The Myth of “Good” Light

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Barn Shadow, photographed in the mid-afternoon

As talented photographer Mark Citret wrote in his insightful essay entitled Where to Stand:

“The quality of light in a photograph is meaningless unless it helps to express something!”

Brilliant!

Those of us who are landscape photographers are extremely sensitive to the quality of light upon our chosen subject matter. Our sensitivity is based, in large part, on the fact that we cannot control that light but rather must react to it, work within its confines, gleefully accepting the crumbs we are thrown.

But much of what we think of light, much of what we were taught, is wrong. We have been given bad advice. Misled. Bamboozled. We have been told that the “quality” of light is, above all else (above even subject matter), our primary consideration. We have been too strongly encouraged to use only the warm, quiet light near sunrise and sunset, and to ignore the “harsh” overhead light of the noon hours, or the flat, “featureless” light of overcast days. And our photography often suffers for it.

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All photographs made in the mid-day sun which would have failed in any other light

The ironic thing is . . . we don’t actually photograph the light, rather we photograph how that light illuminates our subject matter. It is that resulting interplay of shape and form, light and shadow which, when combined with our vision and purpose, gives significance and meaning to our work. Despite what some may tell us, one size does not fit all. The various factors are too numerous for such a simplistic way of thinking—subject, personal vision, purpose, mood, what we had for breakfast, attitude, how tired we are, etc, all combine with light to, as Mark Citret wrote, “express something.”

So don’t be afraid of noon light, don’t fear overcast days, and don’t think you have to avoid morning and evening light, either. There is no such thing as bad light, only bad advice.

BTW, I own’s Mark Citret’s book, Along the Way, and can say in all honesty that it’s as exceptional as his insight.

I Have to Work on That

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Sinclair Refinery in Fog, Mills, Wyoming

I had this great conversation last week with friend, talented photographer, and inspiring educator, Jean Miele. I first met Jean when I took his photo workshop in Sante Fe a number of years ago, and we have stayed in touch ever since. (He and my wife both graduated from the same exclusive NYC high school. Whatter the odds?)

During our conversation—I forget the exact topic but it was definitely related to photography and things we didn’t do as well as we hoped—Jean paused and earnestly said “I have to work on that.” Hearing that surprised me for a couple of reasons. First, he really is talented and knowledgeable and I assumed quasi-omnipotent. Second, he and I are both in our mid-50’s and are far from inexperienced. Third, it’s just not something I hear a lot . . . from anyone. Hell, even when I was teaching a college-level photography class I rarely heard that from my students (and lawd knows some of them needed a lot of work). Nowadays, it seems everyone just assumes they know it all or they pretend they do, which is the same thing. All too few will admit to wanting, or needing, to get better.

“I have to work on that.”

It was an impressive admission for someone so established. I was suitable impressed. As photographers, especially in this day and age of digital ease, it’s easy to be competent but, as it has always been, it’s difficult to be good. Even harder to be great. It takes work. A lifetime of work. And that means always admitting we aren’t perfect and always working to be perfect.

The trouble with thinking that we know everything is that we lose our incentive to create better work, or even good work. We rest on our laurels, content in our assumed perfection which we gleefully share with the world, often with more effort and zeal then we put into our creating our images. The Internet is full of examples. (I don’t want to name names, but Peter Lik comes to mind. Just sayin.)

For mere mortals, though, despite our age or experience level, we can only improve by admitting to ourselves that we don’t know everything. That we still have much to learn and much to do. We should tell ourselves that until the day we die. Our tomorrows should see us smarter than our todays, and our next photographs should be better and more insightful than those we took yesterday.

Photography is a journey, not a destination. So take a cue from Jean, and “work on that.”

If you would like to learn from Jean, something I highly recommend, he’s leading a workshop at Maine Media Workshops in August: check it out