“There is no bad light. There is spectacular light and difficult light. It’s up to you to use the light you have. It won’t always be spectacular and sometimes you may not get much light at all. Use whatever light you find.”
I’m a smarter man than I was a few years ago. How do I know? A few years ago I would have argued with Jay Maisel about light. It might have gone something along the lines of “Of course there’s bad light. Do you know how many times I packed up early and cut short a shoot because of bad light? I’ve encountered bad light more times than I can even count, blah, blah, blah, whine, moan…” These days I know better than to argue about light with Jay Maisel. I also know better than to stop shooting because the light isn’t spectacular.
Each of the images in this post was taken in what I used to call bad light. By visualizing the final result and using the right tools in the field and in post processing, I was able to create and shape the light to get the result I wanted.
Opening image: Dragon Teeth
The top image was shot in what I’ll call challenging light. There were faint sunbeams in the sky and some of that light was reflecting off the water of the bay, but the light overall was uneven. In fact, it wasn’t until a year after shooting this image that I saw some potential and processed it. I used several curves layers in Photoshop to bring out the drama in the sky and then did lots of dodging and burning throughout the image, especially on the water.
Winter Storm – Merced River
Yosemite Valley is beautiful at any time, but during a snowstorm it is magical. Conveying that magic with photographs can be difficult for a couple of reasons. First, when snow is falling, the sunlight is diffused at best, and often completely blocked. Digital cameras have a tendency to underexpose the white snow, recording it as dull, unattractive gray. Slowing my shutter speed to .4 seconds made the snow appear brighter and also made the falling snow appear as streaks across the image. (Increasing the exposure compensation would have also worked, but since I primarily shoot in manual, I find it easier to adjust the shutter speed.)
When processing the image I wanted to re-create the feel of standing in the middle of the storm so I boosted the levels of the whites and bright mid-tones as high as possible without over exposing them. To create more depth, I deepened the shadows and mid-tones of the closest trees and the river in the lower part of the frame. I then lightened the trees and river towards the middle. Doing this emphasized the distance and the limited visibility in the storm.
When faced with difficult light, sometimes a bit of patience is all that’s required. I hiked up to this location under overcast skies that began to break up when I reached the lake. Seeing that the clouds were moving fairly fast and allowing some light to seep through, I set up my camera in hopes that the light would eventually illuminate the peak across the lake. I was not disappointed and over the next couple of hours I watched the light danc across the scene as the clouds rolled by. By the time I packed up to leave it was under mostly blue skies.
In a small sliver of time the light went from difficult to dramatic and then back to difficult. The combination of patience and luck made it possible for me to create this image. I chose to convert it to black and white to emphasize the contrast of light and shadow without the distraction of color.
I shot this last image on a recent outing to the Sonoma Coast after a storm. I headed out with the hopes of the storm clearing and getting to photograph one of those colorful sunsets for which California is famous. My hopes were dashed as the overcast skies lingered and fog rolled in and out.
The weather didn’t matter. Just because I didn’t get a dazzling sunset didn’t mean there weren’t opportunities for great images. I used a shutter speed of 30 seconds to smooth the water and create a pleasing S-curve leading the eye from the waterfall to the background. I darkened the foreground rock to enhance the contrast with the brightness of the water. (Remember one of the primary Sammonisms: Light illuminates, shadows define. Darkening the rock gave the water more definition.) The sun may have been a no show, but I attempted to compensate by emphasizing the moodiness of the scene.
When you shoot landscapes, you have little control over the light that you’ll get. Even if you monitor the weather forecast, there’s a certain amount of unpredictability. The one thing you can control is how you deal with the light, or lack of it. Whether difficult or spectacular, a little imagination will allow you to make the most of the light you’re given. See what’s there and then imagine what it could be. A little creativity along with the right tools is all you need to make something beautiful out of any lighting situation.