Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Theater Lights

RALPH WALDO EMERSON: "All our progress is an unfolding, like a vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."

PHOTOGRAPHER'S DIARY: And so in this season of, "dark brown gardens and peeping flowers," this week I returned to Strait Farm. It has been a bit over a year since I first visited Strait and photographed the building which The New Milford Times dubbed, "The Bearded Barn," when they published my image. All that has changed at Strait Farmstead in a year is my eye and my understanding of light. [Two additional imges of The Bearded Barn: (1), (2)]

Without doubt, my favorite kind of sky has become what I call "theater lights."  Theater lights usually occur after or between storms when all sorts of breaks let sunlight play over the hillsides. At such times clouds of many colors may make beautiful patterns above, while a tropospheric lighting designer moves the cloud-banks to spotlight the sun's energy onto specific hills, trees or other features below. His experiments can make contours fade and reappear while constantly reshaping composition and transforming mood. The photographer tries to make sense of it all. I realize I need to work on my routines and skills to better exploit such rare and treasured light.

The weather forecast for the past three days has been rain, rain, rain. In fact, it took me most of two days finishing indoor chores to realize that outside the best photo weather was going by unexposed. Why is it that I rush to stand freezing in a blizzard, but a little drizzle shuts me in? I suppose it's the unpredictability of it all - not wanting to get caught in a downpour. It is clear to me from the past two days that I need to formulate a strategy much as I have done for shooting in snow.  

Notes to myself:
1.  "Theater lights," enrich a panorama.  A high position with views of rows of hills and features in several directions multiplies options.
2.  Foreground - middle ground - background.  Collect "drive-to" locations with panorama plus interesting foreground feature(s).
3.  When no panorama is available, intimate effects may be possible.
4.  "Theater lights" can happen at any time of day. Which sites are best at which times of day for sidelight and/or frontlight?
5.  Graduated ND filters required. 
6.  ALWAYS PRE-VISUALIZE - There's usually no shot when no beams light the landscape, so don't shoot. Similarly, the "theater lights" effect doesn't happen when all the lights are on. The purpose of "theater lights" is to set things apart and lead the eye.
7.  Pick a site. Don't chase rainbows. Be prepared to wait.  
8.  It is in the nature of this kind of sky that changes can happen quickly. Stop and watch the movement of the light until you're at its rhythm and can anticipate how it will light fore-middle-background and when the best compositional balances will occur.
9.  Realize that sometimes it's just not meant to happen.
10.  Don't take chances with thunder.

There is a more difficult problem for which I must find temperament to manage.  Because (1) "theater lights" happen at all times of day, because (2) they can pass as quickly as they come, and because (3) they are so spectacular, I sometimes jump the gun and wind up tired and hungry and heading for home just as the sky promises a sunset finale.  Alternately, I think the event will pass so quickly it is not worth even gearing up and heading out to shoot. When there's reason to hope, it may be worth holding out to time things so I have stamina to reach the sunset finale.

The photo above catches The Bearded Barn at a moment when the sun illuminates brightly the vines on its front while playing soft light over the hillside behind. It leaves no question over who is the star of the show.