On this typical May morning, along a bluff at Black Partridge Woods, transcendental rays of new-day light fleck the verdant floor and streak across serpentine waves of woodland phlox, casting the divine onto this springtime panorama.
Thirty minutes earlier, though, only flat blue shade from the open sky illuminated the landscape. Editorially and visually, the composition would have told much the same story, but not a transcendent one.
Landscape photography of a woodland is straightforward when fully lit by a diffused sky. Ubiquitous, the even light plays no influential role and is, therefore, not part of the equation. Simply compose for the existing subject matter.
However, when rays of light enter the scene, they ethereally and dramatically influence all tangible elements. Suddenly, the landscape is recast into a complex story of highlights and shadows, and every physical subject takes a back seat to the light, which now fills the starring role. A symbiotic and orderly combination of light and subject matter is required to create the ideal photograph, seriously raising the level of difficulty.
Along with the light comes new challenges, like distracting hot spots or black featureless shadows that can divert the viewer’s attention away from the intended story. Therefore, to photograph amongst the trees, the sunlight must be soft and precisely directed. Soft sunlight can be seized by showing up during the first and last 30 minutes of the day. That’s easy enough. Directing the sun, however, is out of our hands.
In the open prairie, sunbeams travel predictably and virtually unobstructed, and I easily “chase the light.” I scan the scene for a sunlit area, head directly to that spot, check for a suitable composition, and, if I find one, set up and shoot without surprises. However, in the woodland, trees divvy up the morning sun, making the position and shape of the dappled light impossible to predict. Obstructing the sunlight, they hurl their shadows in a slow, constant advance—a forest of sundials. Each flower is given its moment in the spotlight, only to fall back into the shadows. Timing and location are critical when photographing the woodland landscape.
Chasing the light, like I do in the prairie, may sound like a logical plan, but the sundials don’t wait while I take the necessary time to analyze the scene or to arrange the composition. That’s why, when time and space converge to create the perfect moment, it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Then, with the possibility of tomorrow, I glance down at my watch and vow to return to the same spot, thirty minutes earlier, hoping for a rerun of light, weather, and sky.
Chasing the light under the canopy can be a frustrating, unproductive scramble. So now, I employ a more relaxed strategy, one that separates the variables of space and time. Before daybreak, I scout the location for a scene that holds potential, then I stake it out and wait for the perfect moment. With the equipment in position and the composition virtually solved, if that moment comes, it’s likely I’ll get the picture. This approach is less frenzied, requiring only patience and an avid awareness of the creeping light, as it constantly conjures new compositions. Granted, it’s a crapshoot, but these are the images that ascend to a higher level of art and make it all worthwhile.
I tell my students, time after time, that one great picture is better than a hard drive full of good ones. Less is more. Much more. To stand out in the field of photography, stand out in the field at 4:45 in the morning. There are no shortcuts. Whenever I complain, my lovely wife exclaims in a delightful refrain, “Suck it up, Mike!” And, I do.
To learn about landscape photography and how to harness the transcendental light, consider my illuminating photography workshops entitled “Light and The Landscape” and “Art of Landscape Photography.” And, to find out more about all of my photography classes and learning adventures, please visit Creative Eye Workshops.