Scared of Direct Light?

Early after first picking up a camera, photographers learn to recognise of good light. As landscape photographers we wake up early and stay out past sunset in search of the perfect golden hour light.

I used to return to locations again and again to understand how the light interacts with my subject. This was good training. It taught me anticipation and adaptation.

However, more and more. I like it when the light is subdued. I prefer now to shoot in indirect or predawn light and I even long for overcast conditions.

In fact, I now find it very hard to edit ‘golden hour’ images. Take the example below, the light on the buildings is early-morning, warm light. The shadows aren’t too harsh and the warmth makes the ham stone buildings pop against the stormy sky. But there is very little forgiveness when editing this sort of shot. In a lot of ways, you get what you are given.

Purists will argue this is a good thing; you should get it right in camera. But I don’t think this takes full advantage of the digital medium. In the days of film, the most dynamic range you would get out of a good stock was 13 stops. Something like Velvia delivering 3 or 4 stops! I like the high contrast and deep shadows of some film. You can use it to great advantage for street photography to isolate a subject.

But when it comes to digital landscape photography, you can use the flexibility of the files (14-16 stops of dynamic range) to get creative.

Overcast and soft lighting gives you the ability to do extreme manipulations in the digital dark room. This image is more or less straight out of camera and it is flat.

Yet the day I was here at Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye was anything but flat. Rainstorms came and went every few minutes and cloud rolled across the mountains. Using the flexibility that a flat RAW file gives me scope to bring back all of this drama. The lack of noise, even when I give the file a brutal edit, is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, having this much freedom is daunting in itself. Many of the challenges and creative decisions are no longer done in the field, but while you edit at home.

These days I make fewer mistakes when shooting and I enjoy the creative challenge of bringing an image to life at home. When I was a beginner, I used to shoot and edit straight away, but I now sit with an image for a long time before I know what to do with it. Sometimes it takes weeks to realise what the the dominant colours are, or why the composition doesn’t work and how I should crop it to improve the impact. I may edit an image several times and view it on different screens before I realise my vision.

One could argue that this is too I interpretive and that I shouldn’t need to edit so much to get a perfect image. Maybe. I have had images that need no further work and actually get worse with rough treatment. But a camera only captures a moment and taking a photo consists of a series of moments: a journey. The journey leads up to and continues beyond pressing the shutter. For me, editing an image from flat to expressive is as much about conveying the experience of an image as it is about a single moment. Flat light and flexible files allow me to more easily tell this story.