Light! Camera! Composition!

Posted on November 13, 2010 by Tim 1 Comment

I won’t profess to be an expert on this subject– but that won’t stop me from writing about it. It will be a little photo lesson involving light and how it impacts images. Normally my subjects have me really cramped with regards to my lighting options. Little frogs and snakes deep in rainforest jungles at close range often throw natural light shooting out the window. I have to use flashes. And with jumpy uncooperative subjects I can’t make little controlled studios. Hard stuff for sure but I have had some success and many ideas – now I just need my little tormentors to sit still while I experiment. But I digress. This is about light and how it effects ‘scenic’ photography and what you need to look for when shooting environments that interest you enough to point your camera at them. On the 3rd and 4th pages of the post are some photos from a trip a few weeks back and my reasoning for why they fail. I think examining why a photo doesn’t work is sometimes more beneficial than studying a good photo. Especially when you have many more crappy shots than good ones.

I have a traveling mantra – flat light. Over the years of my outdoors adventures I have been privileged to see some stunning sights. This is where my wife usually suggests that I should “take a picture”. My retort is a quick, “nope, flat light”. I know the place is beautiful. I am out, away from work, having fun, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds. But if I took a photo of that lake at 1pm on a cloudless day and take away MY experience and condense that sight into a small 2-dimensional image, at best I could hope for an apathetic, “pretty” from the viewer before they quickly move on. Light, probably more than composition makes a landscape photo. Light evokes emotions and memories from people. They get stuck in romantic thoughts while staring at your image. Add a strong composition and you’ve got ‘em hooked.

But what makes good light? Everyone knows sunrises and sunsets. The strong reds and oranges and purples are emotional colors and make an impact. But everyone also shoots sunrises and sunsets, so the impact is diluted – the image is diminished. To master it you need to understand it. And that means you need to know a little about physics, astronomy, and a little about this planet. For simplicity, visible light (or white light) is made up of a spectrum of colors – the colors of the rainbow. When light travels from one medium to another it diffracts or bends. What do we mean by a medium? – any transparent material with different properties from another material.

Pink Floyd's classic Dark Side of the Moon image explaining physics

What makes things cool for us is that different wavelengths of light (or colors of the spectrum) have different diffraction angles – colors have different bending angles from each other. Rainbows are made when white light travels through air (a medium) into water (another medium) then back into air. That white light travels from one medium into another and bends. But the red light enters into the new medium at a slightly different angle from the orange light and the yellow light and all the way through the blue light. So the white light gets separated into all the colors that make it up. Following so far? Good. We got the physics part out of the way.

Now for the astronomy: Our earth spins. It takes a full day – 24 hours to spin one complete rotation. It also is in an elliptical orbit around the sun. That orbit takes 1 year to complete. What we call sunrise and sunset is really our planet spinning around. But you already knew that. And our planet’s axis is tilted so that depending on the time of the year or your location on the planet your position might be tilted towards or away from the sun. Light travels from the sun through space (a vacuum, a medium) and it hits the earth’s atmosphere, which is made up of gasses (another medium) and other stuff. During the  middle of the day the sun’s light hits the atmosphere at or near a perpendicular angle so it doesn’t bend much – we get mostly white light. But the blue parts of that white light do separate a little. As the blue light separates from the rest of it’s colored buddies it begins striking particles (gasses, dust, pollen, water vapor, smoke, etc) and then it scatters off these particles going in every direction. So what you see is a lot of stuff that has been hit with blue light before that light reaches your eyes. That is why the sky appears blue during mid day. But during sunrise and sunset, as the earth rotates towards or away from the sun, the sun appears at the horizon and its rays of light are hitting our position at very low angles. This causes the light to bend and separate a little more. It also passes through more of the atmosphere so more of the other colors are now striking many more particles. Red is one of the least affected colors so it reaches our eyes directly while most of the other colors are bounced all over the place. That is why sunrises and sunsets have such a red or orange cast to them.

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One comment

  • Marianne says:

    I went to Kauai back in 1998. When we visited Waimea Canyon initially it was covered with clouds and we couldn’t see a thing. An hour later the fog had blown out and it was beautiful. If we hadn’t waited around we would have missed it. We were just lucky we only had to wait an hour or so. The contrast with the cloudy sky and the sun shining on the red dirt reminds me of how it looked when we were there. I like the second picture with the sun breaking though the clouds onto the bright green mountains. I loved Kauai. I could live there. You don’t have to wear shoes! Even at the grocery store. I went everywhere barefoot. I hope you guys had a fabulous time!

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