Waiting for the Light

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Waiting for the Light
Created On: Dec 1, 2007
Last Edited On: Nov 1, 2010


Though most humans rely on vision more than other senses, I suspect those of us who like to spend time in the mountains are probably among the most visually oriented of people. Sure, we "feel" rock as we climb and "listen" to sounds of the outdoors. But I’m convinced "views" are one of the major contributors to why we return to the summits again and again.

A crowd Waiting for the Light at the Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

Without a doubt, pictures are very popular on SummitPost. The views they represent and the information they relay allow each of us to, in some way, relive our time in the mountains.

That old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words," is very true. Compare the "Page Score" of almost any two mountain pages (from the same range) on SummitPost. The one displaying better pictures will almost always have a higher score than one with poor (or no) pictures. Why? Because humans are visual beings. Pictures "speak" to us.

This piece is a short commentary on the importance of the quality of light for taking a good photograph. I hope what follows may help you in some way to improve your pictures. And yes, I freely admit, sharing this information is entirely selfish on my part. I like to look at good pictures!

The Quality of Light

Just Before Sunrise on a Snowy Morning
The quality of light influences how we react to what we see, whether we’re looking at a landscape, a building, a person, a picture, whatever. Because the effect takes place on an almost subliminal level, most people go through life totally unaware of it happening. For example, when we look at snow we think it’s white; however if you take a picture of the snow (correctly exposed, of course), and look at that, you’ll find that in many cases the color is anything but white.

Note: Movies generally contain good examples of how light quality influences mood. The next time you watch a movie, try to notice how the director used different colors of light to control the mood of a scene and what effect that control has over you, the viewer. If the movie and the director are good – able draw you into the movie with technique – it’s very difficult to remain detached and study the lighting. But give it a try.

The quality of ambient light is determined by its direction, intensity, and color. Each of these changes every day as the sun crosses the sky. By learning to be aware of these changes in light, then taking advantage of those changes, it is possible to improve your photographs.


As the sun moves, the angle at which its light strikes an object changes. Pretty obvious, really. But somehow we tend to forget this fact.

If you’re making a long approach to a mountain from the east, and it’s morning, you’re likely to have several opportunities to get good front-lit shots of the mountain you're about to climb. Stop and take advantage of the light – get a few shots. If you’re in a big hurry to reach the mountain and begin climbing (and who among us isn’t), thinking you’ll have plenty of time to get a great mountain shot when you return during late afternoon, forget it. You’ll be facing into the sun and the side of the mountain you’re wanting to photograph will be in shadow. Unless that is what you want, you’ll have missed your chance.

As an example, here are shots of the same subject (a snow-covered Ponderosa Pine) in light coming from three different angles – morning, afternoon, and just before sunset. Notice how the changing direction of light alters the “mood” of the shots. (The color of the light also affects the mood. I'll cover that in a moment.)

Ponderosa Pine in morning light
Ponderosa Pine in afternoon light
Ponderosa Pine just before sunset

Notice how the direction of light has changed - high from the south (almost back-lighting) in the left shot to very low horizontal front-lighting from the southwest in the last shot (right).

Sometimes you want directionless light as in this shot. Such light affects the mood and can allow a different level of detail to be captured than is possible in directional light.

Stump and Snow in Directionless Light


This changes with the time of day. Early and late, ambient light is dim in comparison to noon when the sun is high overhead. Again, obvious.

Note: Think of the earth’s atmosphere as a filter, a filter which decreases the amount of light passing through it. As the atmosphere gets thicker, (sea level vs. high on a mountain), less light reaches the ground. So, when the sun travels across the sky each day, the amount of atmosphere its light must pass through decreases until noon, then increases until sunset – dimmer in the morning and evening, brighter at noon.

Now, just because the light is dim doesn’t mean you can’t take a good photograph. You just have to set your camera correctly to take in more light – larger aperture and a longer exposure time. Fortunately many of the point-and-shoot digital cameras many of us carry into the mountains can make these adjustments automatically (if the camera is set correctly). Nice! There are limits, though. In very low light, you need to use a tripod to keep the resulting picture from looking blurry.

Sometimes the intensity of light changes because of moving cloud shadows. These two shots, taken only 16 seconds apart, show the subject (in this case a wall of sandstone) illuminated with very different levels of light. The difference is quite dramatic.

A Wall in Shadow
A Wall in Sunlight

The picture on the left, with the wall in shadow, has a very different mood than the one on the right. Here the wall is not only back-lit, but also front-lit by sunlight reflected from a nearby wall of red-orange sandstone.


At the beginning and end of each day, ambient light takes on a golden hue. Those times are often referred to as the "golden hours." Remember that filter, the atmosphere? It is full of minute particles, and as light passes through that "dirt" – deflected and reflected – its color shifts toward the red end of the spectrum.

This shot of the cliffs above the Cache Valley Wash illustrates low-intensity light with an almost horizontal direction.
Taken from near the Delicate Arch about 35 minutes before sunset while waiting for the light's color to change.

Most of us have seen at least one spectacular sunrise or sunset and can appreciate the effects of the atmosphere’s "dirt." However, most people are not aware of the subtle changes in light that occur during the golden hours. There is a good reason for that lack of awareness.

Each of us who makes it to adulthood has seen so many things during our lifetimes, our brains have learned to compensate for small changes in light. No matter what we look at, our minds "see" a compilation of similarly lighted scenes that we have been exposed to in the past. Put another way, we typically "see" an average built upon our past visual experiences.

But, if you take a series of pictures of the same thing on a fairly clear day and during the golden hours, the subtle shifts in light quickly become apparent. I took just such a series of shots at Arches National Park one evening during October, 2007. The series clearly shows the changes in light during a short period of time and the effect the subtle changes have on the "mood" of each photograph.

In these two pictures, taken 39 minutes apart, it's very easy to see how the color of the light has changed.
30 Minutes Before Sunset
9 Minutes AfterSunset

This series of nine pictures, also taken over a period of 39 minutes, illustrates the more subtle shift in the color of light.

29 Minutes Before Sunset
11 Minutes Before Sunset
2 Minutes Before Sunset
1 Minute Before Sunset
1 Minute After Sunset
3 Minutes After Sunset
4 Minutes After Sunset
7 Minutes After Sunset
10 Minutes AfterSunset


Sunrise on a Smoky Morning
When you’re capturing pictures during your mountain adventures, take your time. Think about what you want to achieve with each shot before you click the shutter. Don’t just point and shoot.

Shoot multiple compositions of each thing you photograph, especially if you’re using a digital camera (those extra shots don’t cost anything but time). You’ll not only have more chances to achieve what you want, but when you look at the shots later, you may find you’ve captured something better than you had initially imagined.

Wait for the light. Even when all you’re after is a journalistic-type picture of a mountain or a section of a route, taking a few seconds to judge the ambient light, then waiting a bit for a change in light can make the difference between capturing a picture and getting "the shot."

I believe there is an added advantage in learning more about taking pictures. The more I learn about photography, the more I appreciate what I see when I’m NOT taking photos.

With that in mind, you might consider reading the following SummitPost articles, each of which contains interesting and useful information for improving your photographs.

Cropping – The Kindest Cut
Mark, one of SummitPost's best Photographers, talks about cropping and a few other "rules" for taking good pictures.

Light - Directional, Reflected, and Refracted
Using Polarization Filters
Gangolf, SummitPost's top contributor, covers the use of polarizing filters.

Using Graduated Filters
Mark explains the use of graduated-density filters.

Panorama Construction
Lucas tells how to shoot and construct panoramas for use on SummitPost.

7 Ways to Post Panoramas to SP
Gangolf talks about posting Panoramas to SummitPost.

High Dynamic Range Imaging
Vid, the owner of many of SummitPost's highest rated photographs,covers a technique utilizing multiple images to bring out the details of a particular scene.

In addition, one of the very best photography sites on the web is Photo.net. It’s full of every kind of information a photographer could want, including instructions and equipment information.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-9 of 9

rickford - Dec 6, 2007 4:09 pm - Voted 10/10

Well done

and very informative. I will utilize these techniques from now on. Thanks a lot for sharing!


Geo - Dec 7, 2007 12:24 am - Voted 10/10

painting with light

Many moons ago, a teacher told me that photography was the art of painting with light... such a simple phrase that sums up such a complicated subject. Thanks for shedding a little more light on it.


rdmc - Dec 7, 2007 5:19 pm - Hasn't voted

Great article & pics.

The photography of SP is my favorite part of the site. I am a complete amateur,but am inspired by photograhers here at SP. Thanks for sharing the love of photography, the information and the inspiration.


tannerpuma15 - Dec 11, 2007 2:11 pm - Voted 10/10


what a phenomenal article and great pointers to us beginners. thanks and happy summits!


lasvegaswraith - Dec 13, 2007 11:25 pm - Voted 10/10


Great article. Thanks for sharing your worthy advice. What better way is there to bring your experiences back to share with others?


fossana - Dec 14, 2007 9:39 pm - Voted 10/10


i especially like the timed interval shots. thanks so much for putting this together.

Mark Doiron

Mark Doiron - Dec 19, 2007 8:54 am - Voted 10/10

Informative Article

Informative article with great images. Couple things you might consider adding:

1. The affect of lighting on texture. This could be especially useful for what might otherwise be a "boring old route shot"--being able to see the texture of the terrain could help others out. But, as I'm certain you're well aware, texture is a vital element of good photographs and its appearance is dramatically affected by the light.

2. In your paragraph about direction-less lighting, you might mention that this shooting situation is usually caused by an overcast day. Also, an overcast day eases the contrast in certain scenarios, such as when shooting under "spotty" shadows, like under a thinly vegetated forest canopy.

--mark d.

Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt - Dec 19, 2007 5:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Informative Article

Hey Mark,

Thanks for your helpful comments. I just finished working your 2nd suggestion into the article. I'll have to think a while before adding something on "texture" but will try to do it soon.


Michael Hoyt

Michael Hoyt - Feb 28, 2008 6:14 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Well done!

Hey, thanks for the compliments and suggestions. As the "thirds", I thought Mark Dorion did a great job of covering that along with some of the other "rules" in his article "Cropping - The Kindest Cut" so didn't feel I needed to do so. As to "White Balance" and manual manipulation of digital shots, well, those remain for another article. Why don't you write it? I suspect you could do the subject justice. Mike.

Viewing: 1-9 of 9

Waiting for the Light

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