CloserLook Nature Photography

Finding the Light to Evoke Emotion

Unnamed Peak over Emerald Lakes at Sunset, John Muir Wilderness, Eastern Sierra Nevada

(Canon 1D Mark II with 17-40mm f/4 lens, 1/30 sec at f/22, ISO 200, exposure compensation -1 eV, tripod)

If a photograph is to produce an emotional response in our viewer, then one way to achieve that is with the color of the light on our subjects. This color is often described as the temperature of the light, with warm, golden or reddish light being associated with higher temperatures and cool blueish light being associated with lower temperatures. There seems to be a predisposition of humans to prefer warmer or more reddish light on a subject, perhaps evoking a sense of excitement while cooler light appears more calming. How can we make use of these emotional inclinations to evoke the interest of our viewers? First we have to understand what creates the color temperatures we seek and then where and when to predictably find them. Finally, we need to learn to combine multiple emotion-evoking elements as contrasts to create tensions and give depth to our images.

Marbled Godwits at Sunset, La Jolla Shores Beach, San Diego, California

(Canon 1D Mark II with 500mm f/4 lens, 1/100 sec at f/13, ISO 400, exposure compensation -2/3 eV, tripod)

The atmosphere is one tool for modifying the color of the light striking our subject. Molecules of air, water and particulates in the atmosphere scatter the blue component of the sun's rays, letting more of the red component shine on our subject. Midday overhead sun passes through the least amount of atmosphere, that thin blanket of gas enveloping our planet, leaving a balanced amount of blue and red in the light impinging on our subject. But when the sun is very near the horizon, it passes through a maximum amount of atmosphere, and that golden light we seek is created. In the Marbled Godwits at Sunset image above, warm rays from the sun setting on the Pacific horizon yielded gloriously warm golds which deepened to red in the last moments of the day. In the long path across the ocean, water vapor scattered the blue light to better reveal the wavelengths of red. In another example, the early morning light cutting through thick Irish fog produced the red glows seen in Swan at Sunset image below. Thin low clouds can have the same effect. Extremely intense colors can occur in atmospheres permeated with dust or smoke. Thus we can look for particular atmospheric conditions that might yield the colors we seek.

Swan at Sunrise, River Corrib, Ireland

(Canon D30 with 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens at 275mm, 1/60 sec at f/20, ISO 100, exposure compensation 0 eV, tripod)

Knowing now what creates warm light, we can anticipate that morning and evenings are prime times for photography. But wait, geography plays an important part here as well. Photographer Galen Rowell was well known for finding beautiful warm light in the mountains of California and Tibet. Here the high peaks push up into the day's first or last rays as the sun rises or sets at some distant horizon. The long path of this light strips away the blues, producing the intense "alpine glows" that make his Mountain Light images famous. In photographing Unnamed Peak over Emerald Lakes at Sunset, I found such alpine glow at 10,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In addition to direct streaming golden light, don't overlook the potential of reflected light to add warmth to your images. Again, geography can play in important role. The golds in the sand of the Marbled Godwit at Sunset image were created by warm sunlight falling on sandstone cliffs above the birds on the beach. This light bounced off of the cliffs, bathing the backside of everything in gold. Likewise, while in the mountains, look for massive rock outcrops or cliff faces that can act as giant reflectors of light onto your subject.

One need not eschew cool blue light entirely in a quest for warm lighting. In fact, the juxtaposition of warmly lit subjects with those in cooler light can create a special tension in a photograph. Look again at the image of Unnamed Peak over Emerald Lakes at Sunset at the top of the page and see how it exemplifies this concept, with the peak reaching high to intercept the sunset light and contrasting with the rocky ridge reclining in the cool blue shadows. The excitement stirred by the glowing peak is countered by the calm stillness of the lake shore. The Marbled Godwit at Sunset image at the top of the page also displays this characteristic. We see patches of the cool blue sky reflected off the wet sand at the godwit's feet, while warm sunset light off of the cliffs reflects in the wettest patches in between. These alternating patches of gold and blue create some of my favorite backdrops.

You can combine different contrasts within one image to deepen the experience for your viewer. The Unnamed Peak over Emerald Lakes at Sunset image holds further emotional contrasts to accentuate the warm/cool tension. The first is a near versus far relationship between the shore grasses in the foreground contrasting with the high and distant ridge and peak. The second is the soft versus hard feel exemplified again by the grasses and smooth stone in the foreground countered by the jagged rock of the peak. In fact, the barrenness of the distant lifeless peak contrasts greatly with the lush growth at the viewer's feet. Thus if you can include multiple contrasting elements within one image, you provide a depth that stimulates the viewer on many levels.


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Copyright Benjamin R Miller / CloserLook Photography 2009