"All in the Light"

April 8, 2021
Loess Hills, Monona County, Iowa

I held a contest recently in which I matched a number of photos against each other and asked viewers to vote for which they liked best. Throughout the tournament, the most common reason people offered to explain the choice they’d made was “bright” or “unique” colors. This sentiment was further supported by the vote tallies- with vivid, dramatic scenes standing as clear favorites from round to round. It also echoes my experience while displaying work at art shows, where it’s these same scenes that always seem to elicit comments or catch someone’s eye. Oftentimes if the photo is from a national park or popular location the person will tell me they’ve been there, but add, “it didn’t look like this when I saw it…”

So how do landscape photographers capture such transformative scenes? Two methods and four words: Photoshop and Sky Replacement technology.

I’m kidding. That’s perhaps an inside joke for my fellow photographers, as more and more we try to hold ground in an already competitive field that’s become flooded with computer generated enhancements. The line between photographer and digital artist is subjective and a matter of personal ethic, but to me the allure of true photography is in the capture and preservation of authentic moments in time. As I mentioned in my last post, I believe that a good photograph requires a convergence of three essential elements: natural process- such as geology and plant/animal lifecycles to present a canvas eons in the making; atmosphere- which includes both weather and light; and the photographer- with a skillset, knowledge and ability to put themselves in the right place and time and to transcribe the beauty which they witness to camera sensor or film.

As the title of this post has probably given away, when it comes to emphasizing the magic of a dynamic scene so much depends on conditions of atmosphere. And yes, dramatic color can be captured authentically in pure photography. It’s all in the light.

Our view of a landscape can be drastically affected by the way and angle in which light is cast upon it. In the middle of a clear day with the sun directly overhead, light is harsh and can create a lot of glare and shadows. In the early morning, or later into the evening when the sun edges the horizons, light particles travel further through the Earth’s atmosphere and paint the land in a soft, ethereal glow. This is known as the Golden Hour, and while great photos can be captured at any time of day with proper technique, these are definitely the hours of emphasis for many landscape photographers, and it’s a fantastic time to shoot. Water droplets, smoke and dust particles can also filter light in different ways. So as photographers, we understand and use this to try and capture a scene when it is at it’s most remarkable.

To exemplify this I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my more popular photos, with alternate shots of how these scenes appear in slightly different light. Each of these come from single exposure images and were edited with simple adjustments in Lightroom (standard professional software for photo processing.) My goal in editing is always to present a finished photo that reflects what I witnessed in real life as closely as I can.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park is an iconic view that sits at the top of many people’s bucket lists. And for good reason. It really is a spectacular sight; the kind I would say everyone should try to witness at least once in their lives- though its popularity can make it sort of a mob scene. Crowds aside, I always think of the experience as having a certain dawn of time mystique… as the sun breaks the eastern horizon to unveil the primitive landscape before us and paints the underside of the arch in an orange glow.

I arrived at three o’clock the chilly October morning that this was taken. I wanted to be front and center before the arch, which in person is smaller than it appears in photos. The formation itself is maybe 25 or 30 yards in length, perched at the edge of a cliff, and only allows space for a handful of the dozens who show up to photograph it each morning to have an unobstructed vantage (others fill in behind.) The sun will shine to illuminate the bottom of the stone for a couple of hours each morning- but to capture the true essence of this phenomena you want to be there at daybreak. (A similar, albeit slightly less vivid effect, can also be captured at times with the moonrise.)

For all it’s popularity, Mesa Arch also provides a quintessential example of how the right light can transform a scene. This is one that I most commonly hear the “didn’t look like that when I was there” refrain about. I’ve lost track of the number of times a couple will actually argue about if they saw it at all, both agreeing that they hiked to a "Mesa Arch" while visiting Canyonlands, but one insistent that this isn’t it.

Why is it so hard to believe? Because this is what Mesa Arch looks like in the middle of the afternoon…

It’s easy to see why there could be some confusion.

After the Storm…

As landscape photographers it’s pretty common to sit for hours waiting for the light to hit just so, and sometimes even wait days or years for conditions to come together in a really special way. Other times we’re presented with a scene screaming for immediate response. In both cases, however, the constant is how quickly light can change, whether we’re ready for it or not. It’s one of those ways in which photography so often parallels and echoes lessons of life. No matter our wait, our anticipation, our preparedness- every moment is fleeting, and each opportunity is measured in heartbeats.

My “After the Storm” photo is certainly one that came about quickly. Unlike Mesa Arch, which had me standing in the dark for hours, the build up to this one consisted of me noticing a subtle glow on my windowpane in wake of a passing Iowa thunderstorm. I dropped what I was doing and ran out the door, camera in hand.

This image is an example of how quickly light can change, and how a slight shift and angle can bring out the details of a scene. For comparison, I have the following image, which was taken just a couple minutes before.

The storm was passing through right before sunset, and the difference maker between these two photos was the sun dropping beneath the cloudbank. You can see how this enhanced the color and detail on these incredible storm clouds (I’d never seen a sky quite like this before) and the unobstructed light illuminated more of the ground level scene.

A few minutes more, though, and the show ended. The sun dropped below the horizon, and while there was still some nice sunset color in the clouds you could no longer see their unique, individual shapes; and the ditch and road fell back to shadows. A good reminder to continue shooting as a scene unfolds- and not wait too long before running out the door.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

Delicate Arch

Just as light can be maximized to bring out vivid color, we can also use it to give our images a subdued or unique appearance. There's a time on the margins of the day, with the sun below either horizon but providing light faint enough to see by on the fringe of sunrise or set. This is known as the Blue Hour, and is an ideal time to utilize long exposure photography to capture the quiet tranquility of our world in cooler tones.

Delicate Arch is another of those classic scenes from the desert southwest that is guaranteed to draw a crowd. Prized again for the red-rock glow of long light on sandstone, almost every day of the year hundreds of people will make the three mile hike to watch as sunset lights Delicate Arch in brilliant orange.

I've visited Delicate Arch a handful of times over the past twenty years, and while I have enjoyed each experience and come away with valuable lessons learned, I've never really captured one of those brightly colored shots that I'm happy with. They're all unremarkable, or indistinguishable, from the thousands I've seen before.

One of the challenges to shooting sunset at Delicate Arch is contending with the massive crowds that can gather. Unlike Mesa Arch where you are rewarded by getting up close and personal, Delicate is best photographed from a slight distance. However, to many photographer's dismay, when it comes to pictures of this arch many of the casual tourists want to be included in them. Right up and through the sunset you will have a steady stream of people walking up and posing beneath the landmark to have their photo taken. I've long wished there could be some kind of compromise- a system put in place where a ranger pauses these approaches for about fifteen minutes and everyone just sits back and enjoys the scene at the peak of sunset color without a parade passing through. (While I'm not one for crowds in the outdoors, I'll never forget the time I visited and sat with a gathering of a hundred strangers who were mostly content to stand back, then erupted in simultaneous cheers and applause at the conclusion of sunset... I have to admit, that was pretty cool.)

Many photographers will bypass this issue by using Photoshop to digitally remove people who have wandered into their frame. That's not a practice that I partake in. If there's something minor, such as a soda can in the grass I hadn't noticed on location, or even if someone were to drop a ball cap in front of this arch, then yes, I'll remove it. But it feels disingenuous to erase entire groups of people from a scene and portray that as a moment that was possible for me to have captured. Here's why...

A few days after I shot the Mesa Arch photo discussed earlier, I was back home in Iowa scrolling through social media. I came across a post from a very successful, well-known photographer that I used to follow, with his own version of this scene. Only his composition was from about twenty yards further back, and included the entirety of the arch and the foreground around it. There were no people in his shot, but I noticed that the sunrise sky was identical to what I'd witnessed.

In the caption he'd written, "My workshop clients and I were privy to another peaceful, glorious sunrise last Tuesday at Mesa Arch..."

It was the same day that I'd been there. At that moment, I was standing behind my camera and tripod, smack dab in the middle of this scene.

Furthermore, in the comments someone had showered him with praise, saying that they didn't know how he had such a knack for discovering and shooting such "gems," to which he replied, "Early bird gets the worm."

The thing is, I was the early bird that morning. I had gotten out there at three a.m. to position myself for a shot without others in view. By four thirty, at least three other photographers had shown up and taken their place beside me. This was still three hours before dawn. By sunrise, there would have been at least fifteen people packed into the frame that he'd captured, and dozens more in the immediate area.

It wasn't knowing that I'd been removed from this guy's photo that annoyed me. I couldn't care less about that. It was that he would be so willingly deceitful to his audience. In his wording- "privy" and "peaceful" which perpetuated the allusion that he and his clients had enjoyed this scene, as presented in the photo, to themselves. And more so in his "early bird gets the worm" response that suggested he'd somehow hustled to earn this unique view. (I wonder how his workshop clients felt about arriving late to claim their back row glimpse.) Of course he never clarified that he'd Photoshopped several people out of the frame, nor countered the implication that he could provide this "peaceful" open scene in his future $1500 classes.

As I said earlier, authenticity is a core value of my photography. I don't like to give my viewers the impression that they could see something that in reality would probably never be possible. (The only way someone would likely see Mesa Arch, unobstructed, from the spot he photographed would be if there were a park or road closure preventing others from getting there.) As it happens, though, I also don't like to include people in my nature photos, which can be problematic with a crowded scene. So the standard that I hold myself to is that I will only create photos that someone else would have the opportunity to capture themselves- without digital manipulation and with equal effort.

Getting back to the Delicate Arch photo, this was one of those times when a shot without people in the scene during peak glow on the arch just wasn't possible. I stood back and watched, waited for a window of opportunity, but it just wasn't happening on this day. This was my view right before sunset...

People or not didn't make a whole lot of difference this time, though, as clouds moved in and snuffed out the sunset. However, it was pretty breezy this evening and I could see the sky was changing fast, so while the rest of the crowd dispersed, I waited. With no other photographers shooting by that point I was able to move in a bit closer without interfering with anyone's efforts, and select a composition that excluded the other visitors still milling about. I shot a long exposure (2 seconds in this case) which gathered enough of the dusky blue hour light to paint the scene in subtle hues, different than most you will see of this location.

Moraine Lake, Banff National Park

Moraine Lake

And finally, I wanted to again share this photo of Moraine Lake as an example of how quickly light can change. This was actually the winning photo in the tournament I spoke of at the beginning, and you can click on the thumbnail link below to read the story behind this shot. Here again, atmosphere that was created by both light and weather (in this case thunderstorms passing through right at sunrise) really accentuated this already spectacular scene.

I've put together kind of a makeshift time-lapse to demonstrate how dramatically the light shifted here in a relatively short period of time. I say makeshift because it wasn't originally shot with this purpose in mind- this is just the series of photos I shot from pre-dawn to the time the light disappeared. With a time-lapse project you want your camera to remain stationary the entire duration, and in this case I was moving around a bit, especially in the beginning, trying to settle on my composition. But while a little herky-jerky at first, it serves the purpose of demonstrating how quickly this unfolded, and then how quickly it was gone (and if you look close you'll even catch the red hat girl from the story in my previous post.) The entire sequence is made up of shots taken in a little less than an hour, with the photo above and the closing frame captured about twelve minutes apart. (You may want to enlarge the video if not viewing on a mobile device. Just click on the little rectangle at the bottom right corner, and hit escape to exit the screen after the video plays.)

As I always try to tell people, there is so much more to nature photography than "driving around taking pictures all day..." Sometimes we stumble into a lucky situation, but more often than not the greatest key to our success is understanding the nuances of light.

Posted in Photography.