Tripping Over the Light Fantastic
Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. When the light is right, magic happens. But that doesn't mean you're going to get a good picture of it without effort.
At some point during every visit to Mt. Rainier National Park, I stop at the Paradise visitors center. It is inevitable, either to grab a quick bite to eat, talk with the park rangers about the weather or the wildflowers, or merely to kill time in the gift shop. It's just a convenient spot to touch base, on the way from one photographic opportunity to the next. A lot of families that visit the park end up here too. Standing there next to their lunchtime picnic table, they snap pictures of the mountain as a way to remember the occasion.
When those families pose the kids in front of the majesty that is Mt. Rainier, what they see is a large mass of rock covered in blazing white glacier ice and snow. I've shot my fair share of images from the area, too, but I prefer to work around sunrise or sunset as opposed to lunchtime. Under the right light, the mountain looks quite different from the version most people see. Because of its reflective surface, the mountain takes on the color of the light shining on it. And since it would be difficult to light up something that big with a camera mounted speedlight, we're at the mercy of the lighting colors produced by mother nature. If you want the golden tones of sunrise and sunset, you need to be there at sunrise or sunset.
You've no doubt hear that the word "photography" translates from the Greek roughly as "painting with light." But we're only partially in control of that paintbrush. To a large extent, our role is one of documenting the picture nature is already painting.
If all this sounds familiar enough, congratulations. But even if you can drag yourself out of bed to be there for sunrise, you've still got your work cut out for you if you expect to do it justice with your camera.
Most of us these days have our cameras set on auto white balance. For typical scenes, this choice can yield excellent results by neutralizing unwanted color casts. Unfortunately, it will also do a similarly efficient job of neutralizing the intensity of sunrises and sunsets. Auto white balance has no idea nor need to care about the source of a lighting color cast. It just does the best it can to remove it. For best results, shoot raw, and tweak your results to taste visually in Lightroom. If you want to get a head start, set your camera to cloudy white balance. The light under cloud cover tends toward cooler blues, but even under a clear sky, you can get your camera to add warmth by setting it to cloudy white balance. This may sound backward, but it works. Think of this as the modern equivalent of shooting everything with a glass warming filter screwed to the front of your lens.
Shooting at sunrise or sunset can be challenging for other reasons, too. As the light changes rapidly, some areas may already be in shadow while others are fully lit. Either area could be photographed easily by itself, but composed in the same frame, and the difference in brightness between the two could easily exceed what your camera can record in one capture. Expose enough to capture detail in the shadows, and you risk burning out the highlights. Dial back the exposure enough to avoid that risk, and you consign the shadows to inky blackness. The traditional solution to this dilemma involved the use of graduated neutral density filters. Such filters were clear on one side of the frame, gradually transitioning to a medium gray on the opposite side. By carefully hiding the transition zone of the filter in with that of the brightness in the landscape, one could better equalize the brightness of highlights and shadows. Modern computer technology has provided a better solution by allowing for multiple shots taken at different exposures to be merged into a single frame later. I used to carry around a dozen various graduated neutral density filters. Now I rarely use any.
And don't neglect the direction of the light. Based on the direction each one faces, some locations are better for sunrise and some for sunset. But with an appropriate choice of subject, many can work well for either. The Mt. Baker Highway out of Bellingham, Washington heads deep into the North Cascades, ending at Artist Point. There are points along the trail where you can look off one direction towards Mt. Baker and then do a one-eighty about-face to see Mt. Shuksan. The photographic choices are nearly endless. And it isn't always necessary to go for the apparent subject, either. For a change of pace, try focusing on how the light plays with the details of the scene. Intense, directional light when the sun is at the horizon can create beautiful side-lighting and long shadows.
Taken further, "photographing with light" can become photographing light itself. A subject is still required for that beautiful light to fall on, but if the light is compelling enough, almost any available object can work. Textured subjects such as tree bark and jagged rocks can hide abstract compositions and implied shapes if you're willing to look for them.
To photograph fantastic light, you have to be there at the right time. But even when you are, there's still plenty for you to do if you want to get the best shots. You'll have to pay attention if you want to avoid tripping up and missing the opportunity.