One day late in the summer, I was hoping to capture one of those amazing Kentucky sundown moments, but luck was not with me that day. There were plenty of clouds, just not where the sun was going down. They were all behind me to the east and overhead. I stood watching in vain for quite a while and as the sun inched closer to the horizon I realized the sundown was going to be pretty much a non-event. And then something told me…”Look behind you.”
When I turned around I noticed the patterns of clouds were lining up in such a way as to create a wonderful low angle of light patchwork across the sky. There was enough open sky showing to provide a sense of space, but the cloud cover was just thick enough to offer some interesting textures.
With the low angle of the sun, a lot of shadows filled the creases between the layers of clouds and the outer edges were tinged with slight yellowish fringes. I lined up a wide angle composition and fired off a few quick shots, but when I looked at the image on the back of the camera, I realized it just was not what I imagined it could be. Instinctively I knew that in the next few minutes the angles, the type of light, the structure of the clouds all were going to line up, and I was going to miss a great opportunity to capture it if I simply let the camera do what it wanted to do.
I tried to influence the image by adjusting the exposure compensation +/- up and down, but the overall effect remained ordinary. Then, a moment of revelation slapped me in the face. It was a moment that changed the course of that evening shoot, maybe even how I go about taking photographs as a whole. I thought, what would happen if I pushed the white balance all the way out to 9900 from its standard setting of 5500.
I had little time before the sun dropped too low, so I quickly thumbed to the manual white balance screen and reset the value to 9900…as high as it would go. After reframing the composition, I fired off a shot and what appeared on my viewing screen caused a great deal of excitement. The average colors and temperature of the previous images suddenly exploded with vibrant color. The clouds became bolder, the fringes became stronger. The overall color scheme shifted toward an amazing light value that I knew would render the image from being average to one that excelled, almost HDR-like in appearance. What was exciting is that it all looked natural and not over cooked, unlike what some HDR images can render.
It was like the light jumped a full degree in intensity. Jumping Light is an appropriate name for a technique that can often change the power and intensity of a certain kind of image. Since that time I have tried that technique several times just to retest the theory. It so far has proven to work for each situation.
· Look for a big sky opportunity – use a wide angle lens – not limited to sky shots. Early light and late light tend to work best but it is not limited to just those times. Avoid the cliché sunrise or sunset composition. Instead, use the light from those moments to look around and see how it influences the mood of the landscape, then, photograph that. Capture the emotion of the moment…not what you see physically…try to visualize what you want the image to become then make adjustments to capture that vision.
The idea is to get you to thinking differently about what you are doing. Don’t simply always accept what the camera wants to offer as an exposure. Use the light to your advantage by telling the camera what you want. The most powerful images are often images that are captured not as an exact duplication of what you see, but as a rendering of what you experience and visualize.
Extra stuff…The Reason Why the White Balance Shift did what it did
Some of you may be wondering why shifting the white balance the way I did had the dramatic effect it had. Some of you may not understand what white balance is. I don’t have room to explain it in detail here, but White Balance simply put: There are different kinds of light and each kind of light has different temperature values that are classified as a numeric value using the Kelvin Temperature scale.
Warm light actually has a lower temperature… cool light has a higher temperature. Blue Sky middle of the day daylight falls around 5200 to 5500 degrees K. The auto white balance on your camera will function pretty well within a range that falls between 3000 and 8000 degrees K, but does tend to default toward a blue cast in certain conditions. If your light source falls outside of that 3000 to 8000 range, it can cause the color balance to be shifted either toward the blue or the orange. Most cameras will default to the 5500 degree setting which in most circumstances works pretty well. By setting your white balance to more closely match the actual kind of light you are photographing, you can tell the camera to shift the center point more toward where it should be. This can be accomplished several ways…either manually setting the white balance, or using one of the preset options on your camera like Shade, or Cloudy, or Tungsten…and so forth.
So…the lighting conditions in the direction of the sky (east) I was photographing, because it was so late in the day, had shifted toward a bluer or cooler temperature…probably up around that 8000 to 9000 K mark. Since my default WB was set at 5500…and 9000 was way up the scale, it caused the camera to capture the image a bit too much toward the blue shade. By manually telling the camera to use 9900, it shifted the center point high enough to cause it to capture a deeper and richer tone value across the entire spectrum of the available light. Was that the way it actually looked...not really…but it was the way I visualized how I wanted it to look.