I have written before about my love of soft, indirect light. This preference has only grown in the past eighteen months.
There are a few reasons I prefer soft light. They are all practical: (1) while direct sunlight largely determines a composition for us, flatter light allows one to bring mood and story to an image during the editing process; (2) cloudy, overcast days give more time to explore and shoot; and (3) you get to keep more sociable hours. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an early riser, but the short window for spectacular golden hour images—not to mention how infrequently predawn colours line up optimally in your composition—can be frustrating. These failed efforts make the early rising a wager that you often resent taking. So, while everyone else complains about inclement weather in the UK, why not take the path of least resistance and, with a smug smile on your face, turn our island climate into your competitive advantage?
Of course, overcast days are the easiest place to find soft light. But diffused, indirect light is subtle and comes in many forms. Despite being flatter and easier to work with when editing, soft light is not boring. It can be saturated and directional. Two types of soft light stand out in this regard: reflected light and late blue hour light.
I’ve only just started working with reflected light and have yet to take a reflected-light image I am pleased with. Reflected light is most apparent near walls of rocks where the bounced light is a different colour from the ambient light. The two light hues can mix in interesting ways. This mixing is especially effective in intimate scenes with a lot of texture, such as patterns in sand or the ripples in flowing water.
I have more experience experimenting with predawn, late blue hour light. Blue hour light is directional and diffuse. Moreover, if you catch the perfect moment, you can also get some of the presunrise colours.
While with directional blue hour light, you have more scope for editing creativity, and although I have argued elsewhere that heavy editing is permissible, the creative challenge of a good edit is bringing out what is there rather than contriving a scene. This consideration is as practical as it is ethical; although RAW files are very malleable, they easily fall apart when you push and pull them too much.
In my quest to see what’s there, I find two Lightroom sliders helpful: ‘Texture’ and ‘Dehaze.’
A well-exposed RAW file can look dull when you open it in Lightroom. So one of the first things I do with images—especially if my memory of the shoot is more vivid—is turn Texture and Dehaze up to full. Doing so gives you a better idea of the texture and colour present in the image.
Seeing the structure of the image exaggerated like this steers my edit. Although it’s nice to have some leeway and crop later in the workflow, my edits are more accurate when I know my framing from the get-go, so if cropping is needed, it’s one of the first things I do. In this image of Ayrmer Cove, I introduced a significant crop. This was my second frame of the morning, and I hadn’t dialled in a balanced composition, but of almost five hundred shots that morning, this was my favourite frame—the combination of wave and cloud positions plus the pastel colours made it for me.
After I’ve decided on the crop, I reset the Texture and Dehaze sliders and set to work bringing our what’s there in a more subtle way. Since the recent Lightroom updates to selective masks, I do the majority of editing in Lightroom. Then, once the image is mostly there, I take it into Photoshop to tidy dust spots, apply selective curves adjustments and Orton effects and sharpen it for printing.
During this editing process, I might use ‘Dehaze’ in selective areas of the image, but I don’t touch the texture slider. ‘Texture,’ ‘Clarity,’ and ‘Dehaze’ are blunt instruments. They introduce noise into an image. In my workflow, I treat these three sliders more as investigative tools to gauge potential than as go-to sliders for editing a print-worthy image.