Several years ago, I got stuck. Though I had been shooting for more than 20 years, I found that a day's worth of shooting was delivering only lackluster results. The images were sharp, the compositions tight, the exposures dead-on, but as I contemplated my images, I recognized that I was repeating myself. I was creating the same shots week after week, month after month. The photographs were technically good, but they left me uninspired.
I turned to my collection of photo books and started carefully looking at the works of my favorite photographers, including Sam Abell, David Muench and Galen Rowell. As I studied their images, I felt myself physically reacting to them. It was then that I realized why I was in a rut. I wasn't seeing the light.
Yes, I was aware enough of the light to know that the best time to shoot was at dusk or dawn. I knew about getting an accurate exposure or using fill-flash to fill in shadows in the foreground. I was using the light, but I wasn't seeing it, I wasn't observing it, and I wasn't making light my subject.
As I looked at more and more work, I awoke to the realization that I had become fixated on the objects that I was photographing. Whether it was shooting rock formations along the Pacific shore or a stand of Joshua trees in the desert, I was focusing more on the physical object in front of my lens, rather than the way light reacted to and interacted with that object. Once I realized that my true subject was light, both I and my photography were transformed.
1 The New World
I'm fortunate to live close to the Angeles National Forest in California, where I frequently hike and photograph. At one location where I often shoot, I'm particularly drawn to the rolling hills and the trees that dress the landscape. But when I compared my images to those produced by my favorite photographers, my images were left wanting. Yes, I had a wonderful view, but that alone didn't translate into a great photograph.
So I visited this site and, without raising my camera, I began to look at the scene with the light in mind. I'd hike there in the early morning on one day. Another day, I'd arrive late in the afternoon or sometimes even at noon. But instead of focusing on the natural beauty, I looked to see what the light was doing.
I saw not only the bluish glow in the morning or the warmth in the late afternoon, but also how the light dappled through the overhanging trees and hit the ground, how it reflected differently in separate areas of a shallow stream, and how the diffused light muted the tones and colors to almost a monochrome hue during an early-morning fog.
As I looked at both the grand power and the subtlety of light, scenes that were so familiar became new to me.
2 Discerning Light
As if the veil had been lifted, I began looking at the light everywhere. I observed how light appeared in my house during different times of the day. I saw how light was reflected and shaped by buildings and structures as I drove to and from work. I began not only to "see" light, but also to be sensitive to it. When I returned to the outdoors to photograph, I was able to see light in the landscape in a much different way. I stopped judging it.
I had grown to think that there was "good" and "bad" light. The best light was only to be had in the early morning and late afternoon; everything else was a waste. And though the "magic hour" offers a definite advantage to the landscape photographer, I realized that this black-and-white way of judging light made me not look carefully at the light that existed throughout the day.
Yes, the noonday sun could be harsh and result in flat images, but that same sunlight reflected off a large grouping of rocks could serve as a natural reflector to an area in shadows where a leaf lay. I could then compose that shot with a wide-angle lens, making the leaf the anchor point and the group of rocks behind it the backdrop.
If I trained my eye to see the light and all its different manifestations throughout the day, I could begin to anticipate how light would interact with the different elements within the landscape. I could look at a scene and visualize where the light and shadows would fall, helping me to choose the best location to set my tripod. That familiarity with light would eliminate the guesswork of when and where to be and provided me with just what I needed to increase my chances for a successful photograph.
3 The Transforming Subject
Light isn't static. It's constantly changing and being shaped by its environment. It's malleable and can be subject to both the moisture and pollutants in the air, as well as be redirected or absorbed by the physical objects that surround us. It's not just one thing, but a myriad of possibilities, and if we're aware of them, we can use them to make a photograph that's unique to us.
That uniqueness is important. I see hundreds, if not thousands, of images every year of some of the world's most famous photo landscapes. And though some of those images have been shot in wonderful light, I feel as if I'm looking at the exact same image over and over again. That familiarity comes about because many photographers simply mimic the vision of other photographers.
Yet I occasionally find photographers whose work in these very same locations brings a unique and personal take to their images. They're keenly aware of the light and bring their perception of the world to bear in their photographs. They're not satisfied to duplicate the photographers who they have come to admire, but to complement and honor previous work with their own vision. When that happens, I look at their images and feel the rush that I experience whenever I see photographs that are exceptional, beautiful and moving.
4 Getting Better
This newfound sensitivity to light has made me a better photographer. It has instilled in me confidence that I can see the world around me in ways I hadn't previously considered. It's a confidence that allows me to create better images, whether I'm using the latest high-end digital SLR or a point-and-shoot camera. And I don't exaggerate. I've frequently taken my compact digital camera out into the field, so that it was light, and only light, on which I was focusing rather than an assortment of lenses or multiple electronic settings.
Over the years, as I've had the privilege to meet and speak to the great photographers about their work, I've had this realization about seeing light confirmed over and over again. I now recognize that light is the photographer's true subject. It's both the raw material and the tool that allows each of us to create something beautiful and unique. And it's available to all of us, regardless of race, class or the cost of our photographic equipment.
It's available to all who have the eyes to see.