Bad light is a figment of your imagination. Seriously. It just doesn’t exist. There is only light, and what we choose to do with it is what separates good photographers from grumpy photographers.
Here’s an example to illustrate my rather bold statement. Let’s say you’re visiting Moab and you’re stoked to photograph Mesa Arch with the trademark neon red glow on the underside of the arch. You awake on the morning of your shoot only to find the sky filled with dull, gray clouds. Nevertheless, you’re an intrepid photographer with eternal optimism so you head out the door with camera and tripod in hand. On the drive out of Moab it starts to rain. As you climb the switchbacks that deliver you to the top of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands the rain turns to snow. It’s late April and it shouldn’t be snowing but there it is falling all around you. It isn’t snowing hard enough to cover the ground but some of the vegetation is holding snow. Arriving at the Mesa Arch trailhead you are thrilled to discover that yours is the only car in the parking lot. With a headlamp strapped to your noggin you make the short hike to the arch. There you set up your tripod and wait, confident that the clouds will part and warm light will erupt from the sky. But it never does. Minutes pass and soon the landscape around you is illuminated in low contrast, diffused light filtering through thick clouds. It’s obvious that the only glow this morning will be from your red face as your temper flares. Bad light? Think again.
You obviously aren’t going home with the photo you intended to make. No spectacular sunrise light, no red glow. Switch gears and let the creative juices flow and you might just find a unique, intimate photo. Overcast light eliminates harsh shadows and allows your sensor to capture every little detail in a scene. Use that light to photograph patterns in the sandstone or, as in this photo, a beautiful juniper tree accented with a dusting of snow. As you walk around with an open mind and a positive attitude you start to find all kinds of interesting scenes and your memory card is soon full. After a fulfilling morning shoot you head back into town, eager to chow on some huevos rancheros and download images to your laptop.
Your success as a nature photographer is tied to your ability to improvise and adapt. If you’re given a glorious sunset you’d better be there to photograph mountain peaks kissed with brilliant alpenglow. When the clouds roll in turn your attention to intimate landscapes. If a thunderstorm develops look forward to the drama that is sure to unfold when the clouds break. Once you learn to use the light you’re offered you’ll never have another unsuccessful photo trip.
Got some experience overcoming “bad” conditions on a photo trip? I’d love to hear your story! Post it in the comments section and feel free to include a link to an image that illustrates your story.