The Tip-Off
The Right Light--Why It Is Worth Playing The Waiting Game

Tony Sweet took the photo at left in Utah's Canyonlands National Park at sunrise, but what he really wanted was the light to bring a glow to the scene, especially to the foliage at the lower right. Twenty minutes of waiting made it worthwhile. His lens was a 35-70mm zoom.
Photos © 1999, Tony Sweet, All Rights Reserved

"A lot of what we do as nature photographers is spend time looking around for places to go when the light is right," Tony Sweet says. And, once those places have been found, waiting around for the right light to put in an appearance.

I'll go out and spend the morning at a place I know is going to be a great sunrise spot. On days when there's bright sunlight and most hours aren't shootable hours, I'll take that time to drive around, look for spots that I think will be good for sunrise or sunset, and I'll make notes on those places."

Sweet points out that while all light may be created equal, it's often location that dictates who gets the really good stuff. "A lot depends on where you are," he says. "On the East Coast there's a whole lot of smog, and that affects the quality of the light. It acts like a great big diffuser or orange filter--or whatever the color of the air is that day. In the desert southwest, or the deserts of Morocco, or Africa, there's always sand in the air, which acts like a filter. That's why the sand dunes in Namibia photograph burgundy. Sand is bad for human beings, but great for photography."

Most important, he adds, is to realize that the really great light is fleeting. "Once you've got your spot, wait it out. Don't go away and hope to come back at the right moment. Chances are you'll miss it. Great light may be there for, let's say, five or 10 minutes, but there's a certain window of maybe a fraction of a second or a second at most, and if you're visually acute enough to recognize subtle changes in the light, you'll see a split second of `This is it!' light. The truly great photos are taken in that split-second window."

How can you recognize that instant? "You train yourself to see it," Sweet says. "The more you do it, the better you get. Look at a lot of pictures, and when you see that moment, you'll know it. You'll know that's what you saw in the pictures. It takes concentration to see the difference between the good and the great light. Believe me, magic happens in a split second, and you have to be ready."
--Barry Tanenbaum

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina. Tony Sweet took the left-hand photo at midday, but returned at sundown to catch a moment of golden light. "I use these two photos in my workshops to illustrate the point that sidelighting is automatic drama." He took both images with his 35-70mm zoom.

These trees at Gulf Coast, Florida, provided a nice composition, but the lighting was flat when Tony Sweet first saw the scene. "I guessed that the clouds were thin enough and high enough so that the sun was probably going to go down under them and light them up. I waited a couple of hours, and it turned out that I'd guessed right." He used an 80-200mm zoom at its 80mm length.