Light work in the Yorkshire Dales
Ask any professional photographer what the most important thing is in photography, and the vast majority (if not all) will answer without hesitation that it is light. Take a photograph of a beautiful scene in the harsh midday sun and you will almost always be disappointed. That’s not to say that photographs have to be taken during the “golden hours” of post-dawn and pre-sunset, but due to the low angle of the sun in the sky casting long oblique shadows across the landscape and the warm colour temperature of the light at these times, they are definitely some of the best times for landscape photography. How often have you been driving or walking somewhere and just had to stop to take in the beautiful scene? Something breathtaking and wondrous. It wasn’t the landscape that had taken your breath away, it was the light on the landscape that had done it.
I had gone to the Yorkshire Dales to photograph the patterns of the dry-stone walls, the barns that are littered in the every field and the cascading waterfalls. The weather was glorious – great for sunbathing or relaxing with a cold beer, a bit too hazy and cloudless for the best photography. But when the sky isn’t at its best, who said that you have to include it in the picture? When you have hills to fill the background and enough foreground interest, why not just crop out the sky?
Over the years, I have spent many an hour at previous locations waiting for the sun to burst through the clouds and bathe the scene in wonderful, yet uniform, light. However, in the Yorkshire Dales in June, everything is green. The fields in the foreground are green, and the hills in the background are also green. In order to make the point of focus more prominent, we need to make it stand out from the background, and when everything is green, the best way to do this is to wait for Mother Nature to do it for you with shadow. There may not have been many clouds in the sky, but there was enough to cast the occasional area of shade, so that morning became a waiting game. I had framed a scene in my viewfinder where a barn with bright red doors was the main point of interest. Dry-stone walls zigzagged their way across the landscape, and in the background were hills, cropped to remove the sky from the scene. The barn could have easily got lost amongst the overwhelming green. What I needed was for it to stand out against the background and the easiest and best way to do this was to have the barn bathed in light but the background in shadow. So I sat down, stared at the sky and anticipated when the clouds would be coming. Watching the shadows glide across the landscape may be quite a serene and calming activity, yet waiting for the shadow to be in exactly the right place, and cast a shadow in exactly the right area can be quite a fun game with split-second timing required. Press the shutter too early and not quite enough of the background is in shade, wait a fraction of a second too long and the not the whole barn is lit.
In the same way that long shadows from early morning or evening light give photographs an added dimension and make them feel more real, so can having whole areas of the scene in shadow. It gives a sense of a third dimension, which photographer seeks to achieve but which can be difficult to convey in a flat two-dimensional picture.
If there’s one lesson I learned from this trip, it was that it isn’t always about the light. Sometimes it’s about the lack of it too.