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There’s No Such Thing As Bad Light

May 3, 2010

Bad light is a figment of your imagination.  Seriously.  It just doesn’t exist.  There is only light, and what we choose to do with it is what separates good photographers from grumpy photographers.

Here’s an example to illustrate my rather bold statement.  Let’s say you’re visiting Moab and you’re stoked to photograph Mesa Arch with the trademark neon red glow on the underside of the arch.  You awake on the morning of your shoot only to find the sky filled with dull, gray clouds.  Nevertheless, you’re an intrepid photographer with eternal optimism so you head out the door with camera and tripod in hand.  On the drive out of Moab it starts to rain.  As you climb the switchbacks that deliver you to the top of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands the rain turns to snow.  It’s late April and it shouldn’t be snowing but there it is falling all around you.  It isn’t snowing hard enough to cover the ground but some of the vegetation is holding snow.  Arriving at the Mesa Arch trailhead you are thrilled to discover that yours is the only car in the parking lot.  With a headlamp strapped to your noggin you make the short hike to the arch.  There you set up your tripod and wait, confident that the clouds will part and warm light will erupt from the sky.  But it never does.  Minutes pass and soon the landscape around you is illuminated in low contrast, diffused light filtering through thick clouds.  It’s obvious that the only glow this morning will be from your red face as your temper flares.  Bad light?  Think again.

You obviously aren’t going home with the photo you intended to make.  No spectacular sunrise light, no red glow.  Switch gears and let the creative juices flow and you might just find a unique, intimate photo.  Overcast light eliminates harsh shadows and allows your sensor to capture every little detail in a scene.  Use that light to photograph patterns in the sandstone or, as in this photo, a beautiful juniper tree accented with a dusting of snow.  As you walk around with an open mind and a positive attitude you start to find all kinds of interesting scenes and your memory card is soon full.  After a fulfilling morning shoot you head back into town, eager to chow on some huevos rancheros and download images to your laptop.

Your success as a nature photographer is tied to your ability to improvise and adapt.  If you’re given a glorious sunset you’d better be there to photograph mountain peaks kissed with brilliant alpenglow.  When the clouds roll in turn your attention to intimate landscapes.  If a thunderstorm develops look forward to the drama that is sure to unfold when the clouds break.  Once you learn to use the light you’re offered you’ll never have another unsuccessful photo trip.

Got some experience overcoming “bad” conditions on a photo trip?  I’d love to hear your story!  Post it in the comments section and feel free to include a link to an image that illustrates your story.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 9:43 am

    Great post, Bret. I really like the idea here, as well knowing I’m not alone in having bad light. In February, we drove 4 hours to photograph Badwater Basin in Death Valley with water in it, only to have horrible light the next morning (our only morning there). Discouraged, and rather grouchy, I drove down to another part of the park.

    The same clouds that ruined my morning resulted in some of the best light I’ve ever had. Just goes to show, the light is only what you make of it.

    Thanks again!

  2. May 3, 2010 5:40 pm

    Great ideas to make the most of a “bad” light situation.

    One day in summer 2007 I planned to travel to north central Kansas in search of sunflower fields. Mother Nature thwarted my plans though. I wisely checked the radar before I left and discovered it was pouring down rain exactly where I wanted to head. The weather here wasn’t great either – uniform steely gray skies and the occasional pitter patter of rain drops. Definitely not great landscape photography conditions. I really wanted to get out with the camera though so I sucked it up and went to a local lake which has a beautiful garden area, and a lilly pad pond. The frogs were hanging out and pretty active, probably because of the incoming weather. One little frog posed perfectly for me and I got a great image, one of my very favorites. Had it been a beautiful sunny day, (1) I never would have gone to the pond; (2) the frog probably wouldn’t have hung around; (3) I would have had to deal with a lot of contrast and glare; and (4) the colors wouldn’t have been as saturated. I found out a month ago this photo is being published in a local regional magazine. It is so true you can make images in any kind of conditions, it just takes a little more work and creativity. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. May 3, 2010 6:34 pm

    So true to remember to keep an open mind instead of getting discouraged that you may not get the shot you were going for. Who knows you may get something even better!

  4. May 3, 2010 6:40 pm

    Terrific and inspirational post, Bret. My story that comes to mind is last February I was in Yosemite National Park, in a field on the floor of the valley, looking west toward the sunset. It was awful; nothing Adobe has invented nor HDR could save it. I figured that the light may get better in a minute or so, so I waited. Then I just looked to my right, facing north and saw the most gorgeous shades of mystical orange hues that the camera could not do justice to this almost surreal sight.

    Goes to show that not only the light is important and ever changing, but good to turn around every so often!

  5. May 3, 2010 6:47 pm

    Thanks for reading the post and leaving some great comments!

    Angela: That photo is amazing! Thanks so much for posting a link to it. Congrats on getting it published, too.

    Frank: You’re absolutely right – don’t ever get sucked in to what’s going on in front of you. Turn around every once in a while and you might just be amazed.

    I should also add that some times you might be in the right place at the right time as drama unfolds before you with colorful clouds and dynamic light – and your camera is nowhere to be found. Or, maybe you can’t work fast enough to capture it on your sensor before it’s gone. That’s okay…just enjoy the moment and refer back to the memory for inspiration the next time you’re bummed about a cloudy day!

  6. May 5, 2010 9:21 pm

    great post brett I also believe that its how you take the photo not what the conditions are that is the key . I would be lost without my clouds to light my photos and give the dramatic edge to them. I am looking out the window now thinking I should be out there just photographing the clouds they are so beautiful and wispy today. Also I look forward to the rolling in of storm clouds because maybe just maybe there will be a rainbow which would make for a perfect and unique shot. The healing power of nature is found in all conditions and brought to life in our photos for everyone to enjoy. Keep up the great work : )


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