To Be A Better Photographer, Become A Student Of Light

I recently completed a one month road trip in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. While on this trip, I reviewed  Anne McKinnell’s series of ebooks, including one titled 8 Types Of Light. In that ebook, Anne suggested photographers should be students of light. “To continually improve your photography, become a student of light. even when you do not have your camera, be aware of the type of light in your surroundings and how the light changes.”  She ended the book with a quote  “My first thought is always of light” - Galen Rowell

In a strange bit of irony, I remembered that a world renown landscape photographer and foremost student of light, Galen Rowell, had lived in Bishop Ca.; I was at the time staying in Bishop for 8 days. I had read several of his articles in photography magazines during my photography career. Galen was an adventurer, a world class mountain climber, and an expert at capturing natural mountain light in his photographs. I looked up the website for his store in Bishop, got the address, and set off downtown to peruse his work, maybe buy a book, etc.

When I got to the address, there was a used sporting goods store in that building. I inquired next store at a bookstore and found out that Mr. Rowell and his wife died in a plane crash in 2002; his son had maintained his store and commercial photo business til 2017. And the son had since died. Stymied, I went back to my camper, got on the internet and bought 3 of Mr. Rowell’s books thru Amazon. They were waiting for me when I got home.

After reading the photo packed books, I was in awe of this “student of light “. As a youth, he observed the art of famous painters. These painters had been masters of painting light into their works of art. They included J. M. W. Turner, Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, and Albert Bierstadt. Unlike young Galen, we don’t have to go to a museum to see the works of these artists. I suggest you do a Google search of each and see the how they created light in their paintings.

Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1865), by Albert Bierstadt

He explained the physics of different types of light; his explanation of what causes alpenglow, the reddish tinge to mountain tops in the minutes before sunrise and sunset, made this phenomenon clear. He pointed out the origin of crepuscular rays, “God Beams”. He asserted that rainbows always have a 42 degree arc, and double rainbows are 52 degrees. His book “Mountain Light, In Search Of The Dynamic Landscape” has many such teachings on light. He filled it with his photos illustrating captured mountain light. Galen worked in the era of 35 mm slide film so his discussions on film choices is no longer pertinent, but his explanations on how he set up a scene, the considerations he went over in making his most famous photos, are still valuable lessons.

Photo by Galen Rowell

So how does this information about a world class photographer relate to you, a beginning or intermediate photographer, and what you are doing with your photography? Let’s look at the typical path photographers travel as they learn their craft.  Beginning and intermediate photography hobbyists are on the steep part of the learning curve, focusing on the mechanical aspects and basic theory. You concentrate on camera button layouts, exposure triangles, depth of field, why the small F numbers mean a large aperture, etc. You shoot many photos, learn from your mistakes, and shoot more photos. This is the craft part of learning photography; typically it isn’t until later that you turn your attention to the creative aspect.

This day started out rainy and cloudy. I wasn't happy but went to the scene I wanted to photograph. As the sun started coming up, I turned around to see this view with the tremendous light showing thru under the clouds.

As you continue your photographic endeavors, you will hear or read that of all the elements in photography, light is the most important. Without light there would be no photography, just black exposures. Learning about the characteristics and nuances of the different types of light will advance your photography faster than anything else you can do.  You shouldn’t wait until you are comfortable with the mechanics of your camera and how to take a photo.  You should become a student of light simultaneously with learning your camera. 

Depending upon who you read or listen to, there are 8-11 types of light. These include backlight, sidelight, frontlight, reflected light, diffused light, dramatic light, twilight, night; each has its own characteristics which require you to adjust your shooting technique. These different characteristics will also dictate what subjects you will photograph under each lighting condition. A great resource for learning about different light conditions is the ebook by Anne McKinnell called 8 Types Of Light.  It is available at and the price is right; it is free.

While waiting for sunrise, still in twilight, I took this photo of Mobius Arch about 15 minutes before the first rays of sun hit it.

As you become a student of light, you should always be assessing the light before you. Even when, or especially when, you do not have your camera with you. Really look at and assess the light wherever you are. See how it interacts with trees, buildings, people. It might be in a park, on a city street, on a bus, or in front of a majestic mountain. It doesn’t matter what type of photography you decide to do, landscape, portrait, cityscapes, street photos, etc., study the light.

Mono Lake at sunset.

If landscape is your style, note the color/colors of twilight, that 1/2 hour before sunrise and after sunset. Notice how long it lasts and how fast it changes. They call the time at sunrise or sunset the “Golden Hour”; it seems more like the Golden 1/2 Hour when you are in front of a great image and you are trying to change your settings to match the light.

Alpenglow on Mt. Whitney

In just 2-3 minutes the first rays of sunrise started replacing the alpenglow which can still be seen mid mountain.

As you become a serious student of light, you will note that how you approach a scene will change. Instead of looking for a great scene and waiting for the right light, you will notice great light and then looking for the right subject and composition that works with that light. For example, the soft diffuse light of an overcast day might not work with a grand landscape scene, but works great for photos of wildflowers. A dark stormy day won’t ruin your day if you prepare for the rainbow that often follows a storm. As a student of light you learn to anticipate the lighting and that will change your photos from okay to striking.


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