Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.

But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.

26 responses to “Color of Light”

  1. Actually , if you just don’t go out in mid day $@$@ light you can just worry about comp and timing. In that order. But that’s just like my opinion man.

  2. Mark says:

    You’re a legend. Great posts today and yesterday.

  3. shana says:

    hi daniel

    yes, absolutely one’s equipment is irrelevant. and as you pointed out the fundamentals of art are the key. having said that i need to add wellness & connection to light, timing and composition – and in that order. with physical challenges i do not have the luxury of letting light dictate when i make images. if i have the energy & connection to a subject i will make photos regardless of time & light. the rest will fall into place. it’s simply another approach to working-using whatever is available; light & otherwise.

    cheers from shana

  4. Wim says:

    Hi Daniel,
    you are right about the right order light, timing and compsoition but sometimes you can’t wait for the light to be right (sorry I am only a amateur). The last pictures on my little blog are all made between 13- 15 o clock. I wanted to capture the heat at this moment and I didn’t care about clouds etc… But you know I am only a amateur! By the way your work is such a important part for me so please keep it up! Wim

  5. LionelB says:

    Early and late it is not just the colour which improves. The low angle of the sun casts long shadows and everything is modelled much better, making it look three-dimensional rather than flat. Not that I have much first-hand experience of the early morning …

  6. mike a says:

    True that Mr. Milnor

  7. Sean says:

    I get angry with myself because I’m impatient most of the time and fail to wait for the best light. How messed up is that?

    I must try harder.

    (hitting the print button again and keeping this post with me)

    • Smogranch says:


      It isn’t easy. And, you can make great images in crap light but is even more difficult. Great work typically takes time, and in a world where none of us seem to have any, it makes it even worse.

  8. I remember talking to Alex Webb at the 96′ republican convention. At the time he was shooting film as we all were. Anyway, it was about 5pm and he all in a sudden started running toward this wall. I saw what he was looking at and it was people’s shadows on this really cool wall with a REALLY cool petina of texture and color. By the way, the hours before this moment I noticed him sitting in a cafe with Abbas having a coffee. They were both waiting for the right light.

    • Smogranch says:

      Yep, pretty par for the course. I’ve spent DAYS in bad light then looked at my negs and thought, “what the hell was I thinking?”

    • Sean says:

      Eric – Excellent. I’ve just been given the Magnum Contact Sheet book as an early birthday present from my wife. I’ve been inspired by the Abbas and Webb contact sheets and was wondering how they did/do it. Must be the coffee 🙂

    • Sean– it’s ALWAYS about the coffee. It’s THE international drink/time sponge.

  9. Charlene says:

    But Dan, what about ISO 3,256,100 and shooting in the dark (side)? Are you saying I paid for my Death Star… sorry, totally awesome camera, for nothing?

  10. Chris Fuller says:

    Informative post. I propose that the clarity of light also matters. I live in Helena, Montana, where the clarity of light can be spectacular resulting in colors and contrast that you would think could only be conveyed by Velvia. I call them Velvia days (today would not be one them with the wildfire smoke blowing in from Idaho, California, and Nevada). I lived in California my entire life before moving here (38 years) and never experienced light like this. While I certainly agree that the quality of early and late light is ideal. There are days here where, even in the middle of day, the light is incredible.

    • Smogranch says:


      There are places in the world, and times of year, where you can get amazing light at midday. But, it’s about amazing light. New Mexico, in my experience, on average, has some of the best light I’ve ever seen, and there have been times midday where I was able to work. But, most of the time, things get better early and late. Montana is dreamy.

    • Chris Fuller says:

      There is a reason that it is called the Last Best Place.

  11. I find it quite disturbing that most people fail to grasp that they can’t photoshop in great light. Garbage in, garbage out. No faking great light, there’s no substitute.

    Certainly, especially after Peru, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a camera at midday, in case you spot me and mock me forever!

    Sometimes though, there’s no choice. On an island in Papua New Guinea at midday and we’re leaving soon and the light sucks what I am going to do? Find the best compromise and shoot in crappy light or preferably shadows.

  12. LionelB says:

    It is maybe not clear from all this that the same applies to black and white film photography. The distribution and direction of the light and the muting of the hard blue light bring tonality alive early and late. Of course if the mission is to photograph people frying on a beach, better to go with noon and use colour. Likewise, if the face of a building is half in bright sun and half in deep shade, no choice but to wait until all of it is in bright sun or it rains. Few other exceptions though.

  13. Patrick says:

    Hi there,

    I really enjoy your website. I appreciate how you focus on the importance of – well – the important things. I’m one that constantly wants to go shoot, but I never get around to it. I tend to focus too much on the technical side of things, as well. But this post is inspiring. Photography is truly about the light. “I have seized the light. I have arrested its flight”, is what Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre said. Isn’t that what we’re doing? So cool! Keep it up with these great entries. Thanks!

    • Smogranch says:

      Thanks Patrick.
      You are right, can’t make pictures if you don’t go out. The tech stuff, ultimately, isn’t that important. No such thing as “perfect” photography, and most of what I see that is aiming in that direction looks fake, phony and….well, like 2012. Have fun breaking eggs along the way.

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