Treebeard's Stumper Answer
The Perfect Light
I've been driving scenic Highway 154 between school and my home on San Marcos Pass for many years. Even after decades, I sometimes have to pull over because the light is so beautiful. It's like seeing these familiar mountains for the first time. They get a self-luminous quality that's hard to describe, but I'm sure you know what I mean. Sometimes I manage to get a photo, so I know it's a real effect that can be captured and shared. What is it about the perfect light that can transform a familiar landscape into something wonderful and strange?
Here are a few recent photos that I think capture that perfect light. I took these photos with my Olympus 2040Z digital camera. These JPEG images are resized for the Web, but not color corrected. I remember each of these moments even more vividly than they appear here. All photos are looking north. These photos are clues for my stumper!
Upper end of Lake Cachuma,
late afternoon on 12 Nov. 2001.
Painted Cave seen from Santa Barbara,
early morning on 9 Dec. 2001.
Railroad trestle at Surf Beach, Lompoc,
late afternoon on 31 Jan. 2002.
The perfect light that can transform a landscape comes early or late in the day, often in winter when the air is clear and the sun is always low. That brings out the shadows and adds a warm glow, but it's not the whole story or we'd have perfect light on most days. I think the magic happens when the sun shines under the clouds and reflects back on the landscape like a photographer's giant reflector screen. I'm not sorry that this light is rare. We need these moments of beauty that catch us by surprise. I do try to always have my camera nearby so I'm ready!
I love my Olympus 2040Z digital camera because I can afford to take many pictures and then pick through them for that one photo that gets it right. The alternative is to wait in the right place until conditions are just right and take the one perfect photo. I admire photographers like Ansel Adams who manage to set up their bulky view cameras and get the perfect photo by doing everything right. Thoreau invites us to "live deliberately" and Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter says "One shot is what it's all about". Good advice for a photographer, but I'm usually distracted with school or hiking or taxonomy, so I shoot lots of pictures. I do pause before clicking, and sometimes I get it right.
Miniature and portrait photographers can set up their own artificial lighting and control everything. Patient landscape photographers and artists can wait until it's perfect. Day hikers and snapshot photographers with a point-and-shoot camera can only control location and time. More advanced cameras like my Nikon and Olympus also give choices about shutter speed, aperture, film speed and type, focus, focal length, white balance, ... So many choices, but I usually trust my camera's automatic settings in "P" mode. What really matters is what you look at and when you look, location and time.
I don't have anything like a formula, but I think these are the main factors that produce great views and good landscape photos:
- What You Look At
It helps to look at great scenery, but I'm still impressed how the most familiar landscapes can look magical in the right light. I think my photos above qualify. There are countless dull photos of remarkable places. Many of the great photographs show ordinary scenes in an extraordinary way. Of course composition and framing and perspective are important!
- See The Light
As a naturalist, I want to document the natural world, so showing the right details is usually more important than beauty. I finally got a photo of the elusive white deer after Hike Club last week! But I'm also a photographer. I find that it helps to forget about the landscape and try to see only the shades of color, their patterns and textures. Look at the landscape like an artist or an empiricist philosopher. That's easy to say, but it's hard to do. What is the exact color of those green leaves in the shade?
- Time of Day and Year
The sun rises in the morning and sets at night, but the exact solar trajectory in between depends on the season of the year and your latitude north or south. Every day is slightly different, and days across the year are very different. Watch a portrait photographer carefully place his lights before a shoot, and appreciate that there may be an exact date and time to view that particular landscape. If a landscape seems particularly striking one day, maybe that's part of the decisive moment for that scene!
- Where The Sun Is
Light direction can show or hide texture and form by the way it creates shadows. High midday sun will make the landscape look flat. Lighting from the side and slightly behind the observer will emphasize landscape topography. This great natural lighting occurs early and late in the day, especially in winter when the sun is already low.
- Which Way You Look
You can't control the sun, but you can decide which way to look. The classic rule for outdoor photos is to have the sun over your shoulder and a bit to the side. If the sun is high in the sky, it doesn't produce much modelling. If you're on the wrong side of the valley, you might only see shadow. Take a hike and try again tomorrow. That's the rule, but I'm a sucker for backlighting and shooting into the sun. Usually I only get a silhouette, but sometimes it's a keeper. I know it has to do with what I'm aiming at when I push the button halfway-down to lock the exposure on my digital camera. Sometimes my camera seems to have a mind of its own, and I haven't quite figured it out yet!
- Which Way The Landscape Runs
Our local Santa Ynez Mountains are part of the California Transverse Ranges. These interesting mountains run east-west instead of north-south like most mountain ranges. The rising and setting sun (in the south since we're north of the equator) therefore illuminates these mountains from an oblique angle that brings out the topography. The low winter/morning/evening sun would look different on the east and west slopes of a north-south trending mountain range, illuminating them head-on instead of a flattering angle from the side. Ansel Adams' classic Winter Sunrise: Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine shows that's not a problem. (I have another stumper about our local East-West Mountains (6 Nov 98).)
- Light Intensity (bright or dim)
Light can be bright or dim, but brighter isn't always better. Bright light can blind your camera to shadow detail even easier than your eye. We get around this as viewers because we can move our eyes around the scene. Wearing sunglasses also helps. Standing in the shade or using a diffusion screen might help your photos.
- Light Color (aka Temperature)
The Earth's atmosphere scatters blue light more than any other color. That's why the sky is luminous blue no matter which way we look. The blue light scatters even more when the sun is low in the sky, so the sky looks less blue on the horizon. (See my stumper on Blue Skies...And Not So Blue (07 Nov 97).) At sunrise and sunset, the sun's light passes at a low angle through even more of the atmosphere, and much blue light scatters out of sight. That's why we have spectacular red sunrises and sunsets. Reddish light is warm and bluish light is colder, so morning and evening light is more inviting. These color shifts are obvious on film (unless corrected), but our eyes correct color so well that we usually don't notice it. That's one reason why so many photos "look different than we remember them". Film cameras need tinted filters or special film to correct colors balance. My digital camera can do it with software or a white balance adustment.
- Light Diffusion (hard or diffuse)
The sun at noon is a point light source that produces dark shadows with sharp edges like a huge spotlight. On an overcast day, the entire sky becomes the light source which softens shadows and reduces contrast. Our eyes need shadows to recognize shapes, so the best light is probably somewhere between the extremes.
- Lighting Contrast (hard or soft)
Our eyes can perceive a tremendous range between very bright and very dim, even when the light is relatively dim to start with. Cameras have a narrower range than our eyes, and digital sensors have even less range. The result is that we get bright white sky and dark black shadows with no detail. I've found this "contrasty light" the biggest challenge with my digital cameras. Morning and evening light is less intense and the low light reflects from more of the sky, so contrast is less of a problem. At midday, I look for closeups in the shade.
Clouds are beautiful additions to any landscape, but only up to a point. Too many clouds will reduce light intensity and contrast. A thin cloud layer can act as a portrait photographers diffusion screen so that the whole sky becomes the light source. This is perfect for flower close-ups, but too flat for landscapes. In general, dramatic clouds make for dramatic landscapes. Where the clouds are makes a big difference.
- Reflected Light
I have another stumper (13 Oct 2000) on why clouds are usually white above and dark below. But look at the first picture in this stumper. It's just the opposite because the low sun is shining up at the cloud bottoms and reflecting back to the landscape. The last picture has a different sort of reflection from water. These reflections add another light source to the sky besides the sun, like portrait photograpers use multiple flashes and reflecting screens. Reflections are subject to all the constraints of direction, intensity, contrast, and color. Reflected light can also pick up color from what it reflects from. This also adds a new complication with the relative 3D angles between the sun and it's reflections. I think this is the real key to finding the pefect light, but I couldn't begin to predict it!
- Visual Dynamics
Looking at the land is different from looking at a photo of the same scene. We shift our eyes constantly from point to point. Our eyes constantly adust to brightness and color cast and focus, and our brain makes it all one view. We look at a flat photograph in flat light, so our eyes don't have as much to do, but contrasting colors and depth of field can also work our eyes in a photo. Landscape photos and views have very different dynamics. (This is one for the VR programmers to work at!)
- Camera Exposure
Our eyes adjust to the light automatically. But in any photograph, there are complicated interactions between shutter speed, aperture, depth of field, and film speed and sensitivity. It gets even more complicated with electronic flash and true macro-closeups. I used to use two or three flashes, a tape measure, and a calculator to photograph mushrooms up close, using my (now stolen) Nikon FTn with PB-4 bellows and 105 mm macro lens. *Sigh* I can't do that with my digital camera. But I still have to think about where I point the camera when I lock the exposure by pushing the button halfway down. It's interesting to think that for any scene, there is a single best exposure for the picture I want!
- Other factors
- I remember great sunsets when I went to school at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont on the east end of the LA basin. The sunset picked up extra color viewed through the LA smog. Does the ocean also enhance sunrise/sunset colors?
- How does atmospheric dust and haze effect the view? I remember that volcanic dust makes more vivid sunsets, but I also read that clear winter air makes for the most vivid landscapes.
- A polarizing filter can make a huge difference on film. Does sunlight polarization also make a visible difference at different times of the day or year?
All these factors are part of the answer, but I'm sure that's not all. I'm glad the perfect combination of land, sun, and clouds is a mystery, to me at least. Sometimes a good question is even better than an answer!
Here are some starting links for further Web research on this stumper:
- Colorworm Teaches About Color And Light is a very nice introduction to color for children. I learned a lot and got ideas for a couple of future stumpers. There are more advanced lessons on light and color in the Molecular Expressions Microscopy Primer. They also have some neat JAVA tutorials, as does the Olympus Microscopy Research Center. You'll find many more sites with a Google search.
- Several photography websites have practical discussions on landscape photography that discuss the nature of light and color. I found these sites useful in understanding my stumper: Larry Sizemore's Magic Light, Philip Greenspun's Making Photographs: Light, and Chris Robisch's Learning to See the Light. Michael H. Reichmann's The Luminous Landscape contains a wealth of material on landscape photography that lives up to the great name.
- Landscape artists create their own light with paint. Classic outdoor painters like Albert Bierstadt painted luminous scenes of the American wilderness in the 1800s, though he sure took liberties. The landscape painting Plein Air Scene is strong in Santa Barbara with the Oak Group founded by Ray Strong and Arturo Tello. Naturalists and photographers can learn from these paintings. This is seeing deliberately!
Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, 186- Ray Strong, California Hills
- The Comm 544 Image Library is a great collection of classic photos for USC students. I'm not enrolled, but I peeked inside. The Smithsonian and Life Magazine have extensive photo exhibits, and I'm sure there are many more.
- You can learn a lot about color by using the tools in a graphics program like PhotoShop or Paint Shop Pro. You can use your computer to generate photorealistic landscapes with expensive software like 3D Studio Max or Bryce. Fortunately there is also free software like GenesisII and Terragen. The classic 3D raytracing program POV-Ray lets you create complex 3D objects and place camera and lights. All these programs have a steep learning curve and take a real committment to learn, but they give you great control over building and lighting artificial landscapes, and we can probably learn a lot by playing with them.
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Copyright © 2002 by Marc Kummel / email@example.com