Re photographers & painters saying the light is "special in various locales. BS or real?

Every place on earth gets it’s allotment of daylight. Visual artists often claim the light has special qualities in certain locations. Is this objectively true?

Is the “light” more special in certain locations than others?

There are a number of factors at play that affect light effects relating to environment -
angle to horizon,
atmospheric clarity (both high level and low level from landscape factors),
reflections from landscape (sand, water, salt etc),
regular weather systems

Some of these factors are transient, but some are things that repeat on a regular basis (daily, yearly, when certain weather patterns occur). Any or all may combine to make a lighting environment “special” for an artist or photographer - some of these may be easily quantifiable - some are present in the eye of the artist.

I spent a day in Ireland a few years back. It was a sunny day, but there was a haze in the air. I took some wonderful photos where the sun was exploding across the sky due to the haze. However, I could not capture the green of the hills in the distance - the haze washed them out. I won some, I lost some.


You tell me.

Short answer, yes it is real.

Light for a photographer is defined by four key characteristics:
Direction - Where is the light coming from?
Intensity - How bright is the light? …and what is the contrast between the source and the ambient light?
Quality - How many sources of light are there? Are they point or diffuse? What kinds of shadows are you getting? And how many shadows are you getting? Sometimes referred to as the Hardness or Softness of the light.
Temperature - What is the natural color of the light?

There are places and times where photographers can predictably get certain particularly pleasing light. The “Golden Hour” (the first and last hour of natural light) is one. If you set up your subject properly, you can make a person look really good, really easily, just by shooting near sunrise and sunset. As opposed to noon, which will generally make any model look horrible. Depending on a location, it may have specific other times that are “golden.”

chacoguy linked to Antelope Canyon above. Almost all the pictures you are likely to see are taken from April to September, when the sun is more directly overhead and the light can get further down into the canyon. This creates a warmer look, making the canyon photograph with more vibrant colors. Add in the possibility of shafts of light coming down to illuminate a single spot, and you definitely have unique light formed by the location. Take a picture there in January and it will look pale and washed out. So the characteristics of light can definitely be shaped by a location.

Now in theory you could more or less create the light you wanted to anywhere. With enough assistants, I could hang enough big lights, in just the right places, to make Antelope Canyon look the way I wanted anytime of year. Or I can just show up when and where the light is what I want.

Absolutely. A few years ago, I was driving with my nephew south toward Monaco and the French Riviera. We didn’t really know how close we were as we drove through the mountains, but eventually I noticed that the sky had a look that subconsciously I’d learned to associate with seacoasts. Sure enough, 20 minutes later we were in Monaco.

My clients used to laugh at me when they’d suggest that I Photoshop a blue sky into real estate photos, and I’d object that I didn’t have the right kind of sky. But a California sky looks very different from a Texas sky from a New Orleans sky.

the lower the sun goes during the day, the more its light is filtered and scattered and hazed by the earth’s atmosphere; it is also more directionally pleasing, particularly if you are shooting people. A light next to your face is much more flattering than one above it. Some people call it the “sweet light.” As a photog I would greatly prefer to shoot in that light; it’s naturally flattering without being overpowering.

As far as specific locations…there are places I go to repeatedly because the light is good and flattering and lasts longer…but since I haven’t traveled much I wouldn’t know if there are places with particularly good light. I wouldn’t doubt it. I just haven’t been lucky enough to shoot there.

I can often tell where a program was filmed by the light. San Francisco doesn’t look like Chicago which doesn’t look like New York, though they are all about the same latitude. And NONE of them look like Toronto, though it’s closer than Vancouver.

Shows filmed in Provence give an idea why it was so popular with the Impressionists. I don’t paint but I could retire there just for the light.

I have lived in only two countries, and they are very close to each other geographically (NZ and Aus), but the light is very noticeably different to me in each. In Melbourne it is usually clear skies and there is a very large desert to the west, which probably makes a difference to the atmosphere, whereas in Dunedin NZ there are mountains and the sea to the west, which caused a lot of cloudy skies and rain. When the sun leaks through such atmospheric phenomena the light will be different.

As an artsy-fartsy thread, off it goes to Cafe Society. From IMHO.

Sometimes what makes the light special may not even be something that’s particularly good in itself but hey, it makes for pretty results. Barcelona and Miami are two places where I’ve seen the moon look very unusual colors (salmon, bright orange), in nights when pollution values were extremely high.

It doesn’t take a photographer to take note of the quality of light in certain places…

–John Muir

Logic would tell us that dawn and dusk have the exact same qualities in a single locale, but that is so not true.

Well, of course not. You’re likely to have different horizons to the east and west, and prevailing winds are likely to lead to different cloud patterns. And if you look really closely, you can get mirage-like effects from the temperature gradients, which will be different in the morning and evening.

Brittany is known for its glaz color.

Total BS

There’s also what’s known as the 'blue hour,’ which can make for some very attractive cityscapes, particularly in Europe.

I’ve also noticed where I currently live in central North Carolina that the sunrises and sunsets are much prettier than where I grew up in Northeastern Ohio.

I’ve been to Paris once. It was in November. I arrived on the overnight train and took the subway to my hotel. It was too early to check in so I just dropped off my suitcase, grabbed my camera, and went for a walk. It was about 150 meters to the Arch de Triomphe. I got there just in time for the sunrise. The most beautiful, reddish light I’ve ever seen came in under the clouds, reflecting in the garret windows along the Champs-Élysées. It lasted thirty seconds and surrendered to boring gray for the rest of the day. My pictures do not do it justice.

I know why artists were drawn there; one minute of frenzied inspiration and the rest of the day to drink absinthe.

This is one thing that made working up on Alaska’s North Slope so amazing. The sun wouldn’t plunge perpendicularly into the horizon but instead would sweep low at an angle, thus severly extending that last hour to a period much longer. In the middle of the summer it stayed light all ‘evening’ long. This golden period had an amazing ‘warm’ effect to it, much of what you saw just glowed.

I remember driving through the tundra one evening. It was full of tussock grass, tiny birch trees and the like and I had to just pull over and sit on the hood and stare in awe because the warm glow simply made everything for as far as you could see appear to almost be on fire.

St Ives in Cornwall is very popular with artists because of the supposed quality of the light, and it does indeed seem to have a strange kind of luminosity, even in quite overcast weather.

You can see from the air how it is surrounded by shallow sea over pale sand, which I imagine reflects a lot of light and causes this effect.

The beginning of the day is coming from a cold atmosphere, and the end of the day is coming from a warm one (most of the time, depending on time of year, etc), so the light will be different just for those reasons, as well as the different landscape the east and west may possess. I used to live on the coast, and a sunrise over the ocean is way different to a sunset over the hills.