If you’re relatively new to photography, you often focus on the technical aspects: making sure that you know how all the camera settings affect the output and so on. These things are critically important, but eventually become background knowledge as they become ingrained in your consciousness. Then, you will often move to perfecting composition: finding that perfect angle. This too is incredibly important for creating great images.
The last thing that a lot of photographers focus on is perhaps the most important, however: capturing great light. For studio shooters, the ability to control light and bend light to your will is the critical task, and it’s a skill that can take decades to perfect, and even then: truly exceptional photographers will tell you that they continue to refine and hone their craft to get the results they envision.
For outdoor photographers, however, you are often at the whim of the elements. One early key is to shoot a the times shortly before and after sunset and sunrise: the golden and blue hours. However, for truly dramatic outdoor photographs, you are also dependent on weather. To create magical photos, the best landscape photographers become fairly adept at reading meteorological reports, evaluating location and direction of light, and exhibiting tremendous patience, sometimes over multiple days. The best photographers chase the light for the best images. I’m not at the level of the best landscape photographers for sure, and I haven’t quite learned how to predict the best light in a lot of cases, but it’s something I’ve become better at over the past several years, and Monday I was able to do it and capture one of my best shots of this year (at least, I think it is).
First things first: the image above was one I took and wrote about a few years ago, and was a shot I had envisioned for months after following the sunrise move from left to right from this angle and back again over the course of several years. This shot is also the largest shot I’ve ever had printed, as a local car dealership purchased the image and printed it 40′ wide at the back of their showroom, which was a huge thrill for me. I got a reminder on Facebook over the weekend that ‘3 years ago today’ I posted that image. On Monday morning, a clear, cool morning, it jogged my memory that the sun would be in a similar position, which, as you can see, provided very dramatic lighting on the landscape.
Of course, I wasn’t after the same shot, and due to the removal of a dam downriver, the landscape in this area has changed over the past two years as well. I headed to the confluence of the Scioto and the Olentangy Rivers (where the above image was taken), a bit early, and took some shots as the sun moved up, casting shadows and illuminating the cool mist rising off the river, the same as it had three years earlier. The scene looked like this:
This is an OK shot, but it doesn’t really capture the majesty of the light and the mist. I was getting a little bummed that I couldn’t come up with a way to really make this good light sing.
Then I noticed an egret wading in the distance and I knew the shot I wanted: the sunlight intensified and I reached for the longest lens I had at the moment, which was just a 70-200mm, and I attached my old Kenko 1.4x to get some extra reach. I was moving as fast as I could, as the light was perfect, I had the shot in mind that I wanted, and I knew I only had around 30 seconds to a minute at most to get that perfect light. I raised my camera, set my exposure, composed and shot. And I got it:
The shot would never have happened if I hadn’t been reminded of the potential for this illumination a few days earlier from previous experience, and I made sure to get to the position I had to be to capture that light. In a lot of situations, you really need to chase the light, and in this case, it worked out perfectly.