Are we talking about astronomers discovering new galaxies beyond the ones we have already found? No.
We’re talking about photographers. The great painters of Greece knew what extraordinary light meant to their paintings. Today, it also means the same to photographers. Without light, there isn’t a photograph. Even the word photography comes from the Greek words photos meaning light and graphos meaning writing. So photography means writing with light.
What elements make light extraordinary? Basically three elements: color, quality and direction. These elements are all intertwined but each have their own merit and all are necessary to have great light.
We express light color in degrees Kelvin. If you are out shooting in the morning, before the sun comes up, you will notice a bluish cast to the light. The bluish color comes from a high color temperature, about 12,000 degrees Kelvin.
As the sun starts to come up, the bluish color evolves to a golden yellow. The golden light is caused by the light waves having to travel great distances through the atmosphere. While traveling, the light is refracted off of water, dust, smoke and other particles in the air. All of these particles help break up the light waves to create that beautiful golden color. The color temperature now is about 3,500 degrees Kelvin. The same effect happens at sunset.
However, the light can be more of a golden orange at sunset because late in the day there are more particles in the air caused by the day’s activities on the ground. Light records a golden color if you have your white balance setting set to Daylight this setting is balanced for daylight color temperature, which is about 5,000 degrees Kelvin. Because the light is lower in degrees Kelvin than daylight, it is recorded with a yellow cast to it. The same thing happens if you shoot the Daylight setting with household lights. The Daylight setting is balanced against light occurring between about 9:00 A.M. to around 3:00 P.M., however the light during this time if day is not of the highest quality. To eliminate the yellow cast, match your white balance to the light temperature; use the incandescent setting.
The hard, harsh mid-day light is probably the worst for photographers. During this light, look for tight compositions of flowers, animals and graphic details of buildings. Try to pick subjects in the shade. Spot meter off of your subject for a correct exposure.
Now is also a good time to use your fill flash. Stay away from people and landscape shots during mid-day light. This time of day can be productive by scouting out places to shoot for the upcoming evening light or the morning light of the next day. Thin clouds act as a diffuser and will improve the quality of overhead light. The harshness will be gone and it will be a more even, shadowless light. Early misty morning light can be good light to work with if the mist isn’t too heavy. Mist softens shadows, reduces contrast and brings subtle colors to life.
Of course the light from sunrise to about 1 ½ hours after and again from 1 ½ hours before sunset to sunset are by far, the best quality of light. This low-angled directional light will accent texture and impart a warm glow to your subject.
The direction of light is the last element. It comes in three different types: sidelighting, frontlighting and backlighting. Each has their application.
Sidelighting, such as the light at sunrise and again at sunset is the best for bringing out the texture in a subject. The light skipping over the high spots and forming shadows in the low spots create texture. People relate to a subject better if they can imagine how it would feel. Texture does that for you. It visually shows them what the surface of the subject felt like when you pressed the shutter button.
With directional light a subject can be backlit, frontlit or sidelit depending on where you are in relation to your subject and the light. The effect you want on your photograph will determine which type of lighting to use.
Backlighting is great for making silhouettes from graphic shapes. Close-up shots of translucent subjects, such as leaves, come out best when backlit. The veining will be very evident.
The last type is frontlighting. This light tends to minimize texture, reduces form and flattens out a scene. If used in early morning, this light is good when shooting landscape shots.
As the sun gets higher in the sky, the light works its way down the mountain. We will end up with a brightly illuminated shot having minimal texture, but nevertheless a great shot. As the sun moves across the sky, the light will become high sidelighting. Gradually, we will start to pick up some texture and the mountains will start to take on some feeling. The light skips across the high points and creates shadows in the recesses.
In the late afternoon, the sun has moved behind the Grand Tetons and they start to become graphic silhouettes. The light in the sky gradually changes from a golden yellow to a golden orange and is finally gone.
As explorers of light, we constantly look for the three intertwined elements making up extraordinary light. Look for the color. Look for the quality. Look for the direction. Join the other explorers in their quest for the perfect light.
If you enjoyed this article on perspective and scale, you’ll enjoy my ebook titled The No-Nonsense Guide to Digital Photography. You can purchase it from this link and instantly download it for your digital photography reading pleasure.