Lucky Light

Jackson falls shawnee national forest

If you follow this blog, you know I’ve been hiking in the Shawnee National Forest photographing waterfalls – this week’s photo challenge is even about photographing falling water. I used this photo of Jackson Falls as the cover for the challenge.

When I posted the photo above of Jackson Falls, a comment made by one of my Facebook followers struck me. Paraphrased, he said that I was so lucky to find such good light.

I wasn’t sure how to respond to his comment. Yes, in some ways I was lucky in the weather and the lighting conditions I found when I hiked down to this waterfall, but the light he’s responding to isn’t just a matter of luck. I work at capturing what he’s terming “lucky light”.

Working with What you Have

As a travel photographer, I have to work with the light I have – good or bad. I’m where I am, when I’m there and I can’t necessarily wait for the light to turn spectacular. I can do some planning and when possible I do scout a location one day for a sunrise or sunset shoot the next day. But usually my travel itinerary isn’t that flexible.

I generally arrive somewhere and want to make the best photo possible with the light I have. With this waterfall being in a canyon, lighting conditions are variable at the best of times.

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I often say that I might be a classical musician (which I am), but I’m a jazz photographer. I have to improvise when I’m at a scene.

I love to photograph in the mornings because I love the fresh light. It’s qualitatively different from the late afternoon light. Having said that, by the time I got to Jackson Falls, it was mid-afternoon.

The hike to this waterfall is, for me, about 90 minutes. I’m not necessarily a fast hiker – have never been – and with a camera, I’m easily distracted by things along the way – ferns, rocks, streams, reflections, trees, birds, lizards, leaves, other hikers…. Weather and lighting conditions can change a lot in 90 minutes!

cairn shawnee national forest
I love cairns and was able to add to my photo collection on one of my waterfall hikes.
fern in black and white
Every plant along the trail is a possible photograph.

When I arrived, I looked at the light I had. I noted any problems – like a huge sunburst coming across the scene and where I can physically stand to get the photograph.

Earlier in the day, I’d hiked to Burden Falls. The sun had just crested the canyon rim and was sending down a harsh sunburst. Often I like sunbursts, but not in this case. I tried HDR, but still wasn’t happy. I moved around to photograph the falls from an angle.

Those of you who travel a lot know that sometimes our vantage points are limited. In this case by the terrain, but sometimes by barricades, crowds, busses, buildings… that sort of thing.

When I travel to popular places, there are iconic shots, but the standard, expected shot is not the only one there. I walk around the scene as much as possible. When I’m in a city, this means walking completely around the block or the park. For this scene, I was scrambling over rocks.

Post-Processing for Light

In fact, there was nothing particularly interesting about the light on the day I was at Jackson Falls. My viewer was likely responding to the post-processing. I don’t often show my original raw files except for educational purposes. Here’s the original….

Raw photo Jackson Falls Shawnee National Park
Original photo – before post-processing. Nothing special about the light

When I post-process, I look for the lighting and the lighting potentials. I often use dodging and burning — just like Ansel Adams used to do in the darkroom, it’s just easier now with software like Lightroom*. I want to draw your eye to the important aspects of the image – in this case the waterfall. It’s the brightest part of the image by design.

I nudge nature’s lighting along.

I use a lot of radial filters in Lightroom* – making some areas darker and some lighter. Not a lot, just a bit. I guide your eye into the scene. If you’re reading this far, I’ll give you another secret tip – use the dehaze tool and ADD haze – just a bit to the waterfall and the pool of water at the base of the falls.

The viewer was also probably responding to the warmth of the image. Unless you see my original image next to my post-processed image, you may not notice that I’ve warmed up the light.

I love warm light in nature, it mirrors the comfort and awe I felt when I was in the field. Regardless of what the light was on this day, I felt close to nature, wrapped in nature, and warm light for me echos that feeling.

In practical terms, this means increasing the Kelvin temperature and adding some red tint to the image. I generally do this in Photoshop* using the Color Balance adjustment because I like the effect better than the temperature slider in Lightroom*.

Final Thoughts

In some ways I was lucky with the light. It wasn’t anything special, but it wasn’t harsh or difficult to work with either.

I’m not documenting a scene like a photo journalist, I’m making an artistic photo of the best possible view of the place I’m visiting. In the end, I’m trying to capture the feeling of the place.

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7 thoughts on “Lucky Light”

  1. That was a very nice tutorial and an excellent reminder that we take what we’re given a situation like that. And if we’re good, we can take what we’re given and then turn it into something marvelous. Like you did.

    Liked by 1 person

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