Conversations in Light: Light Awareness
This issue, we talk to Nancy Lehrer and Roberto Ojeda about light awareness and the role it plays in photography, as well as working in less-than-ideal lighting conditions.
Nancy Lehrer, a native Californian, works as an information technologist at a large biotechnology company. Her study of photography includes master classes with Sam Abell and Jay Maisel. She regularly lectures on photography in her local community of Ventura County, California. Her approach has always focused on expressing a sense of place and time. See more of Nancy’s work at www.inancyimages.com.
Roberto Ojeda was raised in Ecuador, in a city known as the cradle of Ecuadorian artists (Loja). It was there that he discovered the joy of putting ideas and imagination onto paper. After an educational adventure that included everything from medicine to fine arts, he discovered his passion for photography. He has lived in the United States since 2000. Visit www.photoroberto.com for more information.
Perello: Nancy, I’d like to start with you. You just returned from a trip to Cuba and I’m curious to hear what role the awareness of light played in the kinds of images that you made while there.
Lehrer: Good question. For me, while I was walking around Havana, as well as Trinidad, I was thinking about something that other people have said about their travels abroad. I have heard them say that if they go to India, for example, there’s no shortage of things to shoot. So, I almost felt that way about Cuba. It’s a visually rich area but it really helped bring together a lot of different things that I’ve been working on. I’m always looking for some different kind of perspective. When I hit Cuba, it was really easy for me to think about what’s really unique about Cuba that I needed to capture. That’s really the way I set about doing it. Sometimes that involved light, while other times it involved colors. Sometimes, it just involved the moment.
Ojeda: My question on those photos is what’s your approach with these subjects? Were you approaching these photographs from the perspective of a street photographer where the subject isn’t aware of your presence, or was it more editorial, where you spend time getting to know your subject?
Lehrer: I kind of cross between both approaches. I’m not particularly the kind of photographer that goes up to everybody, talks to them, and then makes their portrait. I always say that when I ask them to pose, I’ve messed everything up. But neither am I completely trying to hide from them. Mostly, I’ll shoot and then go up and start talking and shoot a little bit more.
Ojeda: So, it’s kind of if you saw me, that’s fine, but if you didn’t, even better.
Lehrer: I don’t care if they see me or not. Actually, I think you get better pictures if they see you, then you establish a relationship, and then they relax. I just don’t necessarily go up to them and start the conversation first.
Some of the more interesting photographs that I saw you produce were the images that you shot at night. In those images you may have had people, but they weren’t necessarily the focus of the image. What’s really fascinating about those images is that you were working with very slow shutter speeds, so you introduced this issue of blur. In that way, the colors produced by all the different light sources really became the most important part of the image. Was that something you had planned to do or did it reveal itself as a result of your shooting?
Lehrer: Yes, a lot of those photographs were made in the back of pedicabs, so it didn’t take much of a slow shutter speed to get a lot of blur because you are already bouncing around pretty good. I didn’t go there with the intention of creating a bunch of abstract, low-light images. I was just way more open to it. I have experimented with slow shutter speeds a lot, mostly in landscapes. It kind of started with what do you do in the middle of the day and you’re in the middle of Death Valley? The light is not with you, so I started experimenting with slow shutter speeds, and it was really neat because it’s exactly the harsh light that gives you the specular highlights that make the images most interesting. So, when I was sitting in this bicycle taxi, I asked myself what could I do. And you make that choice, you start figuring what interesting light and color is there to work with; otherwise, it’s just going to be this dark and blurry mess. So, you begin to start recognizing those elements that are going to make something interesting.
Roberto, one of the observations that I made when I was looking at your work and Nancy’s work is the way in which each of you responds to color. The way that light reveals colors seems to be an important part of all your photographs.
Ojeda: I think color inherently has a lot of attitude in it. It’s something I’m always keeping an eye out for. I see that happening in a lot of Nancy’s shots. She has this image of two kids playing soccer and it’s really late in the afternoon so you have this warm light, but you have the cool blue wall in the background that brings this balance to the whole shot. That’s something that I am looking to do in my own photographs.
When I look at a lot of the photographs that you’ve made, such as with your portraits, I wonder what consideration goes into the setting and the light even before you begin making the photographs of the people? I know that for your weddings, the venue determines a lot, but with your personal work, how much consideration do you put into where you place your subjects?
Ojeda: When I plan a portrait shoot, I will actually make choices that revolve around the subject. It can be a place that the subject is comfortable in, or even uncomfortable. You can get very different reactions from subjects based on how they fit and react to the scenes. I try to avoid anything too neutral, where I think I won’t get any reaction from the subject.
Lehrer: You have a couple of images that I’m wondering about. There’s one of a bride and a groom kissing in front of a tree surrounded by this red foliage. I just have to ask, was the foliage really red or is that something you postprocessed in?
Ojeda: I really like that image’s composition. I made sure that she was waiting for him and I had him walk around the tree so that they would have this genuine moment of interaction. Since they are actually husband and wife, the moment came off as very natural. And I gave them the original photo where the foliage was green, but months afterward after listening to some interviews on Ibarionex’s The Candid Frame, particularly an interview with Dean West, I was inspired to play with more postprocessing. In one of the interviews, they talked about how it’s in the postprocessing that you really contribute a lot of yourself to the photo. So I played with the image with that in mind, and I really fell in love with it.
Lehrer: In this case, the color brings in a huge amount of emotion.
Ojeda: I really try to see what’s going on and with a couple, there’s love. So, red is the first color that pops into my head.
Do either of you feel that you favor a particular quality of light for much of the work that you produce, or does it not really matter?
Lehrer: You know what it’s like to live in Southern California. You’re either working under harsh light or it’s overcast, pretty much. Those are the two predominant lighting situations. So, for me it’s often about being drawn to color and the scene and then finding a way of making the light work for me. So, if it’s hot and dusty, I’m going to try and make an image that feels hot, dusty, and bright. I’m trying to use the light to inform the kind of picture that I take rather than look for the perfect light and then look for the subject in that light.
Wow! That’s an excellent point. You are using light to convey mood as much as anything else that you’re doing. How about you, Roberto?
Ojeda: I like Nancy’s response and I have to completely agree with her on that point. A big qualifier is whether I’m working outdoors or indoors. When I’m outdoors, I’ll pretty much work with whatever I have. If it’s a little too extreme, I’ll try and use a little fill flash. I do love available light, but there are going to be cases, particularly when I’m working with clients, that they really don’t care how creative you are. They will want to see the faces of their family members, the people that they are paying you to shoot. But I really love using flash because you can recover certain details that are important to the photo.
Nancy, there’s an image that you have of a Cuban woman in an elevator. When I saw that image I immediately wanted to know more about that photograph, especially since it doesn’t appear to have been taken under the most ideal lighting situations, but it’s still a fantastic shot.
Lehrer: Right. She was in an elevator in one of these old apartment buildings. It was all natural light. There were three of us in the elevator with her. The light, the green tinting and just everything about it were great. How could you pass this up? The white sweater, the white Afro, the green lighting, and the blouse that seems to bring it all together.
Ojeda: It’s a beautiful photo. It brings to mind that sometimes people will face a less-than-ideal lighting situation, as this appears to have been, and make the choice not to make a photograph because of it. When it comes to the way you each work, do you always make the shot or will you step in and try to make some change, such as moving the subject somewhere else?
Lehrer: My thought process is to never move the subject. I think that it’s likely that if I move them, it’s going to make it worse. The one thing that I had to consciously do is throw away the idea of perfectly grainless, incredibly sharp images. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m able to embrace the little Olympus OM-D so well. I just bump up the ISO and take the image. I’m looking for the moment and the scene. I’ll see people come back with a perfectly crisp, technically perfect image and I think to myself, “Why can’t I do that?” Then I realize that it’s not what I do. I like getting them before they are composed and ready, and that technically perfect shot is something that I’m willing to give up in order to get the moment.
How about you, Roberto? I know that you shoot for clients, which influences what you have to do at times. How does is it work when you are shooting for yourself?
Ojeda: This is the thing: When I picked up photography, it was because I was drawn to the idea of making iconic images. Sometimes, it will come out and other times it won’t, but my goal is always to strive to make the kind of image that people will remember. It’s kind of hard to force iconic. So, it’s really about just letting go and working with what I have. So, I won’t hesitate to increase the ISO and, like Nancy says, I’m very forgiving about noise and working under low light. I care more about creating that iconic shot of the person or the situation rather than being worried about the crispness or that perfect commercial look.
When you say that, I’m thinking of the image you made of a woman wearing a red top and hat while she’s cooking something in small shack.
Ojeda: Yes, she’s this Indian woman in this little town in Ecuador. I didn’t plan this shot and she wasn’t even aware that I was photographing her. I was using my Nikon D5100 with an f/1.8 lens and my ISO at 800.
Lehrer: I don’t let ISO stop me, whether it’s ISO 800, 1600, or even higher. I just throw out that concept of being concerned with whether the image is going to be sharp or not.
Ojeda: The first thing that popped into my mind is that is something that I need to start doing more of, too. There are probably a couple of really good photographs that I’ve let pass by because of that way of thinking. I need to stop not making the photograph and simply see how it turns out.
Yes, because the light under those kinds of situations is often the most interesting. You are dealing with mixed light sources, which produce different colors and tones. It may be unpredictable, but that’s exactly what can make those images that much more interesting. Even though there may be some noise or blur due to the movement of the camera or the subject, the light itself can become even more important to the success of the images than the physical objects in the scene. The very lighting conditions that wouldn’t appear to be ideal may be providing the most ideal time to make a photograph.
Lehrer: Yes, and what’s really important is when you are looking at the images on the computer screen, you have to get away from the temptation to begin pixel peeping because when you make the print, most of the noise you are seeing goes away. So, you have to remind yourself of that when you are looking at the images on the screen.
Ojeda: Now that you say that, Nancy, you just made me think of something. It’s only us photographers who are thinking about noise and issues of available light. If the photo is good to the common person, they are just going to look at it and love it. They are not going to care about the noise. They are not going to care about how grainy it is.
Lehrer: Roberto, you have an image of a lock with the light shining from behind it. A photographer is going to look at this and is going to evaluate the bokeh of the trees behind it and judge it as not being the prettiest bokeh in the world. But I don’t think anyone else is going to look at it that way.
I agree. I think that image is a real showstopper and it’s all about how you are working the light.
Lehrer: A photographer I follow recently wrote about falling in love with backlighting. If he sees the sun, he’s going to turn and face it to make a photograph. It’s kind of a different way of thinking than what we were initially taught, and we’re seeing how we can work with that kind of light.
Yes, and Roberto has several images where you do that. Now, heavy backlight and flare is a common trope used by a lot of wedding and fashion photographers. So, I wonder how you make that unique, iconic image with a technique that has come to be its own form of cliché.
Ojeda: If what I’m aiming for is an iconic image, the first thing that I need to do is have an awareness of the images that already exist that are considered iconic. I will look at them to learn from them, but also to avoid simply copying them. Sometimes, I’ll actually shoot the same shot just to make sure that I can master the technique and get that kind of result, but when it comes to the shots that I really want, that’s when I’ll really push myself.
What tip would you recommend for readers to consider the next time they go and make photographs?
Lehrer: For the style that I practice, I would suggest to photographers to wait for the image to come to you. Put yourself into an interesting setting and just wait for that element that completes the picture to come to you. Don’t worry about making the most technically perfect photograph.
Ojeda: I would say that’s it better to ruin an image because you really pushed yourself rather than be left wondering what would have been possible had you made a different choice, maybe a riskier choice. When I’m shooting something, I’m trying to consider all the possibilities, both the reasonable ones and also the crazy ones, and then I just keep shooting.