The Edges Of Shadow And Light

Learn to see and use contrast to create striking, graphic images

“Cottonwoods, Ahwahnee Meadow,” Yosemite National Park, California, 2007.

If I’ve learned anything during my long career as a landscape photographer, it’s that the learning never ends. We can always expand our knowledge, improve our technique and connect with our subjects more deeply. I strive to be a better photographer every time I pick up my camera. Light, as we all know, is a critical element for making great photographs and, therefore, a key to improving. Use ordinary light and your photographs will be ordinary. Many years ago, I made a conscious decision to become a lifelong student of light. Seeing light, learning the light, is a daily practice for me.

One of the most dramatic lighting conditions for landscape photography occurs when light and shadow work together to define a subject. The contrast of a backlit branch of autumn leaves against a dark shadow, or a sunset-lit mountain, glowing out from a dark storm cloud, will give power to your images. Yosemite Valley, with its soaring granite cliffs, provides many opportunities to photograph at the edges of shadow and light. Although Yosemite is an exceptional example, anywhere uneven terrain or low-angled sun casts shadows over the landscape, there can be that exciting contrast.

The two images shown here make use of strong, dark shadows behind the trees. With this contrast, the shapes and lines can stand apart with graphic emphasis. The use of such contrast must be highly selective. I search for excellent design elements to work with brilliant lighting conditions. Extra time spent searching for the best shapes and light is always worthwhile.

In each image, the camera position affects the image graphics just as it does the contrast. In “Cottonwoods, Ahwahnee Meadow,” the sidelighting brings out the texture on the trunks. The group of trees forms an island in the snowy meadow, which, combined with the dark background, sets off the grove as a strong graphic shape. The sunlit mist adds greatly to the whole effect. The light is what’s striking in this image, but the design structure, the graphic underpinnings, holds the image together.

“Cottonwoods reflected, Merced River,” Yosemite National Park, California, 2014.

In “Cottonwoods reflected, Merced River,” the trees jump out from the shadows and are reinforced by their reflections in the water. A few autumn leaves still cling to the trees, heightening the sense of the changing season. The spotlight only lasted a few minutes, then faded away as the cliff shadows crept across the valley.

When out exploring or photographing, I try to maintain a Zen-like approach of accepting what opportunities I’m given, staying in the moment. I’m also often thinking about when the light may be better at a given location. There’s a great advantage to learning what time of day, or what season, may have the most potential. Both photographs here were completely unplanned, but my instincts from experience in Yosemite led me to the right spots!

Frequenting local landscapes will give you the chance to learn their special nuances of light and weather and season. If you’ve learned your location well, the odds of making great images are greatly improved. Give yourself an assignment to create a portfolio based on your favorite nearby stream or lake or forest. I’m sure you’ll become a better photographer in the process!

If you’ll be visiting a new location, research is helpful. With smartphones and apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris (photoephemeris.com) and PhotoPills (photopills.com), any location can be researched for the sun’s or the moon’s path, the rising and setting times, and angles. We all like to improve our odds of making great images when we travel. With that said, be sure to allow for some serendipity. Unexpected discoveries, like finding these two photographs, are often the best ones.

Keep learning the light, but also let serendipity be an option. There are wondrous photographs to be found at the edge of light and shadow!

For information about William Neill’s books, posters and workshops, visit WilliamNeill.com and sign up for his newsletter updates. You also can find his new ebook “Antarctic Dreams” in the store section of his site.

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”.

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