Light! Camera! Composition!

Posted on November 13, 2010 by Tim 1 Comment

So we know colors appear to change depending on the time of day. What else? During a cloudless mid day we get bright white light. The sun appears as a small point light source. That causes distinct or harsh shadows. Usually the range of light available is much more than our cameras can capture. And items of color are awash in that bright light that hasn’t separated. Colors go flat. This produces icky pictures. Overcast skies makes the white light separate which does enhance the saturation of colored objects. But the color temperture value of the sky is so different from other objects that we again have a dynamic range greater than our cameras can capture. However, if you can keep the overcast sky out of the photo you can expose for the other objects and have really nice colors come out. Be aware that those overcast skies will tend to add a blue cast to everything. A drawback from overcast skies is that with a huge light source (the sky becomes a giant softbox) we lose shadows. Shadows are good for adding depth to an image. Very important since we compress that lovely scene into a flat 2-dimensional photo.

Speaking of shadows; another important factor in establishing a good photo is contrast. Overcast skies may help create a contrast of colors but they don’t help create a contrast of light and dark. Something that humans are hardwired to pay attention to. So bright cloudless skies create too much light and too much shadow and overcast skies give near no shadows. I’m sure you see where we are going. Clouds! They help soften the light so we get color separation. And their placement can affect where we get light and where we get shadows. This is why clouds are so important to scenic photography. They add the color and light contrast needed to bring depth and drama back to a 2-dimensional photo. This is where knowing about physics and astronomy come into play. You know you are going to get stunning sunset reds and oranges strking your well placed clouds – you did put them in the correct places, right?  Maybe even thinking about the earth’s rotation you realize that one effect will be that on our curved earth there will come a point where the sun’s light will be coming so low from the horizon that it will actually light up the clouds above you from underneath. That is as long as there are no clouds some 30-40 miles away between you and the dipping sun. So as a scenic photographer you will look above and beyond to figure out how and when those clouds will play into your image. Now you get clouds at sunrise and sunset and you have a near perfect combination of light elements leaving you to come up with the composition.

One last thing that I’ll mention about lighting that effects contrast is particulates in the atmosphere. I’ve already mentioned how they scatter the light. If you have a hazy sky you’ll notice how it flattens an image. The light is scattered all over the place which plays havoc on the colors that one anticipates objects to be. It reduces shadows and really is a killer. However, particulates at sunset can create cool effects. Now we finally have something that bounces the red light around which adds a dramatic red cast all over the place. Ever seen a sunset near a forest fire? All those smoke particles bouncing red light all over can be quite surprising. This catches people off guard and if used judiciously can make a nice image. If you’ve read all my blog entries you’ll have noticed an admission that I don’t consider myself a scenic photographer. That is because good photographers know where, when, and how to play all these light elements into a photo. All they have to do is concentrate on the composition. I fail at getting the composition part. I can plan and play the light but with no subject in mind it goes to waste. I know what makes good frog and snake compositions. I have a hard time making a scene come alive. But that is just a matter of consistency and practice – something I hope this blog will force me to develop. So if you ever hear me say, “flat light” you now know what I’m really saying there is no contrast to the light and colors. There is no depth or no drama. Despite the beauty of the scene it won’t come through in a photo. It is time to not take a photo. Just suck in the experience instead.

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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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