Become a student of light and you become a better photographer
By William Neill
Simple but vital lessons can be learned from your observations in the field as well as when editing. Your sensitivity to your surroundings is a vital skill to cultivate. A classic mistake made by beginners is to pack up one’s gear right after the sun goes down and then miss the wonderful twilight light. I made this mistake one time at Mono Lake and continue to regret my impatience when I remember the light I missed!
Here’s a related story about Ansel Adams and his knowledge of light in Yosemite. In the early 1980s, during one of Ansel’s June workshops, he had a chance to use a 20x24 view camera made by Polaroid. They shipped the camera to Yosemite, and on one occasion, the camera was set up at the famed Tunnel View overview of Yosemite Valley.
Ansel arrived and a crowd gathered. There were a few afternoon clouds moving across the summer sky, and the lighting conditions were quite average. The crowd, hoping to see Ansel create a masterpiece, was disappointed to hear him declare that the light wasn’t right yet. He said that, in about an hour, the clouds would build up over here and over there, pointing out to his audience what he anticipated the light would do. Some people were disappointed, and some chuckled in disbelief that Ansel could know what would happen in an hour. Virginia Adams, Ansel’s wife, quietly stated to those around her that "Ansel knew." Some curious bystanders, including myself, stayed there long enough to see Ansel’s predictions come true. Although the image never became one of his masterpieces, the exposure was dramatically improved by his intimate understanding of light and weather patterns in Yosemite.
The photograph here is one that I made from the same Tunnel View location. It’s hard to imagine a more photographed location, but despite its iconic status, it draws me and many other photographers over and over again. The deceptively pristine view gives a sense of wildness, and the uncluttered overview lets one survey the light and weather conditions around the valley.
It had rained steadily the night before. Unsure if the rain would stop, I came to scout the conditions, hoping some light would break through the clouds. Even though I had never seen the light I was about to experience, I knew enough from past observations that there was the potential for spectacular light. Fortunately, the sun broke through enough to light up the clouds without blasting into my lens to cause issues with flare. With my experience photographing in Yosemite over many years, and a little bit of luck, some magic light came my way!
Perhaps one of the greatest joys of being a photographer, to me, is to see the light on the landscape—seeing its daily cycles change with each season and shift with each day’s weather. Revel in the light, and infuse your images with its magic!