The Magic Of Light’s Edges

Ten ways to use stormy weather and atmospheric conditions to your creative advantage
© Dave Welling
Rainbow over the Paunsaugunt Plateau in Bryce Canyon National Park.

The monsoon storm struck Bryce Canyon at amazing speed with ominous skies, lightning, violent winds and pelting rain. Sitting in my car, I waited for the storm to begin lifting. I knew amazing light would filter through the cloud cover during this transition from storm light to sunlight, creating magic on the land. By waiting, I was rewarded with a spectacular rainbow that seemed to rise out of the distant formations of the Paunsaugunt Plateau.

Any photographer will tell you creating stunning images is "all about the light.” But what does that really mean, especially for landscape and nature photographers who are at the mercy of, and unable to really control, natural light? Natural light is the light, sometimes beautiful and sometimes harsh, that streams down on us every day. Landscape photographers, and to some extent wildlife photographers, quickly learn about the angle of light and opt for those sunrise and sunset hours when light rays are filtered through the atmosphere, providing a golden or warming glow to the landscape or wildlife subject.

© Dave Welling
Sunrise light on the Snake River and the Teton Range in Grand Tetons National Park.

But the low-angle rays of morning and evening light are only part of the story for nature photographers looking to expand their photographic opportunities and skills. There is also what I call the "magic of light's edges,” those amazing lighting effects created by weather or atmospheric conditions that give you the ability to create truly magnificent images of the landscape. These atmospheric effects are most pronounced when weather conditions are just forming or clearing, hence the "edge of light" aspect.

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© Dave Welling
Sunrise storm over Mount Hayden on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.

While sunrise often produces warm golden light on the landscape, when a clearing storm with striking cloud formations is added to the mix the results can be spectacular. Point Imperial on the North Rim of Grand Canyon is a favorite for many landscape photographers since its location allows uninterrupted sunrise light to bathe the canyon walls and Mount Hayden in that golden light. When sunrise monsoon storm clouds over the canyon add atmospheric filtering to the light—as well as a strong element to the composition—you have the opportunity to create a very unique, long-remembered image.

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© Dave Welling
Clearing storm at sunset with lightning, Paunsaugunt Plateau.

"Light edge" landscape photography demands patience, perseverance, understanding of weather and atmospheric conditions and that most critical of photographic techniques: luck. Luck belongs to the well-prepared. Being in the right place at the right time because you have knowledge, patience and perseverance usually gets you the photographic opportunity.

I wanted to capture the dramatic light of summer monsoon storms in the western United States and chose Bryce Canyon in Utah as my target landscape, because significant storms form in this area and the landscape features are surreal. I watched weather forecasts for several summers and made trips when forecasts looked promising but with little success, until one summer when I hit the mother lode of storms. One week of the strongest storms I had ever seen with lightning, ominous skies, mammatus clouds and atmospheric conditions created the most dramatic conditions I had ever seen. I captured the Paunsaugunt Plateau rainbow image just as the storm began to break, but I knew the storm would eventually clear and waited patiently (one of the key elements) to see how the light and clouds evolved. Well, luck "shined" on me. At sunset, the air cleared, providing spectacular sunset light on the remaining clouds over the plateau. I captured an entirely different feel for the same location. There is even a lightning strike in the image.

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© Dave Welling
Black oak and Half Dome on a foggy winter morning.

Fog is another "light edges" atmospheric condition that can be exploited by landscape photographers. Foggy conditions can be tricky from an exposure standpoint. Most camera metering systems underexpose fog to make it the infamous 18 percent neutral gray. Fog is actually brighter than neutral gray and needs a little over-exposure to prevent it from looking dark or muddy. Fog can add an ethereal or moody feel to an image.

Fog can be especially effective when it is only part of the scene and does not flood the whole image. Look for the transition where fog just enters the image or low ground fog affects only part of the scene. Think of this as a "light edge" condition, too. Winter is a wonderful time for morning ground fog. I photographed this spectacular black oak covered in snow with a hint of ground fog that added that ethereal feel.

© Dave Welling
Fir trees in winter fog in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park.

Fog edges can also be used to create isolated subjects that appear floating in the image. Look for interesting subjects or landscape features that seem to grow out of the fog to create that sense of wonder in your image. I used this technique to photograph a row of snow-covered fir trees in Yellowstone National Park. The trees appear isolated in blue space, making the image much more interesting.

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© Dave Welling
Clearing summer storm, Mt. Whitney in the Alabama Hills, California.

Clearing low-lying clouds can also be a source for "light edge" images. In this instance, it's more of a transition between clear, open sunlight and thick, diffusing cloud light. You need to be careful with your exposure for this condition because, again, your camera meter will try and make bright clouds darker, which can muddy your image and make it featureless. However, when you find the right subject matter and nail the exposure, you can create some wonderful images. I used this technique to photograph Mount Whitney as it rose from low-lying, but clearing, storm clouds in the Alabama Hills in California. I metered off the brightest clouds and opened up one stop, letting the rest of the image appear slightly underexposed to bring out the color in the mountain, sky and surrounding granite boulders.

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© Dave Welling
Storm surf on sea stacks, Bandon Beach, Oregon.

While clearing conditions can create beautiful "light edge" conditions, you do not need to wait for storms or fog or mist to really clear. Work with the storm light, looking for openings in the cloud cover that create highlights or spot lighting on the landscape. These accentuated areas where the bright light edges bring out detail and add color can create opportunities for really striking images like this image of storm light on the sea stacks near Bandon Beach in Oregon.

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© Dave Welling
Wotan’s Throne, Brahma Temple and Zoroaster Temple rock formations, Grand Canyon.

In addition to spot lighting during storms, look for "light edge" features when the storm filters the overall light coming through the thick cloud cover. This light can create magic in a landscape. Storms forming over the Grand Canyon usually clear to the south. If you are on the North Rim, as the clouds thin out to the north, they often filter the light on the land, creating soft textures and a tranquil feel. When this occurs at sunset, the light can turn the formations beautiful shades of red or gold.

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© Dave Welling
Angel Falls and Auyán-tepui shrouded in mist, Canaima National Park, Venezuela.

You don't need storm light to get this soft, filtered light. It can also be created by misty conditions. In this case, look for landscape elements framed by or jutting out from the mist. Again, you are looking for the "light edge" elements to create your image. When I photographed Angel Falls in remote Canaima National Park in Venezuela, I captured many images of the majesty of the 3200-foot waterfall. But I also wanted to capture an image that spoke of the “Lost World” element of this location, the nickname applied to the area. A panoramic view of the upper falls, shrouded in mist created by the falls themselves, captured the feel I wanted.

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© Dave Welling
Rime ice on Merced River, Yosemite National Park.

When you have this beautiful, soft, filtered light, look for unique elements in the landscape to feature in your composition, and use the filtered light to add color and contour. I had a situation like this in Yosemite Valley one winter when I stopped at my favorite place, Gates of the Valley, but the light was not cooperating. The heavy cloud cover made the land featureless, but I had spectacular rime ice formations on the rocks in the Merced River right in front of me. So, again, applying a little patience I waited (and froze) to see if the cloud cover might ease up. After about 30 minutes, the clouds behind me opened slightly, allowing the light to cast beautiful reddish highlights on El Capitan and the clouds to the north. I had my unique rime ice and my "light edge" color. It all came together.

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© Dave Welling
Mammatus clouds and rainbow over Bryce Canyon.

Speaking of storm light, this would be a good time to mention safety. Storms can subject you and your equipment to all kinds of weather and even dangerous conditions. Don't wait for the lightning to strike your metal tripod, the wind to blow it over or the pelting horizontal rain to soak into your socks and camera. Take shelter when the conditions become adverse and, using that key element, patience, wait for better conditions. Remember, "light edge" effects usually become more pronounced as storms and weather abate. When I was photographing that magnificent storm in Bryce Canyon, the weather turned on me and I had to retreat to my car until the "tornado" and lightning abated. By waiting, I was rewarded with spectacular spot lighting on the Paunsaugunt Plateau formations with the most amazing mammatus cloud formations overhead. Had I left, I would have never seen or captured this image.

Head out and see what kinds of "light edge" magic you can find.


To see more of Dave Welling’s work, visit strikingnatureimagesbydavewelling.com.

3 Comments

    All of your shots appear to be spot on. However, I have just one small comment on the Black Oak and Half Dome shot. Had you taken just a few steps to your right, I think the black oak would have been better centered, thus not having to compete with the snow of Half Dome just behind. Currently, what appears now is a confusing merge of both the tree and snow covered mountain off to the right.
    But I just loved your article.

    I agree with your comment on the Black Oak shot…But, I have found that there are times when you know that the image could be better if you were a bit to the left, right or a little higher and just could not move to where you wanted to be. The terrain sometimes/often determines where you can and can’t shoot from.

    I tend to agree with both comments. However, if he had backed up ten or twenty feet, I think that the tree would have been better isolated and the outer portions of Half Dome would have been better displayed. Of course, I have numerous examples of my own photos that I wish I could revisit and move a few feet in one direction or another.

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