Epiphanies in the study of light

When I look back over the past twenty years of my photography, I can remember many moments when I had an epiphany - a sudden insight, to what kind of light really worked well in a photograph.

Lago Nordenskjöld, from a secret location Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia. Shot in mid-afternoon light on an overcast day. Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Lago Nordenskjöld, from a secret location Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia.
Shot in mid-afternoon light on an overcast day.
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

If I summarise it, it would be down to this; 

I started out shooting in bright blue sky sunny days because my eye liked it. But I found my camera didn't as the pictures wouldn't come out the way 'I saw them'. The first epiphany was that camera's don't see the way we see, and what is exciting to the human eye, is too high contrast and hard for a camera to record.

Then there came the second epiphany: If I shot at sunrise or sunset, the colour was often beautiful and it gave my images a sense of magic (or glow) that I couldn't quite get during the sunny days I had been shooting in until that point. I learned that the light is warm at sunrise and that often the atmosphere of a place is often calm too. Midday light is a rather cool light in comparison to the warm tones of sunrise.

For a long while, I would do nothing but shoot at sunrise and sunset. It's a great learning experience to continuously work in soft light at these times of the day, and although we all seek those golden colours, they don't always suit the environments we're photographing.

Shooting the isle of Rum from the Isle of Eigg one overcast, rainy miserable day, in 2007 taught me so much about overcast light, and how beautiful it can be in a photograph.

Shooting the isle of Rum from the Isle of Eigg one overcast, rainy miserable day, in 2007 taught me so much about overcast light, and how beautiful it can be in a photograph.

After many years of working in this light, I found myself on a very wet beach one afternoon in winter and had another epiphany. Midday light worked too, so long as the light was very overcast. I hadn't up until this point, imagined I could get any kind of 'mood' to my work except by working during the golden hours, and since this moment back in 2007, I started to employ working at other times of day, providing that the light is soft.

Over the course of 10 years, I'd gone from shooting only in sunny light, to only shooting during the golden hours, and then finally, coming back to shooting in midday light, so long as the light was soft. My understanding of the kinds of light I could shoot in had altered and I knew that soft light works best.

And then another epiphany happened. Although I would shoot any location if the light was soft, at sunrise, sunset and in the middle of the day, I found that some of the images didn't work because the light had to suit the subject. For instance, the stark black volcanic beaches of Iceland work well if the light is very cold / monochromatic. Composing a monochromatic black beach with warm light seemed at times to be at odds with each other. The landscape didn't really need the warm tones of sunrise, and if anything it was a distraction.

Small ice floes in Laguna Armaga, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonian winter Image © Bruce Percy 2015

Small ice floes in Laguna Armaga, Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonian winter
Image © Bruce Percy 2015

These days I still prefer to work with soft light, but I try to work with landscapes based on their tones and colours. Some places are monochromatic in nature and therefore I feel they work best in a neutral colour temperature (midday). For example, Torres del Paine national park can be a monochromatic subject. The mountains are granite grey with dark sediment rock layered upon them and Its beaches are made up of black volcanic rock. The mountains have a very stark look to them, so rather than seeking to shoot them in the warm glow of sunrise and sunset only, I find that the cooler colour temperature of midday light can often work better.

I've come to realise over the years, that beauty is everywhere and it can be rendered under different colour temperatures - not just the golden rays of sunrise and sunset.