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We’d never been to this ghost town before, and it was a long haul to get there, but we finally arrived. It was one of those cold, overcast days in Montana where sitting by a fire was a better option than trying to make a good click. Our son Jake had been to Elkhorn State Park before, but it was new to us, which always makes the photographic adventure that much more exciting. But the light was flat, to say the least—simply no magic to it. We walked up the hill to the old Fraternity Hall. Not that the light falling on it was any better, but perhaps we could find a ghost. We ventured in and went upstairs to find no ghosts, but a soft shaft of light, making two very ordinary folding chairs look anything but ordinary. You couldn’t have had a more common scene lit by a more uncommon light.
Editor's Note: This is a guest blog post by Moose Peterson.
Light—in all of its magical and frustrating patterns—is to me the number one ingredient in a great photograph. Beyond any piece of camera gear, Photoshop, or shooting technique, it is the heart and soul of a photograph! This is the problem, as I see it. For many photographers, recognizing great light when we do have it, and then working with it, is a hurdle. (The opposite is also true, but that’s another article). And just as important, I think, is recognizing it in the photograph, be it in your own or in that of others. The issue is that we don’t usually have this kind of light when we’re shooting. Our eye doesn’t have that muscle memory to seek and recognize it. We see plenty of examples of when light sucks, but not enough when it’s magnificent.
As photographers, we are visual communicators—telling the story of our travels, explorations, discoveries and so much more, with a click. We have many tools, techniques and philosophies we can tap in order to bring life to that click so that it tells that story and grabs heartstrings. But at the heart of every single one—is light! The root of the word photograph expresses well our goal with every click. From the Greek photos, which means light and graphé, which means drawing, we have drawing with light. How can we draw with light and tell our story?
I grew up in a home where there were no bare bulbs, but carefully placed lamps and track lighting to move the eye through a room. There were none of those big, glaring middle-of-the-ceiling lights. Even in the garage where the woodshop was located, the lighting was very specific for each workstation, not generic. Not that my family were photographers. It’s just that they wanted 'warmth' and 'coziness' to wrap around someone when they walked into our home, or a particular room.
At the same time, I grew up watching old black-and-white movies. When you remove color from a photograph, you remove color physiology and color contrast from the formula, making light an even more important and powerful storyteller. Black-and-white movies use light and its two main attributes—highlights and shadows—to move the eye and imagination through a scene and plot. Think about it, they use blacks, whites and some shades of gray, all created by the lighting, to evoke emotion, tell a joke, and sell a plot. Now you’re talking light as an inspiration!
It’s interesting to note that when black-and-white flicks started to go color, the lighting aspect of many an early film took on a much more blaring tone. My guess would be that it was in order to exploit the advent of the color which was now being displayed on the screen, which was actually being touted in the marketing; “Now in Technicolor!” Color—whether intentionally or not—will grab our attention. In those early movies, the novelty of color overwhelmed the drama that light could bring to storytelling. And now our HDSLRs bring it all back full circle, where color and light are central in our movies. This is what I want to encourage you to do with your photography.
Before you even contemplate an f-stop, before you even attach the lens, look at the light! Most of the time the photograph that we envision first comes from a glint of light that strikes our imagination. You’re driving down the road and photography is on your mind. All of a sudden you come to a screeching halt and back up. You just saw a scene you want to photograph; whether it’s a landscape you’ve seen a hundred times, or for the first time, the reason your mind screamed STOP was because of the play of light at that moment when you passed (and why often it’s not the same when you back up). We are wired to react to that special beam of light, but we’re not wired to recognize or do something with it. That’s the challenge!
Cruising down Highway 128 outside Moab, UT, we’re chasing the moody clouds as they’re blowing by. Then an aperture opens in the clouds, and a shaft of light strikes Fisher Towers. Cruising down the highway between Gardiner, MT and Cody, WY, we see a magical shaft of light in a ravine, shining through the trees on a nice bull elk. Without these beams of magical light on the red rock or on the elk, we’d just have some ordinary rocks and a moth-eaten, overgrown deer. Our mind’s eye wouldn’t have latched onto these wonders of nature, but rather just added them to that overall perception that life is good.
The subject of our photograph, that which controls all of our actions as a photographer, often comes to our attention as a spark of life ignited by light. I’ve seen this often; photographers are drawn by that spark, but then have issues taking in all they see with both eyes and cramming it into the viewfinder. There are many exercises I can recommend to help with this, but I want to highlight (get it, highlight, talking light…ha!) what I still enjoy doing over and over again in order to help myself with this struggle.
I LOVE playing with light all the time! You can see here one of the ways I do it, in this series of images of the Empire State Building. The hotel room where we always stay has the screen removed and window unlocked for me. (It’s on the 21st floor.) Hanging out the window, I photograph this great piece of architectural landscape over a 24-hour period. Starting at night, then sunrise, late afternoon, and dusk. Look how the light—or perhaps the lack of it—changes the story in each photo. Yes, there are other aspects besides light that influence the storytelling, but concentrate just on the light. Isn’t it fascinating what comes to life as you look at these photos that way?
Of course, I am manipulating you to see these things by putting up a series with only really cool light. And that’s really one of the main points of this piece—to recognize good light, and act on it by going click! I have plenty of these series with really terrible light, but they’re not enjoyable to look at, so why do it? When you’re storytelling, many times you manipulate it so that your audience draws that conclusion which you want them to arrive at. Photography is no different, but most of the time we’re manipulating the photograph to gain no more than a smile. You can do this exercise in any situation, from your living room to the Grand Canyon, and see the same results and learn the same lessons. Light is our inspiration!
Battery Point Lighthouse; hangar doors at Barber’s Point; Pronghorn on the ridge—do you know what kind of light I was shooting in? You look at those images and you can pretty accurately know the type of light falling on these subjects. We actually have the ability built into our vision, which means anybody can do this photography thing once they tap into this knowledge!
That beam of light backlighting the glass on the hangar door at Barber’s Point, what do you think grabbed my attention? The bright spot in the top left corner did. Our mind’s eye’s number-one magnet is 'light and bright,' especially when it’s at the top of the frame—just like a moth to a flame. That’s the easy part; it’s the rest of the photography that takes knowledge, inspiration and imagination. I only want to talk about light in this piece, not exposure. Cutting to the chase I knew that even though I could see all that detail in the door, the camera could not. With that being the case, the shaft of light playing games as it stretched down the window panes worked its magic.
Subconsciously we can see this light with those amazing instruments—our eyes. But the way they talk with our brain, we actually see so much more than the camera can capture. This disconnect is where many photographers stumble at first. In this photograph of the hot-air balloon perched on snow, the light source is the flame thrower, and because of the white snow, the light is being bounced up. The beams of the light streaming through Fern Grotto on California’s northern coast take your eyes down to Jake standing there in the one beam. Our eyes get us to the subject, we just have to follow them with the camera and go click!
One really difficult thing about light: It’s really hard to teach it in just a blog post or a one hour presentation, or even in the 30 pages of my book, Captured. That’s because it’s never the same twice in a row. We all have different reactions to it, and we all tell stories just slightly differently. But even with that knowledge, obviously photographers learn it with time. How can you shortcut that time?
An exercise I have, which my Master of Light Program folks do, involves a rose. It’s real simple: Without moving the camera or the rose, light the rose to express two emotions. The first click is romance and the second click is sorrow. By only changing the light—nothing else—communicate those two emotions. Once you feel really good about those results, do the same thing, but with just using flash. Once that is under your belt, start over, but this time with a person as your subject. You can’t have them smile or pout; you change the emotions with only the light. Then finish up the exercise by using flash. When you can do that, you will not only start seeing light, but also communicating with it. And that’s the whole goal!
Light is a very complex element in life, and in photography. I’ve only touched on the one main aspect of light here—its ability to move the eye around in our photograph to tell a story. It is by no means where the lesson of light ends. There is so much more to talk about, little things like color, exposure, types and direction, just to mention a few. But right now, I want you to just think of this one important aspect of light as you walk around or sit at your desk, as you view the world, a photograph, or your own photography. Surround yourself with great light and you will develop the muscle memory to include it in your photographs. Never forget, light is our inspiration!
You can read more from Moose on his website.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio