Sometimes the lessons are so basic, they are overlooked. This is one I feel needs to be repeated for new photographers as well as a gentle reminder for those of us with decades of shooting experience.
Photography is the process of recording light. It is the same with your eyes, every waking moment of every day you use them. You see subjects around you and mentally are so busy classifying and figuring them out (“What a beautiful red Ferrari! Is it slowing down for a right hand turn?”) that when it comes time to lift a camera to your eye, you forget to stop and think about what is really going on.
You make pictures of light first
Of what are you really taking photos? You are taking photos first and foremost of light. Most of the time it is light reflected off of a subject but sometimes it is of the light source itself (e.g. sunsets, light painting, fireworks, etc.). In the case of the former, you need to remember the subject itself might be interesting, but if the light is ‘bad’ then the subject doesn’t stand a chance.
Let me illustrate by example. These images are of the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington State, where I live part of the time. They are beautiful this time of year, when it’s not raining so much we can’t see them, and when they still have a full coating of snow for contrast. I took the pictures at different times of day of the exact same subject, but the results are different each time.
Light changes throughout the day
The images were all processed exactly the same and while the color balance naturally changed, what is most dramatic is the change in light and effect it has on the impact of the image.
A great photographer always thinks about light, even when she or he doesn’t have a camera up to their eye. It is light that makes the photo. The great thing about it is there is no ‘perfect’ that need be obtained in this regard. There is simply different light which will impart a different feel to the subject and whether or not you like that light.
What if the light is bad?
Sometimes it is the tone of the light, or the angle, or the intensity, or the temperature. The best practice for taking the best picture possible of a given subject, in my mind, goes something like this, “Wow, that’s a beautiful subject! Does the light work right now?”
This process has stopped me from taking more bad pictures than I can count. This is because I have reviewed thousands of my own crappy images with bad light, but great subjects, that this process has been cemented into my mind.
The next time you are enamored by a fabulous subject, ask yourself, “Is this the best light for this subject?” If not, your photos will be lackluster. If the light is not right, find a time or place where it will be better. If the situation won’t allow for great light, set your camera down and just admire the subject that caught your attention in the first place.
Life is too short to be taking photos of great subjects in bad light.