Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 10, 2018

Sunlight on Water

First, a few words. Then pictures.

One of the simplest but most profound things I ever learned about painting is that painters aren’t depicting objects, people, buildings or landscapes; they’re painting the light reflected from them. The craft of painting demands mastery of illumination, reflection, color, tone and shadow.

So does photography. A large majority of people are now photographers thanks to the ubiquity of cameras in phones, computers, tablets, doorbells, refrigerators, and, yes, actual cameras. But few people snapping selfies in front of Angkor Wat or the Grand Canyon think about capturing light. They’re “taking pictures” of objects, people, buildings, etc. As a result, with each day that passes the human race generates another few billion images washed out by bright sun, obscured by dense shadow or missing the superior view of something had the picture-taker simply walked ten steps to get the light at a better angle.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of superb photographers, videographers and lighting directors. The man who was my first mentor in the biz, G., was the head cameraman where I had my first corporate job. Do you know what he said to me one day when I showed some impatience about how long it was taking him to set up a shot?

“This is what video’s all about. You’re painting with light.”

That’s an exact quote from nearly 40 years ago.

Living on this planet, we have a big advantage as photographers. The distance from the sun, the diffusion of our atmosphere and a number of other cosmic elements combine to provide us with an enormously powerful and highly variable source of illumination, free. Sunlight gets screened by clouds, tinted by its elevation above the horizon, etc. etc. All you need to do is walk outside when the sun’s up, figure out where the sun is and look at whatever’s around, bouncing back some light at you. A photo awaits.

Take sunlight on water. You need the sun, and some expanse of water, large or small. Decide where to stand. You’re set.

Enough words. Let’s look at light on water.

Sailboat bright Brad Nixon 0526 2 680

Coldwater Lake Brad Nixon 2075 640

Container ship LA Brad Nixon 0497 680


LA harbar night Brad Nixon 2969 680

Ocean light Brad Nixon 1214 (640x468)

Pelican Cove Brad Nixon 2188 (640x480)

Ship silhouette Brad Nixon 2978 680

4 tugboats Brad Nixon 1 680

Redondo silhouettes Brad Nixon 2691 680

Ocean rays Brad Nixon 1522 680

Lake McDonald MT Brad Nixon 2891 (640x441)

Lake McDonald MT panorama Brad Nixon (640x315)

Admittedly, I stuck a night shot in there. It’s permitted to shoot photos after sunset if the light’s good.

Capturing Light

Typically, the soundest advice is to photograph subjects with the light falling over your left or right shoulder, ideally at a time of day when there are at least a few shadows to give your subject some shape or definition.

Shooting light on water is another matter. If you want to catch boats silhouetted as I did above, the sun is in front of you.

If you have a camera that permits you to attach filters, invest in a circular polarizing filter. It can do a lot to emphasize or minimize reflections or sharpen objects surrounded by reflections.

The business of photographing scenes with placid water reflecting mountains, trees, etc. is a world of its own, and requires patience, time and a certain amount of luck. The last image above, Lake McDonald, Montana, in Glacier National Park, at dawn, was made extremely early, before any breeze had stirred the lake. The only light is the glow from the sky, well before the sun was up. I like to point out that when I got there, another photographer had beat me to it, standing at the end of the dock with his camera on a tripod. I didn’t dare step out on the dock lest I shake it and spoil a long exposure. The early bird and all.

Most of all, you have to practice, and be prepared for disappointment. The more settings you know on your camera, the greater will be your ability to deal with demanding lighting. Don’t be surprised when your photos don’t look like what you saw. The combination of your eyes and brain vastly exceed the ability of highly sophisticated cameras to deal with contrast or shades and tones of light and color. Your brain makes all those adjustments thanks to a few million years of evolution. Your camera has no brain, and relies on yours.

In the end, remember you’re recording light, not things or scenes. That’s why it’s named PHOTOgraphy. Mother nature’s painting with light, and you’re trying to capture it.

With the following exceptions, all photos are from the California coast near Los Angeles or the Port of Los Angeles.

3rd photo: Clear Lake, Washington, near Mt. St. Helens; Last two photos: Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana, midday and dawn.

Licensable, high resolution versions of many photographs in this post, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018, 2019


  1. Stunning photos and good advice Brad!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed the black and white photography class I took in college. We were required to find and compose our subjects, shoot them, and then develop and print from the negatives in a dark room. The most interesting part was creating prints from negatives, as by varying the light passing through the negative onto photographic paper, you could create different tones and effects.

    Some of my landscape photos were even accepted and displayed in a local juried art exhibition!

    Liked by 2 people

    • As Ansel Adams — and many others — proved, printing can be the best part. Too bad more people can’t have the experience of shooting negatives and then printing them. It’s an entirely different perspective on what makes photography work. I’m happy I spent a lot of years around the edges of the analog photography world — NOT that I’m ready to give up my digital camera! I suppose I’ll never stand in a darkroom with that scent of Dektol again. Thanks, and congrats on the exhibit.


  3. Your post evoked several thoughts.

    One is that my photography began improving when I stopped thinking in terms of ‘taking’ photos and began trying to ‘make’ photos.

    Another is that there’s a lot to learn from painters like Monet, who used to work several canvases at the same time in order to capture the light. Catherine Brandon, a guide at the Rouen Fine Arts Museum, said that Monet
    came to Rouen twice. “Two sessions of three months — in the same period because of the light — February, March, April [in 1892 and 1893]. He sat from 7 o’clock in the morning until maybe 6 or 7 in the evening, just painting the cathedral. Ten canvases at the same time, just to capture the light… He’d line up his canvases in front of a window, moving from one canvas to the next as the shifting light changed the colors of the pale stone facade.”

    Just as you’ve said, the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall applies to photography, too. Practice makes the difference — as does sitting down with bad photos after the fact for a little examination. Why so dark or light or color-faded? The answer’s almost always there in the camera.

    As it happens, I recently ordered a CPL filter. I’ve not had a chance to experiment with it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I decided on the B+W with 1-1.5 stops of light loss rather than cheaper ones with up to 3 stops of loss, so we’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I’m happy to say I’ve seen many, if not all, the Rouen Cathedral paintings, many of his related Houses of Parliament series and a series of landscapes he did in a similar vein, although I won’t be able to recall the location. He did others, too, with which I’m less familiar, and then there are all those water lilies, and it simply may not be possible for one human to see all those.
      Happy shooting with your CPL. Yep, getting those extra f-stops are a factor to consider. Mine’s in the same range as yours. If for no other reason, that helps save me when I forget to take the darned thing off!


  4. Nice pictures, the low December sun makes for some interesting lighting. I really like the one of the cliff and the water, as well as the sailboat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Those photos were made in many seasons, over many years. You’re right, though, the light changes significantly with the season. One of the most noticeable seasonal changes here in southern California is the quality of the light.


  5. I found the piece about Monet and light I was looking for.


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