fully extended, and seeing his shadow through the leaf. Light and dark. Yin and yang. They work together so beautifully in nature.
    http://fineartamerica.com/featured/i-am-big-jennifer-sturch.html

    Thank you for letting me share! And thank you for your work. I’ll continue to study your great images. Thanks so much.
    Jennifer

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