Regarding Light

Become a student of light and you become a better photographer

Regarding Light

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.


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 20×24 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!



William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.