Water buffalo and cattle egrets

This morning on my westward drive to Framingham State, I saw the light: specifically, the diorama light, a term I use to describe the strange spot-lit effect that sometimes occurs in the morning or late afternoon on overcast days.


If there’s a sliver of clear sky hugging the horizon on an otherwise cloudy day, low-slanting sunlight can slip through this edge like steam escaping beneath the lid of a cast-iron pot. This (literally) horizontal light illuminates part of the landscape while shrouding the rest in shadow, casting the whole scene before a dark backdrop. The result is breathtaking, with light angling beneath a tight-lidded sky, setting the gold-gilded landscape against a two-dimensional and painterly backdrop, like a diorama wall.


Diorama-makers create an illusion of space in a shallow room, painting a distant horizon on a wall that’s close enough to touch. Outside, diorama light creates the opposite effect, distorting distances and shrinking perspectives, with clouds looking like solid, painted things on a far-off wall while distant but well-lit objects look close enough to touch. My fascination with natural history dioramas stems from a lifelong fantasy of being able to enter into the miniature world of museum models: what would it be like to shrink in size and walk right through a diorama display, moving from an artificial world into a real one?

American Museum of Natural History

Beneath the beams of diorama light, I find myself plunked in the middle of a seemingly miniaturized scene where size and perspective are meaningless, the real world temporarily cast as unreal. Some objects in diorama light are sharply focused and look near while others are shrouded and softened in shadow. The whole landscape, in other words, looks artificial and contrived—an illusion designed to deceive—and my very presence in such a world seems dubious at best. What masterful hand set me down in his museum of mysteries, and why?


I’ve tried to describe diorama light, but I’ve never been able to photograph it: even if I capture a dark-clouded sky back-dropping a golden-glowing foreground, none of my photos capture the curious sensation of being in such a scene. The closest I’ve come to photographing diorama light is the picture at the bottom of this post, and the closest approximation of the miniaturizing effect of diorama light is that created by tilt-shift photography, which uses selective focus to artificially miniaturize actual scenes.

American Museum of Natural History

This morning’s moment of diorama light lasted about five minutes, at most. When I exited Route 9 on my way to campus this morning, the road in front of me looked like a tilt-shifted landscape where a well-lit church spire was cast in exaggerated 3D while the sky behind it looked as flat as a painted board. By the time I’d parked and gotten out of my car, however, the clouds had descended and the light show was through. Another dose of diorama light will have to wait for another cloud-capped day.

This is my Day 7 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Today’s photos come from the actual dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which J and I visited in October.