Though photography has been a life-long passion, there was a time when I was disheartened and disappointed by the images I was producing. But the moment I began paying attention to the direction, quality, and color of light, the better my images became. The greatest benefit was discovering that following the light could lead me to subjects that I wouldn’t otherwise consider.
Seeing light did much more than change my photography, it changed the way that I see.
Follow That Special Light
When I go out to shoot for a day, I don’t go with a preconceived agenda of what I’m going to photograph. Even if I’m visiting a location that has well-known photographic subjects, I walk into it with a mindset of where the light itself will direct my eye and camera. For example, photographing in Hollywood provided ample and frequently photographed subject matter, but it was a side street that caught my attention. The late afternoon light illuminated a yellow wall upon which a shadow of some framework was being projected. The colors of the wall were vibrant, especially when juxtaposed against the clear blue sky. I made a couple of frames, but knew that there was something missing. This would be a perfect image if someone were walking in the frame.
I waited for more than 20 minutes because virtually no one was walking down this east-west street; instead, everyone was busily traipsing down Hollywood Boulevard. Although there was a lot more action on the Boulevard, I knew that this light was providing something special. I just needed to practice some patience. It paid off minutes later when this sculpture of a man appeared down the street. I prayed that he would stay on the opposite side of the street and when he walked into my frame, I made three quick exposures and had my shot.
To everyone else, there was nothing on this street but a yellow- colored wall. Compared to the hustle and bustle of Hollywood Boulevard, this was nothing. But to me, it was the beautiful quality of the light that led me off the obvious path and resulted in one of my favorite photographs of the day.
Such an awareness of light can lead me to make choices as simple as which side of the street to walk on. If I walk on the shady side of the street, I might find some interesting subject, but the quality of the light there would require illumination, which possesses less contrast and muted colors. So instead, I choose to walk on the other side of the street where it’s not only brighter, but it also allows me to take advantage of increased color saturation and contrast.
While traveling in Nicaragua, that simple choice allowed me to discover a scene with a telephone pole juxtaposed against a bright blue wall. The juxtaposition between the red and the blue provided a great vibrancy to the image; however, it was the quality of the strong, hard sunlight that helped make the colors pop and strengthened the strong repeating pattern of vertical lines. Had I shot this in open shade, the colors would have been much duller and the image would have lost a lot of its punch.
Lighting & Portraits
When it comes to portraits, I’m often thinking of light—even before I begin focusing on my subject. And there are times when I find the setting, even before I’ve discovered a subject. That was the case with the image of this young magician. During a photo workshop, I was hanging out with some people on a fire escape on one of the oldest buildings in Hollywood. The light moved down this shaft of brickwork, creating a beautiful quality. Now, I had the light and a good background, but I needed a subject. One attendee was practicing some card tricks and I knew he was my subject. I had him put on his jacket and moved him to the stairwell. After some straightforward portraits, I asked him to start throwing playing cards in the air, which provided me with the image that I was most happy with.
Light Quality Makes the Image
It’s easy to be so captivated by a subject that I completely disregard what’s happening with the light. More often that not, however, it’s the quality of the light that makes or breaks an image. If I want nothing more than a snapshot, then the only consideration about light is having enough to make a good exposure. But if I want to achieve more, I need to pay attention to the light itself. For example, I’ll ask myself: What direction is the light coming from? Is it direct, hard sunlight or diffused soft light? Is the light warm or cool? Are the shadows strong and graphic or soft and muted? The answer to these questions provides a great deal of information about the light and helps me to determine how I can use it to achieve a good photograph.
When I saw this young surfer wearing a balloon hat, I knew I wanted to photograph him; but he was standing under some harsh light, which I knew wouldn’t work for me. I looked around and spotted this patch of blue wall in open shade where the light was perfect for a portrait, then asked to photograph him. Had I photographed him where I found him, the pronounced shadows would have obscured some important details of his face, especially the eyes. Instead, my awareness of the light provided me with the perfect solution, only a few feet from where I had originally discovered my subject.
One beauty of seeing light is that it can reveal the most ordinary and mundane thing as an interesting subject. That was the case with this table setting. It’s nothing more than forks and a plate, but with the strong, hard light, I was able to explore shape, line, and color. The physical elements in the frame are no different than those found in any restaurant, but it’s the light that becomes the critical component. And that helped me to capture what I was responding to.
Making Light My Subject
It’s so easy to walk past things when I see them “literally.” I see a chair, a tree, or a hat, and they remain exactly that. They don’t inspire me to raise the camera to my eye and make a photograph. But, when I’m seeing light, those very same objects become extraordinary subject matter to shoot. Making light my subject leaves me open to images that I might never consider. For example, I saw a motorcycle leaning against a wall while at lunch recently. I’m sure everyone who walked past it noticed it, but what I responded to was the light, the shadows, and the reflection. So, I took a photograph with my camera phone that captured the very visual qualities of the scene that had drawn my attention. I made an image that demonstrated how I saw this scene differently from everyone else who walked past it.
Light provides me with the means to express how I see the world; but it also helps to lead me to subjects and make the most of them.
Photography Lighting Inspiration
If this article has inspired you, check out some of these resources to keep you motivated and ready to achieve your visions into reality. Here’s an article on Inspiring Light from Scott Bourne, or view the selection on KelbyOne courses from our Inspirational Series. If your creativity shines in a different direction, check out the work of Corey Barker and see what he can inspire you to achieve.