Become a student of light and you become a better photographer
By William Neill
In my last column, I outlined what I consider to be landscape photograph (OP, April 2007). I mentioned that the quality of light was one of those major ingredients. Certainly, this is an obvious part of good photography, but it merits further discussion. It’s one thing to photograph and hope for the best, even if you go out at the generally optimal times. It’s another thing to be a disciple of light, a lifelong student of the nuances of light on the landscape. If you take time to study the lighting conditions that occur at your favorite locations over a long period of time, you’ll be doing what most landscape masters have done: become an expert on those locations.
One key to improving your powers of observation regarding light is to study your film or digital files carefully after each photo session. While caught up in the various aspects of composing an image in the field, it’s hard to see subtle changes that occur in changing conditions. Because of this, I feel that many photographers could be helped by allotting more time to edit; when studying your exposures, you see more and learn more.
Let’s discuss sunset as an example. I can characterize some distinct phases of sunset light based on looking at a lot of exposures over the years: pre-sunset light is when shadows are strong and the color of light is fairly neutral; sunset light is just before the sun disappears, when the light is very warm and the shadows are apparent but not too deep; post-sunset light is when the shadows are weak or absent; and twilight light is when the sun is far enough below the horizon that it begins to reflect off the atmosphere, causing refraction and scattering of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere. Colors glow and intensify for a short period of time before darkness comes.
These observations are generalizations, of course. Each location and sunset will have its own variations, and each person, his or her own "data collection" style; but this kind of knowledge is invaluable to collect and to remember for future use. Your own site-specific observations, seen when you review your work on the lightbox or computer monitor, will give you many advantages in anticipating conditions in those places you choose to study.