November 16, 2009
Starting back in the early 70s I have been putting on slide shows for audiences of up to about 200 people. When “Maine, the Home Place”—a book of my photos—came out in 2003, I travelled around doing this and had a very enjoyable time with it. During a ‘questions and comments’ period after each show a question came up almost on every occasion. Often it was phrased like this: “I shoot lots of pictures, but they don’t look nearly as nice as yours. What am I missing?” And, my most frequent response was, “What time do you go out shooting?” I would then go on to explain that the subject matter of a photograph is much less important than the quality of light that is captured, and that early morning and late afternoon have much nicer light than any other times.
Eventually, I came up with this answer: “The world around us is the canvas, but LIGHT is the paint.” Sometimes, I feel like it almost doesn’t matter how mundane a subject is, if the light falling on it is exceptional. Often this leads to a discussion about what makes some kinds of light better than others. And, while it is easy enough to break it down into a few simple criteria—and I know one very left-brained fellow who has it all formulated—I prefer to encourage people to trust their emotional response, or lack thereof, to a scene or subject. In other words, you will know it when you see it…and FEEL it.
You can be standing at an overlook on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but, if the light is harsh or flat, or just unremarkable, you will come away with images that are unremarkable too. Nobody else wants to see your vacation photos if they are ho-hum. “Here we are at Niagra Falls,” is like the tag-line of a joke about boring others with some slides or prints. But, if said photos were taken just as the sun dropped below a cloud-layer and bathed the scene in slanting rays of light that looked like liquid gold…ah, now you have something.
This is not to say that finding the right light is effortless. It ain’t. For decades, I made a habit of dragging my butt out of bed well before sun-up. If you knew me, you would know what a herculean effort that was. But, by the time I started the car and headed out in search of the light, I would already be getting excited. Naturally, I would only do this if I had been paying attention to the weather reports. Nobody wants to be standing on a hillside freezing their ass off if the dawn is coming up grey and flat. But, there are mornings when, despite a stiff breeze that has razor-blades in it, the burgeoning light show as the sun rises is oh so worth it. Giving yourself the great gift of appropriate clothing and gear is nice too. A few years ago, I finally caved-in and bought a genuine arctic parka. I now grin smugly to myself as I stand out in conditions that would send anybody less well dressed scrambling for a spot by the wood stove. The right gloves, boots, expedition long-johns, all make a difference too. Get to know how to dress in layers and you will never be uncomfortable outside again. Gore-tex and goose down are items any aspiring outdoor photographer should have. Well, okay, not if you live in some wussy place, like Arizona. Then you should have a good pair of sunglasses and a brimmed hat.
Above is a photograph of a winter sunrise. As I waited for the sun to appear the temperature was about – 20F, with wind-chill. And, yes, it really was that color.
So, if you are one of the many people who love to record the world around you with a camera, and you want your images to bring an enthusiastic, even emotional, response from people you share them with….get out and LOOK FOR THE LIGHT.