The Play of Light in a Darker Times

My medium of choice, the camera, doesn’t pick and choose. It has no opinions, no favorite colors or times of day. With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing. You may argue that this isn’t quite true – cameras do have limitations – but bear with me. The point is that in this season of abundant darkness when shorter days bookend the winter solstice, the camera’s all-seeing lens may not see as much as it does in brighter seasons. Unless you’re photographing a snowfield, it’s likely that a fair amount of the frame will fall into the shadows. That makes it easier to concentrate on a few elements of the scene. Darkness can be a wall where light enters through a door.

1.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest from the east coast I bemoaned the lack of light. I missed the dazzle that accompanies blankets of snow, the delicate light of spring, the pop of bright autumn leaves. At a photo conference, I asked Art Wolfe, a respected Seattle photographer who travels widely, about what I thought was the problem of the paucity of light in the region. He surprised me by disagreeing and expressing warm enthusiasm for the local landscape, just the way it is. I respect him and his work so I thought long and hard about what he said. I tried to flex my mind and open myself to other possibilities. Over the next five years, while I grappled with camera noise and somber tones, I gradually developed a feeling for the moody Pacific Northwest. That meant accepting the challenges of dim, overcast days alongside the picture-postcard beauty of snow-topped mountains and craggy, forested islands. Now, my least favorite time of year for photography is the summer, when the sun rides high and bright in clear skies.

2.

In a few weeks, the shortest day of the year will mark the turn toward an increase in light that culminates in June with deliciously long, sunlit days. I value the rebirth and growth that comes with spring, my favorite season. But by midsummer, I’m tired of sunny days whose harsh, flat light illuminates every nook and cranny in the landscape. It gets to be too much.

The crepuscular hours of winter’s short days are just the remedy – and it begins well before the official start of winter. Shadowed landscapes offer magical openings that leave more to the imagination. When a sliver of golden light picks out a few twigs in the forest and hides everything else in the murky half-light, a drive awakens in me. Like an animal focused on its prey, I become intent on finding interesting plays of light during the last hours of the afternoon. The cold is forgotten as I study details and analyze the pros and cons of each mentally framed scene. Working quickly before twilight turns into night, I appreciate every patch of light as a treasure in a half-dark world. And of course, it’s the darkness that makes those treasures valuable.

A few days ago a light snowfall coated the ground overnight. In the morning the snow was marked with neat circles where icy rain fell onto it. In search of whatever beauty I might find, I tried driving up Mt. Erie, the highest place on the island. Within minutes, the car began to skid. The road up the mountain isn’t a priority and isn’t well-plowed. Congratulating myself on a well-executed three-point turn on the narrow, icy road, I retreated in low gear and parked at the bottom. A trail across the road that leads up a gentler hill would have to be good enough.

And it was. In a forest opening, I found scraps of ice hanging like baubles from clumps of gray-green Usnea lichen that dangle from the branches (#2, 3, 4). Delicate twigs festooned with waterdrops glowed faintly in the low light (#5). Like an interloper, a beam of light sliced through the forest and illuminated a patch of drooping flower clusters that were dull brown with age. For a few seconds, they sparkled like gold. With fingers going numb, I photographed straight into the weak, distant sun before the light shifted again (#1).

3.
4.
5.

The forest was losing what little light was left as the sun dipped behind the hill. Only the tallest treetops gleamed saffron; everything else was obscured in the dusky shadows. My toes and fingers were cold. Alone in the woods, I followed the trail back down to the road. The birds were quiet, probably busy gleaning the last seeds and tiny insects from the woods before huddling close to a tree trunk and fluffing their feathers for the night. Somewhere behind me, the high-pitched chatter of a Douglas squirrel broke through the shadows.

It felt good to get back in the car but there was still a little daylight left so I decided to check out Heart Lake. Just up the road, the small lake is a pretty splash of blue set in a deep green border of conifers. I knew the afternoon light would be raking across the lake in chiaroscuro patches. As I pulled into the parking lot mergansers dove in the shallows and a man threw a stick into the water for his happy Labradoodle. I got out and exchanged friendly words with the man but I was more interested in what was behind him on the edge of the lake. A great tangle of brush, grass, reeds, and trees glowed like copper in the lowering sun. Each twig and leaf was picked out in sharp definition. All I had to do was to stand as close as possible to the shoreline without getting wet feet, check settings, compose, and click (#6).

To the left, gracefully bent reeds were mirrored by the cold, still water (#8). On the north end of the lake, a group of ducks worried the surface. Noticing the pattern of sunlit reeds, barely visible trees on the opposite shore, distant ducks in a line, and striped reflections on the water, an idea came to mind: the varied bands of light and dark would make a nice composition. Later, I realized that the color was distracting and made the image black and white (#10). With the sun finally gone behind another hill, I saw one last subject: a loose fountain of tall grass sticking up through the ice. The ice was mushy and pock-marked from waterdrops that must have fallen from a nearby tree. I liked the graceful droop of the grass and muted colors. It was a natural conclusion to the afternoon (9).

6.
7.
8.
9.
10.

***


79 comments

  1. Thank you, Lynn, especially for the lesson on appreciating dark days. We have so many of them in Ohio, and I usually don’t appreciate them at all. The next time I go out with the camera on such a day, I will try to see it through your eyes. Your photographs show the value in doing that.

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      • To your introductory text: Every now and then I come across photos that I can’t explain. Antennae of an insect, which seem to shine through a leaf in front of it. But the same often happens to the eye. I once fled from a supposed predator, as one of the most blatant experiences.

        (I used a translator this time. Last night my English was very poor, 2 past midnight πŸ˜‰ )

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        • I guess the last hours of the day are good times to have those odd experiences. It’s good that we still find mysteries in life, isn’t it?
          And thank you for writing in English, I know it’s a second language and I’m sorry I don’t speak or write German. My father’s parents came to the US from the Hannover region. My father grew up speaking German and English at home but I decided to learn French in school – I thought it was prettier. πŸ˜‰

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    • I apologize for not stating the obvious – that this is a northern hemisphere-based post. I AM aware that each landscape is different. πŸ™‚ Low-light images is a nice way to describe this look. It’s good to hear from you, Vicki.

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      • We have low light in winter too, Lynn. It’s about 40 years since I’ve been up in the high mountains skiing in winter though. I love the snow and wish I could still, both afford and have the physical health, to go up in the snow. But all we seem to get is flooding on the east coast these days. πŸ˜€ I don’t know what’s happened to Summer DownUnder.

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        • That makes sense about low light where you are, too. I know the eastern Australia floods were incredibly severe. So many weather extremes everywhere these days. I hope things improve but I believe the wealthiest countries will have to make big changes to what we consume for that to happen. And that’s hard!

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  2. I’m not partial to the harsh sun during the Summer months but I do appreciate the warmth. It’s not a bad trade-off, especially since we get many overcast days here during the summer. This is a wonderful set of images, Lynn, especially #9 and #10. Nice work.

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  3. When you’ve been under a blazing sun, but really anytime, dusk or twilight might be my favorite part of a walk. First the shadows get longer and longer, making everything a bit more interesting and then as it gets dimmer and dimmer, things begin to morph or get harder to make out clearly and your eyes start to play tricks on you, and sometimes a mundane scene gets a whole lot more interesting. I really like these little scenes you’ve got here. Your first shot has got such a great feeling – mysterious, a bit magical looking, like you’ve just woken up (awakened?) Reminded me there’s a Robert Frost poem I like, “Waiting, Afield at Dusk”

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    • You’ve painted a vivid picture of why it’s good to be out walking toward the end of the day. It tends to be when I’m out by default but I have no complaints – it’s a wonderful time of day. That magical feeling is what I was trying to convey in the first photo. thanks so much! Have a good weekend.

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  4. Another wonderfully illustrated exploration, Lynn. If I had to choose a favourite image, I think it would be #8 – something about the visual echoes on the gently rippled surface that appeals…

    “With complete dispassion, it accepts and reflects the breadth of what is in front of the lens, excluding nothing” – sounds like a metaphor for Essential Self / Awareness/Consciousness / Nature / Universe / Absolute / Wholeness / Unity / Tao / Ground of Being / Emptiness / Ultimate Reality…

    β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺ
    β–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«

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  5. Really well expressed Lynn, a great reminder to learn to appreciate what we have rather than yearn for something different. It’s interesting that in your time in that beautiful region you’ve moved from preferring bright sunshine for your photography to now finding the summer months the least inspiring. Your photos reflect the beauty you now find in darker and colder days for sure. My favourites? 8 and 9 – the simplicity of both appeals to me.

    Incidentally, we too had to abandon driving up Mt. Erie when we visited – not because of ice (it was July) but because the road was closed 😦

    I have to add too that even in July I found plenty of not bright and sunny atmospheric conditions on the coast and in the Hoh Rainforest!

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    • I hadn’t realized you even made it onto Fidalgo Island – Mt. Erie is a very local kind of landmark, not a place many people from out of town know of. I believe you about finding good conditions in certain places and on certain days in the summer – it all depends – the danger of generalization. Thanks for your comments and enjoy the weekend!

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      • During the final week of our road trip we used the ferry from Anacortes to travel to and from Friday Harbor for a few nights stay there. On the way back we drove down the length of Fidalgo Island to Deception Pass before spending a night in La Connor and on from there to Seattle (with a detour to see Hendrix’s grave) and then home.

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        • Nice! When we first traveled to Seattle, we drove up this way one day, too, but we didn’t get out to the San Juan’s. Four months later we moved to Kirkland, across Lake Washington from Seattle. It was nice then (11 yrs ago) but even then we were drawn to explore this area so we felt fortunate to find a place to live up here when it was time to retire.

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    • Thanks very much, John. I don’t know if any Usnea lichens are found near you. Most are basically gray-green but there’s a little blue in there, especially in certain lights. All the lichens and mosses are looking good these days with the return of moisture.

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  6. Your piece is quite wonderful.

    Brings to mind a small book, In Praise of Shadows, by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (trans. Harper and Seidensticker).

    e.g. “Sometimes a superb piece of black lacquerware, decorated perhaps with flecks of silver and gold–a box or a desk or a set of shelves–will seem to me unsettlingly garish and altogether vulgar. But render pitch black the void in which they stand, and light them not with the rays of the sun or electricity but rather a single lantern or candle: suddenly those garish objects turn somber, refined, dignified. Artisans of old, when they finished their works in lacquer and deorated them in sparkling patterns, must surely have had in mind dark rooms and sought to turn to good effect what feeble light there was.”

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    • Thank you for sharing that quote, I like it very much. I’m not familiar with Tanizaki’s work. The Wikipedia entry has a lovely piece of calligraphy he did, a poem. The characters are interesting, they kind of fall apart toward the bottom of the page, starting out almost normally en ending up very loosely. And they remind me of the calligraphic lichens that grow on bark. Wikipedia has an article about the book, too. I went to put the book on my wish list and it was already there. 😦
      Thanks for reminding me!

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  7. Thanks for reply which got me looking at the Wikipedia articals. I don’t read much fiction, but do recall reading β€œSome Prefer Nettles” some decades ago. I liked the English version of the epigraph, something like β€œevery worm to his taste, some prefer nettles”.

    By the way, I recall reading of a visit to the home of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, possibly Seidensticker, mentioning great surprise at how modern and bright it was inside (although the Wikipedia photo of the outside gives a different impression).

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  8. Again well written and beautiful pictures Lynn! I think we feel very similar about the small things nature has to offer. I love those light spots you captured in the first picture. It has a touch of secrecy and mystery, which I like very much. The lichen with the waterdrops is wonderful too. I think we both like to find beauty everywhere, even in small things like your finds (I can find them more easily in nature than in everyday life, which is a shame! I think you find them everywhere πŸ™‚ I like #8 with the reed. It is such a nice contrast of yellow and blue, so fresh and light :-). You found a wonderful way of getting along with the dark sides of your area. There is always some light and you show it. Besides these darker times of year are so much more atmospheric. Summertime is so obvious, if you understand, what I mean πŸ˜‰ Like us humans with our darker sides, nature has even more secrets to offer in winter. We live on contrast, right?!

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    • We definitely have the same fondness for those small things nature has to offer. If you find those wonders more easily in nature, then just live there! Seriously, I hope you don’t feel that everyday life is too different from being in nature. But I get it!
      More atmospheric, yes. I do understand what you mean when you say summertime is obvious. Yes, we live on contrast, that’s a good point! I’m glad your eye is (almost?) all better.:-)

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      • It is much better. There is still a kind of “pea” that is slowly “melting” away πŸ˜‰ Hm, sometimes it is different from life in nature. Probably I am more relaxed out there. Every little thing is a joy. I can’t say that about things at home or elsewhere. But I am working on it πŸ˜‰

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  9. I have to admit I’m rarely inspired to break out the camera in the winter months. But that may be because I’m simply more inclined to be a homebody on cooler, wetter days, pursuing other interests. But overcast light can be nice too – it’s surprising how much color saturation you can get.

    I seem to recall Art Wolfe suggesting that when he starts working a site, he starts small, looking for colors and patterns at near macro level, and then only later expanding to the bigger picture. It looks like you follow that suggestion, either deliberately or intuitively.

    I’m partial to 7, 8, and 9. Contrasts, both complementary and in luminosity.

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    • That’s very interesting about what Art Wolfe said, thanks for mentioning it. When I follow his suggestion it may not even be by intuition – it’s mostly a matter of the way my brain works: I see the details first, and the bigger picture after that. Recently I heard Sam Abell talk about the importance of the horizon and working forward from there. Everyone has their sweet spot. Thanks for your thoughts, Dave, and stay cozy…but maybe try getting out too? πŸ˜‰

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  10. Just a quick note…. I love, love, love what you’re discovering about the PNW light! It seems I’ve made the same discovery, but never stopped to examine it. My neck is complaining as my head tilts to see the screen on the desktop. (The iPad doesn’t let me comment! πŸ₯΄) But I really must return to this when my neck has had a rest….! πŸ’ž

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  11. Searching for light in the dark is really the search for all of us…
    But focusing only on photography, it will really be a less frustrating challenge for those who have good knowledge of photography and do not use automatic mode…
    This is the only way to get such a beautiful set of photos, very sharp, even in low light.
    Here, there is usually plenty of light and blue skies…so gray days are not at all appealing to photograph…
    I like all the photos, but I think #9 is wonderful!

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    • You make a very good point (as usual) that this search for light in the darkness is a universal one. And it’s true that using more advanced equipment and learning how to find the best settings makes it more likely that one will be happier with the images. A phone, for example, wants to record the world very precisely and with lots of light, no matter how much light is actually available. There isn’t much that you can do creatively with that but in many situations, the phone’s way of seeing the world is appropriate. Mine reproduces skies better than my camera! But I’m really glad I have the camera and different lenses to experiment with.
      If I come to the Portuguese coast I think I will struggle with all that light! πŸ˜‰ But I would be happy to try. πŸ™‚
      I’m very happy that you like #9. It’s very graphic. I like the way it turned out when I made everything high-contrast. Thank you, Dulce, and have a good week!

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  12. Your words and thoughts reminded me of my own move to the west coast and the early difficulties as I was trying to adapt. I loved the sunlit and clear San Diego days in November when it would all be cold and grey and dreary in Germany! But just like you, over time, I got tired of sun, sun, sun and I’m fond of our May Gray and June Gloom. But nowadays, in winter, I’ve come to appreciate clear-skied days and the much more angled light of the low sun β€” and especially in the desert, where the light, without a single cloud in the sky, has a quality that took me quite a while to understand and appreciate. Cheers to adaptation! πŸ™‚

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    • It’s interesting to compare our experiences because there are many similarities between the places we came from and the places we moved to, but there are differences, too. I can see why clear skies in the months near the winter solstice aren’t a problem. Actually, they’re nice to see up here this time of year, too, especially because they’re not typical. Desert light – it’s something special! Thanks for stopping by!

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  13. Summer’s my least favorite time for photography, too. This is more than a little ironic since it was the pictures I took on hikes that were what probably got me first interested in photography! But over the years I came to understand my pictures from that time of year were my least interesting.

    #8 personifies the exquisite mindfulness of your work behind the viewfinder. I love that picture!

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    • Thank you…sometimes when conditions aren’t right for a larger scene, what’s right at your feet works. Or what’s right in front of you, like that snow removal machine up at Snoqualmie Pass! πŸ˜‰

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  14. I’ve not only enjoyed your great photos but your poetic text, too. There’s something in the sounds and letters you have chosen that makes it sound marvellously! I’ve repeated some lines enjoying reading them aloud! Besides, your excellent photos just prove what you have written about! Congrats!

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  15. Oh yes! the qualities of the light can differ so dramatically from one region to another, and we have to learn to see it, enter into it, on its own terms. I know of an artist who moved from high-Arctic Yukon to one of the Gulf Islands and, after almost a year of paralysis, shifted from acrylics to watercolour and found himself again “fluent” in the local light-language… Your photos again & again prove you too are fluent in the local language. What a joy they always are.

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    • That’s such an interesting story…the idea of watercolor as the medium for islands is a natural one. I can understand why it would take a long time to adjust. Alex (above) talks about moving from Germany to Southern California – another big change! And you’ve gone through a few yourself, eh? πŸ˜‰ Thanks for your comment and the wonderful way you framed the concept – being fluent in the local light language. That brings a smile.

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  16. Dear Lynn, I am right there with you! The fewest pictures I took were in summer. I love the grey skies in northern Germany! I love the mystique of the low light in the forest, the fog with its incredible softness. I can’t stop photographing these things!!!
    I’m glad you didn’t have an accident! Cheers Simone

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  17. Hi Lynn. Your post made me wonder if I have favorite seasons or times of the day to go out for some shooting. The only thing I could come up with was: when it’s foggy.. For the rest I close a door behind me and start walking; open for whatever draws my attention, with whatever amount light is available. Once I got out in the middle of the night with only the light of the moon; crazy, ’cause none of the camera’s auto-stuff was working. So I had to figure out the total manual settings that I hardly ever use; in the dark, and a beer to many.. The next morning it turned out that I had taken a lot of almost total black frames. But that’s where the camera comes in, because the SONY A7 I used then, had a marvelous dynamic range and on the computer in LR it turned out that there were quite some interesting secrets hidden in all that darkness.. πŸ™‚ So, don’t think; aim at anything that draws your attention and hit the shutter wherever and whenever you are.. πŸ˜‰ By the way, fine set; the first one is my favorite; don’t know why exactly, must be some kind of memory… Greetings for you and Joe!

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    • Fog is good! But I guess getting out is the main thing. I like reading about your experience in the dark – surprises are good, right? But there are times when some thought before pressing the shutter might help. πŸ˜‰ I’m glad you like the first photo but don’t know why because my hope was that it has some mystery. Thanks for taking the time to write, Harrie…I hope life is good. Joe says stay calm, keep shootin’. πŸ™‚

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  18. The lighting in these images is very pleasing. I think that in the winter when the sun is low, there are more hours of favorable lighting. Without harshness, the softer highlights allow for clearer details and the shadows help to direct the eye. I love your last image … so wintry and elegant!

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  19. I also love the contrast of bits of light in the darkness and the interest of branches and grasses spot lit against the gloom. It’s part of my attraction to forested areas and exploring under the canopies of tall trees. My least favorite time of year – all the way around – is the glaring, clear sky times of summer here in the PNW. I miss the variety and texture that moisture and varied angles of light bring. I don’t think about it often, but I too feel the deep appreciation for dimly lit places and spaces that you’ve highlighted in this post.

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