Local Light

For three decades I lived and worked on the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona.  I was a pharmacist with the Indian Health Service working at remote hospitals and clinics on the Navajo Indian Reservation.  I fell in love with that land and almost my entire image portfolio during that time was devoted to the region’s extraordinary geology.  But as that career was ending, I knew there was an opportunity to try something different.  Several friends had been recommending I check out Tucson, and I moved here in November 2013. 

Once upon a time I imagined a retirement filled with travel and photography, but Tucson changed that story line.  While I had more time than ever, I didn’t want to spend it driving for days in order to take pictures for a few hours.  There was too much happening right here.  The culture, the food, the events, the scenery, the mild winters, my new neighbors and new friends made this a great place to land.  It was easy for me to adapt to the new location, and I was determined my photography could adapt as well.

 It took a couple of years but I’m now quite pleased with the local photo opportunities.  In fact, since moving here, my interest in photography has expanded substantially in terms of the subjects I shoot, where I like to take pictures, and the variety of images I enjoy perusing.  I suffered a bit of photographic tunnel vision living on the Colorado Plateau, but that’s perhaps understandable given its extreme beauty.  Things feel more balanced here. I’ve come to appreciate that local light can be fresh, dynamic, and spiritually nourishing and, given the chance, will present itself in surprising ways.

As I approach my anniversary of arriving in Tucson, I compiled a couple of lists on this topic with the help of my local friends Bruce Bartholomew, James Capo, Bob Hills, and Chris Wesselman.  The first list reviews some benefits of shooting locally.  The second one offers different approaches for finding local light.

Benefits of shooting local

Logistical Benefits

  • No packing luggage, medications, food, camping gear, and so on for extended time away from home. This agave image is from a day trip to visit local ghost towns with the camera club.
  • Less planning.  Photograph whenever you want and whenever it’s convenient. But keep the camera bag handy so you can grab-and-go when you see good light starting to happen.

Less expensive.  No meals, lodging, and transportation costs. A neighbor’s wildflower garden might be as inspiring as a California super-bloom. It’s also likely more accessible and less crowded.

  • Fewer security issues like an unattended home or losing luggage or camera gear. A small body of water, some reflected branches, and a light breeze were the highlights of a short day-trip.
  • Weather conditions matter less.  If it’s not nice outside, try shooting inside. Bob Hills built a rig to photograph light refracted through water droplets.
  • More spontaneous.  If you see a picture, take it. You might not get another chance. The Eichonopsis cactus flower below was unexpectedly blooming along my driveway when I stepped outside one morning. It had good light for roughly an hour and that was the only time it was open and looking this good.
  • Efficient photography.  More time spent taking pictures and less time spent getting somewhere to take them. Bob Hills photographed pickelball action on a short walk from his home.
  • Fewer gear decisions.  Go ahead, take whatever fits in the car. Corollary—challenge yourself to shoot with one camera and lens combination.
  • Scout, scout, and re-scout.  You can easily revisit a place multiple times to find what works best for pictures. Frequent hikes in nearby Sabino Canyon helped plan this image taken near sunset when the brittlebush flowers were blooming.
  • Time is on your side.  Your only itinerary is what works for you. The image below was from a leisurely day at the zoo with a friend, enjoying their company and experimenting with animal photography.
  • Less pressure.  No worries about having to capture a specific scene in a specific season with specific light. I went to photograph mountain scenery but happily came back with an image of burnt wood instead.
  • More control.  Work in everyday settings where you’re familiar with the light and layout of potential scenes. This saguaro is one I drive by frequently. I know when it’s blooming and took advantage of soft light to capture the buds and blossoms.

Educational Benefits and Learning New stuff

  • The opportunity to know your hometown better than ever by purposefully exploring it with a photographic intent. I was surprised to learn that southern Arizona has a large collection of ancient rock art.
  • Explore different genres of photography. You’ll never run out of possibilities. The image below is an experiment with high-key monochrome.
  • Originality might flourish and you’ll enjoy it.  Searching for new light in places that have NOT been extensively explored yet by other photographers can often yield unique and rewarding images.  This is an abstract image of elevator lights reflected in elevator walls in a downtown apartment complex.
  • Finding a new favorite spot that you can return to repeatedly as the light changes.  Different light, different seasons, and different weather that in the end provide an entire series of unique images. This viewpoint has yielded numerous photos of different cloud formations over the Catalina Mountains on the north edge of Tucson.
  • The chance get to know the subject well.  Watch and photograph some plant, animal, or location frequently to determine the best times to photograph it. This low-hanging rainbow is from the same location as the image above, and was somewhat predictable given my familiarity with this place.
  • Practice makes perfect.   Test and become an expert at using a new camera, lens, or other gear.  Learn new techniques.  Try out the camera’s less commonly used settings.  Maybe even shoot video.  What you learn locally in terms of taking pictures can be used globally when you do travel, and it’s much easier to practice frequently close to home. Bob Hills honed his astrophotography over several years of shooting the night sky in the nearby desert learning new lighting techniques and the local movement of the Milky Way in the process.

Social Benefits

  • New friends to photograph with.  Someone or even lots of people from the local camera club might want to join you.  You will be surprised how many people like to shoot the same thing you do. Corollary—if you don’t like their company, you’re not stuck with them an entire week.
  • Less time away from family and friends if they don’t take pictures.  Corollary—more quality time with family and friends if they do take pictures. This image was from a downtown walk with photography friends where there was also the opportunity to eat and socialize.
  • Easier and more fun to share images with neighbors and friends who will likely have a shared sense of place for the images you show them. My neighbor and I were both shooting this scene from our homes as smoke from a forest fire created unusual sunrise conditions.

Environmental Benefits

  • Decidedly greener.  Local photography requires less travel via transportation (automobiles and airplanes) that burn fossil fuels.  Even greener, carpool or take public transportation when possible.  Even greener still, just shoot within walking distance of your home. These night-blooming Cereus cactus flowers were discovered just over my back wall a couple of years after moving to Tucson. They only bloom for one night each year.

Approaches to shooting locally

  • First and foremost, believe in your local environment and that it’s full of photographs just waiting to be discovered. Keep an open mind and be ready to work with what whatever the light may offer. Wild flowers were on Bob Hills’ agenda this day, but it turned out Nature was doing seed pods instead.
  • Think big. “Big” might be as simple as something large in scale (e.g. clouds in the sky or a tall building) or “big” might be something that shows how small we humans are in the grand scheme of the universe.
  • Think small.  Your local environment probably has plenty of macro images once you take the time to look for them. These saguaro cactus flower buds were found in nearby Sabino Canyon.
  • Choose subjects that change constantly or frequently such as people, clouds, or local festivals. The annual “All Souls Procession” provides new opportunities each year to practice street photography.
  • Use a different style.  Switch from color to monochrome.  Or shoot hand-held instead of using a tripod. This University of Arizona building is meant to mimic a slot canyon, so the colors are quite interesting. But looking at the shapes and textures in black and white reveals additional possibilities.
  • Look for unique compositions.  Patterns, shadows, and abstracts, for example. This is a yucca plant growing beside my garage.
  • Try a completely different subject.  Photograph people if you’re used to photographing nature.  Try architecture instead of animals.  Downtown Tucson has some surprisingly interesting buildings.
  • Experiment with different techniques when shooting.  Think iPhone, unusual angles, or different camera settings. Bob Hills found the the right shutter speed during blue hour that froze parts of the scene and blurred other elements with their motion.
  • Experiment with post-processing. There’s no shortage of plug-ins and YouTube videos to get you started, but the best results still come from images that have meaning to you and reflect your style. In the image below, Bob Hills applied a watercolor effect to a photo of a nearby monastery. Here’s a download for watercolor effects and another one for sketch effects that offer lots of options to personalize the end results.
  • Visit local attractions and events, like museums, farmers markets, zoos, special events, and concerts.  Many of these provide tremendous insight to the local culture. Take your camera and see what you find. Bob Hills has a fantastic gallery of Native American dancers from nearby Pow Wow events.
  • Join a camera club. The group will help you improve your photography and find new places to take pictures. Bob Hill’s picture below is from a camera club field trip to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum north of Tucson
  • Try still-life images that you either find or set up. Bruce Bartholomew created an image based on his sister’s haiku:
Back in the kitchen
Drawn by the dark force, seeking
Finding chocolate
  • Change the light. Use filters, refractive elements in front of the lens, camera movement, blur, flash . . . whatever you can think of. Adding artificial light to the foreground often improves night-sky photography.
  • Give yourself an assignment like a building, an event, an overlook, an animal, a place, a person, a plant, or any subject that interests you.  Visit and photograph often and create a photo essay of what it feels like to interact with this subject. The image below is from a six-image series that starts here. All the images were taken at the Environmental Sciences building on the University of Arizona campus .

In addition to helping generate these lists, Bruce Bartholomew and Bob Hills also provided images for this post, and their contributions are noted and appreciated. However, lists like these are never complete. If you have additional ideas or recollections of how you benefited from or approached local light in your locale, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

20 thoughts on “Local Light

  1. So inspiring. I have just started on that journey myself, well not quite since I am still finish building the house. But I have moved from Florida to western North Carolina. No family, perhaps new friends. Thank you so very much…

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  2. Very well done Tony. This is especially true in this time of Covid19 when social distancing and being outdoors is important to reduce risks. Photography is something that can be done while following all the recommendations form the medical professionals. Thanks for reminding us all that there is plenty to photograph close to home or even at home for that matter.

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  3. Tony, Great writeup! Excellent inputs. Beautiful images! Proof, if proofs were needed, that it is the person behind the camera that matters – not gear, not even the location! I think it was Dorothea Lange who said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
    Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I think that’s probably true to some degree, but it’s also true that I’ve been actively looking to connect two things (photography and Tucson) that mean a lot to me. In my experience, once we’re able to feel a connection to something, the light somehow finds us. And since most of use probably like where we live, there is this possibility to have good experiences with local light if we’re open to the possibilities. That’s obviously what I’m trying to encourage here. Yes, it does come back to the person behind the camera, of course, but it’s more than just a person taking pictures. It’s about looking for and finding ways to connect with the subject. Dorothea Lange definitely did that also and I think it’s evident in her work.

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  4. Well said Tony. I have enjoyed your musings and all the help you and Sean Bagshaw have given me through your tutorials and luminosity mask software. I wish you the very best; please continue your efforts.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful article and images, Tony. I really like the simplicity and artistic nature of your and Bob Hills images. And, as I would expect the PP is spot on.

    I have questions about using TK7, but that’s for another time. Thanks. Larry

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  6. Tony, these are very deep thoughts and excellent pictures. I especially like your plea for the photographic exploration of one’ s immediate surroundings. I would even go so far as to say that if people cannot take good photos on their own doorstep and in their family environment, they will not be able to do so even in the most exotic places in the world.

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  7. A delightful, informative, inspiring piece! Thank you Tony for the good writing, the good tools and as always the good inspiration for helping us become one with the Good Light!!!

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  8. All but about 4 of my top photos are local. I scout locally to DEATH and find places in my spare time where there might be a good sunrise or sunset. I agree that these shots are anyplace anyone here lives. The key to interpreting Local is Knowing. Guess what? It’s the same when you travel – just more expensive on the road. The skills required between the two are exactly the same. Finding the shot for great p[photographers is always more than taking and post.. Picking the day at the right place is just about everything.

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  9. Well said and comprehensive, Tony. Thank you. Ansel did much of his best work in Yosemite. He lived in the park for years, got to know the light and was able to repeatedly go back to good compositions as the light improved. With light and weather out of our control, there is no substitute for the ability to repeatedly return to a vantage point, seeking the best light.

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  10. Tony, thanks for the inspiration. Like you, I’m a pharmacist, and now within 2-3 years of retiring. Living in Kansas I often think that I don’t have much opportunity to find quality photographic subjects, but you’ve pointed out very well that there truly are good opportunities if we just open our minds to them. Thank you, and keep the great work coming updating your TK panel…

    Jim

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  11. I agree that local is best and more challenging. I believe there are great photos everywhere because God’s beauty is everywhere. There are times however when I long to experience those places where every direction you turn is a potential photo. Illinois prairie and marsh can make one desire hills and mountains. But I will continue to be a photographer wherever I am. Thanks for the share Tony.

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