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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
8 February 2002

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:

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:

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