Light Matters

Two shots prove it.

We spent Monday night camped out along the east shore of the Snake River in Hell’s Gate State Park, just south of Lewiston, ID. The river is held back by a dam downstream to form a long, meandering lake that has plenty of boat traffic, including the “jet boats” that take people upriver through Hell’s Canyon. All that traffic makes for rough water, but I reasoned that early in the morning, around dawn, the water could be pretty calm. With first light on the gold-colored hills across the river from our campsite, I might be able to photograph some interesting reflections without a lot of effort.

While the idea of waking before dawn to take a few photos might seem like a chore to some folks, it isn’t usually a big deal to me. I’m usually awake by 6 AM anyway, and that was certainly the case on Tuesday morning. So I threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and tripod, and went out along the path behind the camper to see what I could shoot.

What I ended up with was a great example of how the quality and color of light can change a photo.

Before the Sun

This first shot reveals an interesting scene in gray light. Photo details: 1/50 sec, f4.8, ISO 200, 35mm

I set up and framed my shot. The reflections were as good as I’d hoped and the shots achieved the almost mirror-like look of land reflected on water. But the light wasn’t quite right for the first bunch of shots. Even after the sun rose, it failed to cast its rays on the scene before me. For a while, it was the high hills behind me, to the east, that kept the sunlight off my scene. Then it was a cloud. The light was gray and colorless.

After the Sun

This shot was taken a minute later, when the cloud had moved away, revealing the sun. Photo details: 1/80 sec, f4.8, ISO 200, 35mm

Then, suddenly, the cloud slipped away and the low sun shone directly on the scene before me. It lit up with a golden glow and I snapped another photo. This shot was taken exactly one minute after the previous one. Rather than slowly creep down the scene to illuminate it, the sun shined full on the scene, all at once.

It wasn’t until I reviewed these two shots in quick succession in my camera that I noticed the dramatic difference you see here. These images were not manipulated in any way in an image editing program other than to downsize them for the Web. I think they speak for themselves as they are.

I’ve read a lot about photography, especially in the past year or so. One of the things I read recently was a “tip” by a photographer who basically said not to bother shooting in bad light. These two photos do a pretty good job of explaining why light is so important. And while I won’t tell anyone not to shoot in bad light, I hope these photos help them understand how light can make a difference in their photography.

What do you think?