Have you ever heard photographers wax on about "the light?" Once we've been shooting for a while, we really do go on and on about the light: blue light, golden light, softly-lit cloudy skies or, as we obsessed ones call that diffused light, "mother nature's softbox." Non-artists might not really see the different qualities and colors of light while artists - think Monet and his haystacks - focus on light almost exclusively.
I've been shooting on and off since I was 16, which was when I was given my first 35mm Olympus SLR. It took me a long, long time to "see the light." I think I didn't see it because I wasn't mature as an artist. I wasn't really an artist at all. I was just a kid with a camera. Even after I went to art school and graduated with a BFA in art history, I didn't truly understand the relationship of art and light. Thinking back to that is a bit of a head-scratcher for me considering how much time I spent I studying Titian and Caravaggio, both masters of painting light. I also took life drawing classes, sculpting classes and printmaking classes but I honestly think I was in my 30s before the lightbulb went off. (Sorry, couldn't resist being just a little punny).
My long road to being perceptive to the qualities of light reminds me of practicing yoga. When I was first starting to practice yoga, I ignored my teacher's cues to breathe. Instead of matching long, measured inhales and exhales with each movement, I held my breath and pushed my body as hard and far as it could go. The pursuit of a technically perfect triangle pose with straight knees and my hand flat on the floor was a lot easier for me to understand than the meditative breathing that is truly the heart of yoga. And so it is with photography. Learning the technical aspects of exposure and making sharply focused images was a lot more attainable than ferreting out the elusive qualities of light. I could make "good" photos without learning to see the light.
I don't know when exactly I started to understand light but today I see the shift in my work. I proactively arrange shoots at dawn and dusk. I hard-heartedly pass over otherwise perfect images but with uninspired light. I can cull a 2,000 image shoot to 7 images simply because of the light. I even think I mutter about light in my sleep and when I wake to a golden morning, life just feels better.
For landscapes and cityscapes, blue hour is often "the" hour but for me, for horses, the light I want is golden. For this shoot, in the Fint Oasis, the light started off a bit on the harsh side, since the sun was too high and bright. You can see in this post's 2nd image where the two horses were cantering in the sand that the light was just on the edge of softening. As the sun lowered, the light grew more golden. It reflected off the soft, pinkish sand and filtered through the lush foliage of the oasis.
The image of the palm trees is probably my favorite from the Fint Oasis shoot which is ironic because I was set up to photograph horses, not landscapes: my tripod was in my hotel room as was my wide angle lens. But when I saw the light illuminating the palm trees, I had to try. To get enough light for a hand-holdable shutter speed, I cranked the ISO on my Canon 5DIII to 1000, dropped my aperture to F4.5 and adjusted my focal length to 70mm - the widest I could go with the Canon 70-200 F2.8L lens on my camera. The compression of this longer lens actually benefitted this image and since there wasn't a ton of depth to the scene, F4.5 gave me enough depth of field to keep sharp focus. Without the light highlighting the structure of the trees, I wouldn't even have had a composition but with it, I've captured a postcard shot of the oasis.
One of my favorite lighting effects is rim light. Rim light is difficult to see when you're on a shoot. It doesn't show up well on your back of camera LCD and it's relatively invisible to the naked eye because it blends in with the ambient daylight. The trick to seeing it is to "feel" it. First recognize it in your images and then understand that it happens when subjects are backlit or even sidelit. For me, rim lighting on horses is most special when there's enough ambient light to illuminate both sides of the horse, like in the above image. The horses and riders are headed up a path with the sun behind them. If you look at the riders' head scarves, you can see a rim of light around the blue fabric. That same rim of light highlights the heads, necks and backs of the horses. The ambient light was also reflecting off the sand which is why the horses and riders aren't in silhouette, and we can see details on the side of the horses facing us that is in shadow.
If you're not sure you're seeing the rim lights, check out the riders' head scarves in the below image. At this point, both riders were in shadow. There are no rim lights. Now look at the image above again. Do you see the difference? I liked the image below because the mountain in front of them is bathed in golden light and they're just about to step into that light themselves. It's a very different type of natural light than the rim lights in the above image.
In the lead image for this post we were minutes from losing the light but sometimes "good light" is about what the light doesn't do to your subject. The angle of the sun was very low as it descended. It highlighted the horses and riders very, very subtly. You can see the highlights in the black horse's neck, shoulder and especially in his eye. More importantly, the light was so low that it didn't cast any ugly hard shadows. The image below of the girl in red and her mother was taken in the same time frame. The sun subtly highlights the rocks and plants but neither the girl nor her mother cast hard shadows.
Of course, it's popular among photographers to say that light illuminates and shadows define. To truly "see light," we need to understand how to use shadows to our advantage too but that's another post for another day.