The Right Light

Picture: Sunrise light on black, wrought-iron fence gate, Carneros region, Napa Valley, California

In following with a discussion that was taking place on twitter, I responded with a quote:

“A boring or ordinary subject in great light will always make a better photo than a great subject in boring or ordinary light.”

One day when I was in the Napa Valley photographing for my book Backroads of the California Wine Country, I was set up to catch the sunrise light on the Domaine Carneros Estate Winery & Château. Behind me was a black wrought iron decorative gate. When I first arrived at the scene, it was completely uninteresting to the point where I was standing in front of it to get the shot I wanted. By chance, I just happened to watch a car drive by, and as I followed it and spun around, I saw the beautiful golden light of sunrise striking the black painted iron. What was dull and uninteresting just a few moments before had suddenly, with the change of light become interesting and intriguing.

One of the things that I am always telling my photography workshop students and clients is that there is right light and wrong light. Hand-in-hand with that, I also tell them to look at the light, not the subject. After all, we as photographers are recorders of light and shadow. It doesn’t matter what we are taking a picture of, there will always be some combination of light, shadow, and subject area. For instance, being deep in a forest on a bright sunny day is certainly not ideal conditions for good forest photography. That’s the wrong light. That same forest bathed in soft white light from overcast clouds suddenly becomes ideally suited to the photographic medium. For most forest photography, that’s the right light.

This is not limited simply to scenic outdoor photos. Imagine if you will a simple scene set indoors; a person sitting at a small table by themselves, next to a window, a single candle on the table, and hands held around a plain white coffee mug. Picture in your mind’s eye this scene and how it would look if it was shot at midday with relatively even light. Now imagine the exact same scene, this time shot in the evening with the light of a full moon streaming through vertical blinds on the window, and the only other light in the room is the candle. All the elements are exactly the same, yet I’m sure you can see in your mind’s eye how the difference in light can make a radically different photo using the same subjects.

Now going back to the forest, take a look at these two photos. PIctures: Dogwood flower bloom in Spring, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California

The first photo shows the scene as it appeared to my eyes when I first walked up to the trees, trying to catch the bloom of the spring dogwoods. Visually, the light makes the scene rather cluttered. Seeing the difference in the light on the flowers and the shadows on the trunk of the trees, I was able to isolate a single Dogwood flower against one of those shadowed areas. By using Spot metering and exposing for the highlights of the bright white flowers I was able to turn that shadowed area almost completely black. This contrast between the edge of light and dark transformed this muddled scene into the great light that I needed. By using my knowledge of light, I was able to manipulate the scene and find the right combination of light, shadow and subject, and turning boring ordinary light into great light. Hopefully the result was to make a different, and as I see it, successful photograph. (This coming from someone who is most certainly *not* a flower photographer.)

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7 Comments on “The Right Light”

  1. Jim Goldstein Says:

    Great post Gary. It’s much better to read your expanded thoughts on this beyond a140 character tweet.

  2. Richard Says:

    Great stuff Gary.

  3. QT Luong Says:

    “For instance, being deep in a forest on a bright sunny day is certainly not ideal conditions for good forest photography. That’s the wrong light.”

    I know that you latter qualify the statement with “most”, but “wrong” or “right” depends on your objectives, and possibly the pre-conceived notion of the kind of images you are trying to get. I suggest you have a look at Wald by Gehrard Richter (I tweeted it a few months ago), which happens to have made Jeff Ladd’s recent best of 2009 list.

  4. Patrick Smith Says:

    Couldn’t agree more! And you have to have an open mind so you can abandon your intended subject when a better-lit one comes into view.


  5. Todd Fitchette Says:

    To me that’s what makes shooting scenics so fascinating, because you really can’t “control” the light; you can manipulate some facets of it, but you’re really forced to work with what you have — and in some cases that means working very fast, such as the case with the early morning alpenglow from the floor of the Owens Valley.

  6. Brenda Tharp Says:

    Heh, Gary – nice post – it’s all about the light and you used it so well in the flower situation!! Not bad for a ‘non’ flower guy! lol.

  7. The importance of finding the right light – by Gary Crabbe – iso200 - photography by Dave Fitch Says:

    […] The importance of finding the right light – by Gary Crabbe […]

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