Light may be the stuff of which photography is made, but that doesn't always mean more light is better, especially when photographing nature
Light that reflects off of an object (like canyon walls or even clouds) or that is diffused through something translucent is called indirect light.
The magical glow found in photos of slot canyons results from bounce light: Direct sunlight strikes the rocks at the top of the canyon, and the rocks act as reflectors, bouncing the light deeper into the interior of the canyon, bathing the lower walls in a warm, reddish light. Bounce can also occur around sunrise and sunset, when clouds crackle with colorful reds and yellows. If it is intense enough, this color is reflected onto the landscape, burnishing the whole scene with soft, warm tones.
Surfaces of high reflectivity, such as water, ice, snow, and wet rocks, also bounce light. I like to juxtapose reflections of sunlit elements with objects that are in shadow, such as sunlit fall foliage reflected in a shaded brook. This way, I can capture a complementary color scheme of warm tones (sunlit reflections) and cool tones (objects in shadow). When selecting your white balance, remember that a relatively cool setting (typically daylight or cooler) will preserve blue tones in shadow areas, whereas a warmer white balance will eliminate blue tones and reduce the complementary nature of the colors.
Diffused light is most commonly associated with cloudy days, which are often perfect for waterfalls and streams. Other natural elements, such as heavy tree cover in a lush rain forest or jungle environment, can heavily diffuse light. Photographs made in these settings often appear to have a green glow that adds an ethereal mood.
Because bounce and diffused light are indirect, they are often fairly weak, so you may need long exposures. With slot canyons, for instance, exposure times at base ISO settings may be 30 seconds or longer. You can reduce exposure times by increasing your ISO, but don’t go so far as to degrade your images with digital noise.
Twilight and Night
While most nature photographers prefer the “magic hours” of sunrise and sunset sunset when the light is golden-red, don’t overlook the faint gleam of twilight. The gloaming hours can be perfect for rendering scenes in a dreamy, impressionistic manner.
Anything that moves during a long exposure will be rendered as an abstract blur, so consider the direction and duration of any motion blur that might occur. If the wind is blowing your main subject—say, a group of trees—long exposure blur might not work for your photo, whereas clouds streaking across the sky against a static rocky landscape might be very effective. Streaking clouds moving towards you, rather than at an angle, appear to radiate from the center into the corners of the image, producing a dynamic composition. Experiment with exposure time to get the look you want, adjusting ISO as necessary in order to achieve longer or shorter exposures.
Some of the most dramatic “edge” conditions occur as inclement weather is approaching or breaking up. There’s nothing quite like the sun finding a gap in the clouds low on the horizon, sending forth streaking rays of golden light or firing the clouds with brilliant red. Such phenomena don’t happen often, so you need patience—and as much time in the field as possible. Pay close attention to local weather forecasts and satellite maps to time your fieldwork for these conditions.
Ian Plant is a full-time professional nature photographer, writer, and adventurer. His work has appeared in numerous books and calendars, and he is also the author of a number of eBooks and video tutorials. See more of his work at www.ianplant.com.