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Magic Light

by Larry Sizemore, 1997

It has been my observation that most great nature photographers were naturalists, to some degree, prior to becoming photographers. The camera, to a naturalist, is a means of recording and sharing an emotional response to the outdoors. The art of nature photography becomes the naturalists ability to transfer an emotional response comprised of 360 degrees of outdoors filled with sounds, smells, textures, and an infinite number of views onto a two dimensional print. The process is developed over many years and requires emotional focus, artistic inclinations, knowledge and appreciation of nature, and an understanding of the photographic tools, namely, light, cameras, and film.

As a naturalist, the photographer is keenly aware of the various permutations of the light of nature and is inspired by them. Frustration with photography results from a lack of understanding regarding the nature of light and the nature of film. Light can be described in terms of four physical attributes which are at times overlapping and related: intensity, direction, color, and diffusion. A fifth attribute, contrast, is not descriptive of the light itself, however, it is affected to some degree by the four qualities mentioned. Contrast is problematic due to the inability of film to record a broad range of tones, and that issue will be addressed later in the article.

Intensity of light is simply brightness. This is the area over which photographers have the least control. The nature photographer’s Catch-22 is so commonly cited that I wish that it had a name. The problem is this: shoot with slow film or large format for maximum sharpness, shoot at apertures that provide adequate depth of field, this leaves a shutter speed that often falls into 1/15 sec. or longer. Most photographers will not sacrifice the 50 ASA film or f11to f16, choosing instead to deal with the slow shutter speed. The successful nature photographer will be using a sturdy tripod, remote release, and possibly mirror lockup, and windbreaks. Add to this, a tremendous dose of patience, lots of film, and a large wastebasket next to your light table, and the Catch-22 is pretty clear. If you have not experienced this yet, don’t worry, as you advance in the hobby, it will get you. (If you are a self-described successful photographer and you have never experienced this quandary, then you need a better loupe). Of course, artificial light and reflectors can help a little in terms of light intensity, the risk being the loss of natural appearance. These solutions obviously have little bearing on large scenes. Intensity is a light attribute which is generally beyond the control of the nature photographer.

Light direction, however, is often within your power to control. Choose direction to show or to hide textures. Side lighting will emphasize texture and form and occurs early and late in the day. I was shooting on Sanibel Island Florida one morning when I found a square foot or so of beach that looked interesting. There were a few colorful shells, a mangrove seedpod, and tiny sandpiper footprints in the wet sand. The sun was just coming up over Mantazas Pass and the scene was as side lit as possible. I put on my 105mm macro lens while two other photographers shot wide shots of the sunrise. Through my viewfinder I could see each angular grain of side lit sand, the shadows from the shells which were long and deep, and the clearly outlined footprints . I took several shots over 10 minutes and by that time, the side lighting had changed just enough to make the footprints nearly invisible. Back light can be used to emphasize an outline or a silhouette, or to show the translucency of a subject. My favorite example of this is a shot of a frog on a leaf by John Netherton. The frog is positioned on the side of the leaf away from the camera. The strong backlight coming through the leaf shows the clear shadow of the frog. This image was on his website the last time I visited it. Front lit subjects are illuminated from behind the photographer. This type of lighting tends to flatten an image and is useful only if that is your creative intent. Use light direction to emphasize the characteristics of your subjects that are important and stimulating to you. Predict direction at different times of the day ( I carry a compass in my bag) and return at the best time.

Light color is an attribute over which you have a great deal of control, but it is among the most misunderstood qualities of light. The reason for this is the amazing human optical system, our eyes and brains. Our eyes correct color almost instantly, and selectively at that. As we watch a sunset, we see the orange in the sky. If we look at trees illuminated by the sunset, they look vaguely orange to our eyes but film will render the uncorrected version of bright orange trees. If we are in a department store illuminated by fluorescent lighting, our eyes fail to see the obvious lime color of that type of light. Take a picture with no flash, you will see the green. Once you understand how much correcting of color goes on inside your brain, you can begin to train yourself to see subtle variations in light color that add up to major color shifts in your pictures. During most of the day, our scenes are illuminated by sunlight, which is generally white as far as film is concerned. However, there is also a smaller degree of illumination coming from the blue sky itself. If you take a picture in the shade on a blue sky day, that shot is illuminated only by the blue sky and whatever sunlight is reflected into the scene by other objects. The scene looks naturally colored to the eye, but on film, the scene will be blue. On days with big cumulus clouds dividing the blue areas, or on hazy days the problem is less pronounced, since the white clouds reflect some sunlight into the scene or due to the intensity of the blue being diminished by haze. Beware of shade shooting on clear, cloudless days, you will need a warming filter to correct the problem. Woodland green is another color shift problem that can occur as light filters through translucent leaves. I generally don’t find this objectionable, however, I do own a .05 magenta gel that I have used in that situation when shooting white flowers. Since the advent of new warmer films, I seldom see that problem. 82 series filters can be used to render more naturally, the red portions illuminated by a sunset. However, these scenes will never look like midday light (and why would you want them to). In a clear sky sunset, the sky separates into a red hemisphere and a blue hemisphere. Photographers are often so intent on capturing the red, that the rich indigos go unnoticed. I like to shoot laterally on those days, finding objects that are bathed in red on one half, and shadowed in deep blue on the other half. During sunrise and sunset, these areas are to the North and South.

Finally, light can be either diffuse or hard. This attribute is determined by the relative size of the light source. The sun is a point light source and produces hard light with shadows that show sharp edges. This type of light intensifies contrast (the range of dark and light tones). If it is your intent to accent contrast and jagged lines or textures, than this type of light can work. Due to film limitations, diffuse light is better for most nature photography. Diffuse light softens and feathers shadow edges while lowering contrast to a level that film can handle. The larger the apparent size of the light source, the more diffuse the light, therefore on an overcast day, the entire white sky is the light source with an apparent size that stretches from horizon to horizon, therefore, the light quality is very diffused. Compare this to a scene illuminated by the sun, which has an apparent size which is much smaller, yielding scenes that have distinct shadows. A point light source does not have to be bright. A candle, or the full moon are both point light sources that create distinct shadows, the intensity is just less. Diffused light tends to render scenes more like our eyes perceive them. When shooting macro, diffused light can be created on a sunny day by using translucent materials to erect a tent or a screen between the sun and the subject. This type of light is similar to light produced on prime macro days, the lightly overcast to very hazy days that produce discernible but soft shadows.

So why don’t most scenes look great on bright sunny days? Contrast becomes the problem at this point for this reason: Our incredible human optical systems can see a range of tones that spans more than 12 stops. That means that we can look at a white cloud next to the sun and see details, and then look into a dark crevice between two rocks, and see detail. The cloud may be 12 stops brighter, but our eyes see the entire range. Most slide films record a range of only about 6 stops and all detail goes to either white or black beyond that range. Using selective metering (more on that topic in upcoming article), we can place that 6 stop band anywhere within the 12+ stops that may appear in the scene, allowing large portions of the scene to be rendered completely black or completely white. In other words, if we want the cloud to show detail, the crevice, shadows, dark foliage etc. will be black. Thus are the limits of film and you should never again have to utter the words that quickly separate a novice from a pro, “This picture doesn’t look like the scene looked when I saw it”. Do not impose on film the unreasonable expectation that it is to render a scene as your incredible human optical system saw it. You must instead learn to “see” as the film sees, with higher contrast, and unseen color variation. The day that a photographer begins the process of mastering the tools, film and light, is the day that the photographer becomes an artist as opposed to someone with a camera who documents nature.

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Article created 1997