The temperature of light

Oftentimes I find myself obsessively absorbed in a thing and, although she will claim to have issued an invitation, look up to find myself abandoned. When she returns I will ask, Did you see any nature? She usually begins with a prognostication regarding the coming change of season, and continues with lists of song birds seen and heard, tentative track identifications, and suppositions concerning animal behavior. She will end by saying something about how much better she feels for having had a walk and that I should have come along.

Sometime last week her report was appended with description of a find so significant that she took a picture of it. I found a beautiful fungus, she explained.  Where, I asked, for I am always suspicious that her discoveries may be a mile or more from the house. Up the hill, just beyond where you were the other day.

Yesterday was mild, with broken clouds. She guided me to the spot and I spent an hour or so appreciating her magnificent bracket fungus. She circled around, the long way, took the dog home and hiked back up. We walked home together.

Later, I noticed that the images I had taken fell into two tidy categories. One was a set of dramatic images, taken in the shade of the hemlock upon which my subject was growing. These showed the specimen in shadow and colored in muted tones of brown and yellow. The second set was dazzling, taken in direct sun, and showed the subject displaying a range of striking color. I thought about showing you one from each set. Because they were so different, I wondered whether you might think I had over-processed one or the other, or both. I didn’t want you drawn to the conclusion that I had created these effects and considered posting just a single image. This morning I decided to post both and to assure you that neither was overly processed. Both the images look very much the way they presented themselves in the finder and their differences are due entirely to the nature of light which illuminated them.

Imagine that you heat a thing white hot.  You will know from experience that, as it cools, it will emit electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum. First red, and orange, and ending with yellow and blue. We refer to this energy as black-body radiation and to the thing which emits it as a black-body radiator. Although the sun may be considered a black-body radiator, the differences in the quality of light we see can be attributed entirely to the scattering of light as it travels through the earth’s atmosphere. We all know that the light of a cloudy day looks different from that which we enjoy on a sunny one. And the lights of morning, noon, and evening have different character. The feel of light is all a matter of which mix of wavelengths ultimately impinge upon your retina, or the sensor of your camera.

So, this all leads me to explain that the differences in the images presented are due to the nature of the light which illuminated them. The first was taken in shade. The light was muted, cooler, and bluish. The second was taken in sun which shone through broken clouds. That light was warmer and revealed a rich spectrum of fungal pigment.

I hope you may appreciate both of these mycological portraits.



25 thoughts on “The temperature of light

  1. Many, many years ago, as a graduate student in the Philosophy of Science Education I came to see science as “a way of knowing.” Since that time I have discovered several more “ways of knowing” and the big challenge has been twofold (1) trying to integrate multiple ways when I can and (2) knowing which one to choose when I cannot. Looks like you’ve been sharing the journey all the while. Nice walking with you!

    • Yup. Don’t the sorts who study such things call these learning ‘modalities.’ Indeed, the scientific approach is only one of several ‘ways of knowing.’ Piccaso, Frost, and Hemingway all knew lots and lots of stuff and I bet none of them ever formulated a single hypothesis.

  2. Since getting my camera (which is to say, since I’ve started paying attention) I’ve been fascinated by the effects of light on the landscape.

    Two examples come to mind. The fort which was the subject of my recent posts is built of the same stone regardless of weather conditions, but it can fairly glow in the sunset, and seem dank, greenish-gray and oppressive on cloudy or rainy days. And a certain patch of marsh grasses I pass every day startled me when it seemed golden on one day, and reddish-green the next. I started watching, and after about two weeks, had become clear on what was happening. The plants weren’t changing their intrinsic color. It was the play of light that turned them first golden, then green, then reddish.

    It’s a wonderful variation on Heraclitus’s insight: the river of light always is changing, too.

    • Absolutely. Light makes all the difference. I’ve heard some say that there’s no good reason to have your camera out between the hours of about 10AM and 4PM. I disagree. Although light is typically more dramatic early and late … I agree with Heraclitus that the ‘feel’ of the light is always changing and that all times of day hold potential for a nice shot.

  3. This is a truly beautiful fungus! The top picture looks like it an under water scene and reminds me of the skin of a very old wolf eel. Lovely photographs!

  4. Thanks for pointing out that things look more blueish under a clouded sky (and illustrating it so nicely 🙂 The fungus looks impressive!

    Again I can’t resist crafting an ad hoc theory although the explanation is likely to be more complicated. Shorter wavelengths are refracted at higher angles e.g. causing the characteristic ordering of colors in a rainbow. Clouds consist of droplets, so scattering should be similar to what happens in the formation of rainbows – light is totally reflected on the inner surface of droplets once or twice. In any case (one or two reflections) the resulting blue ray of light will deviate more from the original ray, so more blue than red light should be missing in the resulting light.

    • I can always count on you to provide precise explanations for things I sometimes discuss in only general terms. Thanks for making me think. I agree with your logic and am glad to have been thinking about rainbows again. D

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