Photography and Light

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“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”  That is one of my favorite quotes by George Eastman, American innovator, entrepreneur and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company that popularized the use of roll film and was one of the major forces that brought photography to the mainstream.

Photography is really all about light. When photography was first invented it was called heliography, which means writing or drawing with the sun.  Scenic or landscape photographers should be concerned with the quality of the light they are capturing, and portrait photographers definitely should be involved with the light they apply to make flattering portraits of their subjects.

We use terms like intensity of light, reflected light, backlight, and horizontal light when describing the details of a photographic composition.

When I refer to the intensity of the light, I am considering the harsh light in the middle of summer when I struggle to retain detail because of the contrast between the shadows and highlights in a scenic, or when in the studio I determine the number of lights, their individual output, and how to position them for the best portrait.

Our camera’s sensors see reflected light.  Two factors that I take into consideration are the amount of reflection that comes off different surfaces and how much colour I can actually capture. Both reflection and colour are subject to the different textures of surfaces, and governs how much light and colour I can actually capture for my final photograph.  Colours change as they reflect off different surfaces.

Backlight provides the drama that separates a spectacular image from an even-toned, ordinary image as it builds a rim of light around a subject and draws the viewer into a picture. The horizontal light of morning and evening can make a composition dazzle. When the light is soft as on thinly overcast day it sometimes is especially colourful, and appears to even be three-dimensional.

Most people I know are concerned about the weather, but to me weather, such as rain, snow, or even the hot, clear, cloudless days we get during the summer here in Kamloops can be dealt with.  When I say that, depending on the subject I have chosen to photograph, I am selective of the light I want.  I get up early in the morning to photograph the geese on a nearby pond, and I want the light sunny and bright so I can see the sparkling colour of their eyes. When I set out to capture a broad landscape I want blue sky with appropriately placed white, billowy clouds. For scenes of a waterfall I hope for some overcast clouds, and when I prepare to photograph a wedding I hope for an overcast day with high clouds.

I have been told that the problem with photography, as apposed to mediums like painting, is we must take whatever light and subject matter we have available and make it work.  Because we don’t always get everything in a scene just as we want, photography is also about problem solving.  However, if we choose another perspective when dealing with the light in our composition, then we shouldn’t look at light as a problem to sort out, but as an opportunity to work within a particular light range that will allow for unique moments as we make each of our images very personal.

I will finish with a quote, I think I have used before, by noted wilderness photographer Galen Rowell. Rowell was one of those scenic masters whose books, writing, and photographs are a must for those studying the art of landscape photography. Although Rowell was talking about landscape photography, I think his words apply to every type of photographic endeavor, “I almost never set out to photograph a landscape, nor do I think of my camera as a means of recording a mountain or an animal unless I absolutely need a ‘record shot’. My first thought is always of light.”

I always appreciate any comments. Thank you, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

12 responses to “Photography and Light

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