Light: the one we love to hate–and then some…

Mid-day Summer Sun

Mid-day Summer Sun

(all photos can be seen larger by clicking on them, which will open a new window with the image)

One of the things that I have noticed about current photographic education is that it is, as I did with the title, filled with judgments—do’s and don’ts, should’s and shouldn’ts and such. Honestly, that probably isn’t the most beneficial way to stimulate creativity.

Maybe a better way, especially with light, is just to talk about its qualities. In fact, I would suggest that there really isn’t such a thing as bad light. There are just different characteristics to be found—and sometimes similarities that we don’t immediately recognize.

What is true is that there are times when the light, the subject and our intent (idea) may not be working together as we wish. Since we generally control the latter two, we often end up suggesting that the light was bad. But, then there are times when the “light is wonderful” and we just don’t see anything we want to photograph. Then we might say we weren’t in an area that was conducive to photography.

The funny thing is that I have never heard anyone suggest, in these types of situations, that it was their ideas that weren’t working or were bad! ……. Just something to think about!

But the light I thought I might address here is the one that we find directly, or nearly so, overhead in the middle of a summer day. Generally, this light is described as very cold (easily fixed with color balance), flat and harsh. The reality is that there are times we can use these same words to describe other light, light often thought of in much more positive terms, as well. That isn’t to suggest that they are the same but there are some similarities and those similarities might be more prevalent depending on your subject. (Golden hour light, for instance, can be very flat and harsh when it is on axis with where our camera is pointed) It should also be noted that there will be places, like deep canyons, that might only ever have direct light that reaches the bottom at high noon in the summer—for better or worse!

In a recent post on my other blog I started with this statement:

“…you would be less likely to find me photographing where, and when, I “thought” the light would be good than just photographing “where” the light is good—good for what I am trying to present in the photograph.”

Using mid-day summer light

Using mid-day summer light

It was when I was going through the images I created last May that I thought that this topic might be worthy of some attention. I remembered how lucky I was to stumble upon this wonderful site at the Solar Noon!  (the two images above)

It was this light, and only this light, that could bring out the textures and wonderful striations on the cliff face. It was like looking at an ancient seabed after the water subsided. In fact, before I even walked over to the Pictograph area, I spent quite a bit of time just shooting the patterns on the walls while still in the adjacent parking area.

It was also that the light was just a bit to the left that those wonderful patterns on the wall were shown as well as they are. Lower, more direct light would have minimized these shapes, whereas light more off to the right would have been less optimal (see the little uptick at the bottom that moves in the opposite direction from the larger “wave” form. It is almost imperceptible because the light is more parallel to it than perpendicular as it is on the larger, thus more defined, forms).

You might notice the “bird-like” head on the figure to the right (center of image), that doesn’t exist except in this light and I thought how wonderful that was and did the ancients see this and place their drawing there on purpose to use it? Since there were no other walls like this in the area, I have no doubt that it was the nature of these natural markings that attracted them to this site.

Although it was this high noon light that brought out the natural texture and markings, which gave this place a magical quality, this light wasn’t the best for documenting the figures themselves. The textures hid much of the more subtle detail—something that we understand, or should, could be a drawback of the strong angular light of our “golden hour” as well.

The images below, from Death Valley, show just how some more subtle details are stripped away by the strong side light of the golden hour.  The more diffuse light was created by directional skylight, with the directional nature coming from the glow from the horizon just prior to direct sun being able to sweep across the landscape—these two images were made within minutes of each other.  Each has its own characteristics that make them both successful images, just different, with the one on the right feeling a bit more “quiet”.

Comparison of detail lost with golden hour light vs diffuse light

Comparison of detail lost with golden hour light vs directional, diffuse light

Because I did want to document these wonderful paintings, I decided to wait for the light to move over the cliff so that I could photograph them in the diffuse skylight. I thought the comparison of how the “details” were lost by the strong light might be of interest here—these are both close-ups of that same figure with the bird-like head in the two different lights.

detail comparison

detail comparison

Note that the bird-like head disappears, as do the striations in the rock face, with the softer light. On the other hand, note that the graffiti around the painting is obliterated by the texture made visible in the strong angular light but materializes when only soft light hits the rock face.  And certainly, the true nature of the painting that was hidden in the strong textures is now revealed in our softer light.

note: This ancient art is located at the Buckhorn Wash Pictograph site and directions are easily found on-line—it’s west of Green River and Moab, Utah. You drive right up to these. This is one of the most impressive panels of ancient art I have seen, exceeded only by the Great Gallery, which is not too far to the east, although it requires a 7 mile hike and 800+ foot drop at the beginning—which means a steep climb out!

flat-light-compIn the image above, we can compare how direct sunlight and diffuse skylight–both of which can be characterized as “flat light”– can reveal very similar levels of detail.  Of course the sun here in the top version is above and not directly on the camera axis and thus we do get a little more texture than we might if it were more on that axis.

I might add here that light in early May is equivalent to how the light/sun travels in early August, it is just a lot cooler in May!

You might find this link valuable in seeing just how the sun travels at different times of the year in your area or in an area you intend to visit. (Unfortunately, the time zone doesn’t change when you move to a new time zone, so you need to interpolate.)

Using Harsh light and environment to express an idea

Using Harsh light and environment to express an idea

The image above was created in that midday sun and is an example of my interest in expressing an emotion and state of mind. I wasn’t interested in creating a romanticized interpretation of the landscape but rather a metaphor for how I felt at the time.

When I made this image I was still working in the corporate world and I was angry, frustrated and probably feeling a bit vulnerable. A brief synopsis of why: annual executive retreat in Palm Springs, two-day weekend golf tournament (my team, including President, won), weekend banquets with lots of frivolity and laughter, first morning of meetings (1/2 day only), President immediately suggests that no one may have a job by this time next year due to our not achieving our forecasted budget (our profits were only up 25% in an economic downturn that had not been taken into account in our budget process and our stock was soaring in an otherwise sluggish market—and people wonder why I left the Corporate World!)

So, there I was walking down a desert canyon, the mid-day sun beating down on me in what was a very harsh environment. Then I come to this “spiny” plant that is blocking my way to the Oasis that is just below-literally an oasis. Beyond, a 10,000 foot, cool and peaceful mountain range and I am stuck where I stand! I thought that, given my mental state, this was a very àpropos image to consider.

(you might also note how this flat light reveals a lot of detail in those areas where there is no shadow. This type of flat light, even though it is harsh sun, can show detail in much the same way as our diffuse skylight did in our examples above.)

And here, an example of a more rich, stark expression of the barren landscape of the desert southwest.Hatch-Mesa

Working commercially you often have to make images work in any light or condition. On the project for our national passenger rail system, which extended over two summers, I would try to scout locations during the middle of the day but would often find scenes that worked very well even in that mid day summer light.

In fact, one of the things that working commercially made me do was to “play” with light and techniques that I might never have explored otherwise.  Finding creative ways to use artificial light often meant using direct and often harsh light. These studio images, part of a larger campaign, used this same type of overhead light as our midday summer sun to create dramatic portraits. (a single light above that lights the subjects)

Single light overhead

Single light overhead


One of the concerns about shooting in bright, mid-day summer sun has always been the extreme dynamic range and the fear of ending up with blown highlights and blocked up shadows.  This was particularly an issue when one shot transparency, or “slide”, film as well as when one had their prints made from negatives by retail labs.  Even early digital cameras had a very short dynamic range.  Shooting jpegs, even with today’s digital cameras, can also limit the dynamic range of your image files.  But today’s sensor technology and shooting your images in RAW can generally end up with your ability to manage these extremes as long as you expose properly.  Of course, there are many advanced techniques, like blending brackets shot on a sturdy tripod, that can also handle this issue as can the judicious use of a reflector for smaller things such as portraits.  I say “judicious” as I often see reflectors overused and the image then can lose its natural look and the dramatic effect one might be after.

I would be a bit disingenuous if I left any suggestion here that this is a light that I generally go and search out. Although I do photograph all day, midday I am usually working in a shadow somewhere–if I am not taking a nap! But often I do see something in the direct sun that catches my attention and if my IDEA, the LIGHT and the SUBJECT are working together, there can be a wonderful photograph waiting…and, then, sometimes they don’t work anyway, but that happens in any light!

Please feel free to comment or ask questions about anything presented here, Thanks!