The single most significant factor in creating compelling photography (possibly excepting the documentary version of the discipline) is light—specifically the quality thereof and how it’s used by the photographer. This is not to say that light is the only factor of consequence; I occasionally run across a statement that photography is “all about the light.” I don’t agree with that—there are other factors that matter (subject matter and composition come to mind). But I certainly don’t quibble with the notion that light is the most important factor. Otherwise uninteresting subjects can come alive in good light; compelling subjects can fall flat in unflattering light.
As a photographer, light is your friend. It’s imperative for you to understand its foibles and learn how to use it to your advantage. Perhaps the single biggest distinction between snapshooting and more—here’s a loaded term—considered photography is the understanding of the impact of light and how to best utilize it. A hint—“good light” is variable; what’s good for one subject may be poorly suited for another. More on that momentarily.
As primarily a nature/landscape photographer, my focus will, unsurprisingly, be on natural light and the landscape. You may have heard the expression “the golden hour.” The term is a bit of a misnomer—the time period referred to isn’t always even approximately an hour long—but the interval in question refers to the time—at both the beginning and end of the day when the sun is in the sky—when light is softer, more diffused and more red-shifted (and, as a result, virtually always more pleasing to the eye) than is the case during the bulk of daylight. When it comes to broad or “grand” landscapes, early or late light is almost always superior to the alternative. (An exception that occurs occasionally is when storm light—which at times is more dramatic than anything you’ll see during the “golden hour”—takes place mid-day. But this is uncommon.) The point is the most consistently pleasing natural light can be found at the beginning and end of a day when the sun is out.
Excepting overcast days, mid-day light is ordinarily harsh and almost universally unappealing. This is true even to the naked eye, but to your camera’s sensor (or film), the effect is magnified. I’ll cover this subject at greater length in a future installment, but for now it’s simply worth noting that the human eye has far greater dynamic range than your camera. As a result, with high contrast scenes, highlights are prone to be blown out and/or shadows blocked up. The fundamental issue of a scene having more dynamic range than your camera is capable of capturing with detail in a single exposure can be solved via a number of techniques, but as a qualitative matter, the light is still harsh. As a photographer friend of mine is fond of pointing out—and I’m going to clean this up a tad—lousy light is lousy light. Even if you can—via high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, for instance—render it, it’s still poor light. That’s where the trained eye comes into play. Regardless of whether contrast can be tamed, the first question to ask yourself is whether it should be tamed. Good natural light can’t be manufactured; the goal is to be prepared for it, recognize it and properly utilize it when it emerges.
The grand vista seldom flourishes on an overcast day but other scenes do. The soft, even light—superficially similar but not identical to open shade–provided by the giant diffuser created by clouds is ideal for shooting around waterfalls and creeks, in wooded locales (where “hot spots” created by sunlight can be an exposure nightmare and a massive visual distraction) and intimate settings, among other locales. The best part about overcast conditions is that you don’t have to limit yourself to a sliver of the day to take advantage of them. During the fall color season I’ve often heard photographers bemoan how a cloudy day is “ruining” their shooting opportunities because of “bad, flat” lighting. Cloudy conditions may detract from open settings, but the problem isn’t that the light is “bad”; the issue is that these photographers aren’t putting themselves in the kinds of places where overcast lighting is good. This is the kind of reference I’m drawing when I say that what constitutes good light can change depending upon subject matter and setting.
The next time you’re pondering a shoot, consider the light you’ll be dealing with. Ask yourself if it’s optimum for your intended subject. If so, consider how you can best take advantage. If not, ask yourself if there’s a better subject for the light you expect to encounter and if there’s better light for the subject you were initially contemplating. Once you incorporate thoughts about light into your planning, you’ll discover what an important consideration it really is when photographing and that recognizing—and categorizing—good light will become second nature. I think you’ll also find yourself significantly more pleased with your images.