When the Light isn’t Right

Rhododendrons and Redwood Trunks, Damnation Creek Trail
Rhododendrons and Redwood Trunks. Damnation Creek Trail

Sunday the light just wasn’t working for me.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ugly out. It was a beautiful blue-sky day in far Northern California, where I was just finishing up a much-too-short run to spend a couple days in the redwoods, in part as part of the Save Our State Parks effort. The trip was amazing. But yesterday, full sun and 30 miles-per-hour winds left me uninspired.

Now, I’m far from the first photographer to observe that “the light isn’t right” is often as much a statement about the photographer as the light itself. Yes, it’s likely that a sufficiently creative photographer will find a way to make great images in any light she or he ends up with. On the other hand, it’s also true that some types of light really fit my photographic vision better than others. And no matter what the cause, the question remains, what to do with a day like that?

On longer trips away, often I’ll at least have a few hours of chores to work on. Laundry, dealing with business emails, buying groceries if I’m staying some place where I can cook. But I usually don’t have that much in the way of chores.

More frequently, though, I’ll spend the “down time” of uninspiring light scouting, either driving or hiking areas I haven’t explored before or which I haven’t visited in a while. This is more an internal shift than an external one. Either way, I’ll still have my gear with me, but instead of thinking “I’m looking around, enjoying, and trying to capture what moves me here”, it’s more a state of “I’m looking around, enjoying and thinking about what’s here and what might be here in different conditions.” As small a shift as that is, deciding that what I’m doing is scouting eases the urge to force a shot that isn’t going to be exciting, which paradoxically leaves me in a better mental state to capture a great situation should I encounter one.

Sunday was a case in point, rather than trying more forests-in-sunlight work in the Lady Bird Johnson grove of Redwood National Park I decided to start home earlier and take a three-hour side trip out Mattole Road, a loop road that accesses California’s “Lost Coast.” It was a beautiful day, my sweetie and I wandered along the thin, two-lane road through farms and ranch land. The road only spends a few minutes actually at the coast itself, and access there was limited. But even then I could feel the wheels turning, starting to set up thoughts of where, in different light, the interesting images might be.

Without that change in how I thought about the day, it might have been all too easy to think of yesterday as a failure: After all, I didn’t shoot anything. But learning about a place deeply enough to start building a mental “playbook” of what the landscape is, and how different light might paint it, is every bit as important in my game as the moment of capture.

Just a few days earlier I’d had a great reminder of the value of having that “playbook”, the weather had been cloudy most of the day but I noticed shortly before sunset that it would likely hit a clear patch near sunset. I realized the light would be very favorable at Face Rock, and knew that I could get there in time, so I rushed out to the location and enjoyed some excellent shooting conditions.

In short, my best advice for those days when “the light isn’t right” is to just take a deep breath and go somewhere new. Take a hike or a drive, whatever feels right. Look around, enjoy the landscape for what it is. You’ll enjoy the day a lot more, recharge your mental batteries and build your photographic playbook.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I agree with that. I think those days are easy to recognize but a lot of photographers (especially wannabe) don’t usually recognize them and shoot and shoot. But I understand that its so frustrating when you are in a nice place for a short time and the light isnt with you.

  2. But I understand that its so frustrating when you are in a nice place for a short time and the light isnt with you.

    Yeah, I do too, and I’m entirely sympathetic. Ask me about my couple days (only) in Svalbard. 😉

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