It's Not About The Camera: It's About The Light!

Photography is all about light

When people ask if you are a photographer, just tell them you are a "Light and Shadow Warrior."

 When you think about it, serious photography is all about the battle for light and shadow. The word "photography", which comes from the ancient Greeks, literally means "to write with light." If you don't understand the role that light plays in photography, then you will have a long row to hoe when it comes to making good images.

Light is the reason we see depth, dimension and texture in photographs. Light is the reason we see color. Heck, light is the reason we see.

There are three very important things that you should be thinking about when you are examining the light.

  • Direction
  • Color (sometimes referred to as quality)
  • Intensity
Serious photographers get into the habit of looking at scenes and pre-visualizing them in different light. If this is a skill that you have not learned, here's an exercise for you.

To understand how light impacts your photos; make a series of photographs in a familiar place that is easy to access. Choose a simple subject. Take the pictures from one place in the morning, afternoon, evening and twilight. Take some in between. Try to make some images right around sunrise and sunset. Take some of the images under a sunny sky and under a cloudy sky. Notice how different one thing can look?

Now, repeat the exercise. This time, move around the subject and photograph it in direct light. Shoot the subject using side light. Now try back lighting the subject. Now try photographing that same subject with reflected or bounced light. Once again, you should see some extreme differences.

Here's the payoff from this exercise. Once you have completed it, you have a reasonable understanding of what light can do. Was your subject flat and boring when you took a picture in heavy, cloudy light? If so, other subjects will look the same in that light. Did you notice that when you used side lighting, the subject's texture was easier to see? Apply that in the field if you want to accentuate your next subject's texture.

Now that you understand more about light, go out and make two special photographs.

The first one should be made at a point between Twilight and Dusk. Pick a pictorial object and put your camera in front of it. Scout the area ahead of time because the light changes fast at this time of day and you won't have long to prepare.

Be sure to use a tripod and cable release since you will make a long exposure. Use ISO 200 film or set your digital camera to record at ISO 200. Use a shutter speed of one or two seconds and set your aperture according to your light meter and the prevailing light.

Make your photograph. It might be a good idea to bracket if you are shooting film. If you have time, shoot from different angles to spice it up.

Take a look at the results. You will see that this kind of light has a very strong esthetic appeal. It is soft light that has great visual attraction.

On to the second shot; a silhouette.

For your next experiment, find a strong foreground object like a mountain, tree, unusual rock, etc. Set up your camera on a tripod. Use the slowest film you can find or set your digital camera at its lowest ISO.

You should select an object that you can photograph facing west. The idea is to create a pictorial image that exudes simplicity and yet has impact.

Remember, you must shoot INTO the sun for this to work. It is best to wait until the sun is very low on the horizon. That way you can place a foreground object in front of the sun to create the silhouette.

You will probably have to experiment with different angles, distances and points of view to get just the right combination. If you position your subject directly in front of the setting sun, you will get a silhouette. You must carefully set the exposure to record the color in the sky. Point your camera's meter at the sky, making sure to block the sun with the foreground object.

These two test photos should help you to see that assigning yourself projects that are more about light than about gear, will yield good results.

Always try to think about light in the way that you think about cameras and accessories. While it is fun to lust after the new fast lenses or cool filters, it is more important to think about light as part of your photography kit. That way, you will always have one of the most important tools you need to make a good photograph.

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