A few years back, one late afternoon I was with a friend at the Notting Hill Carnival. It had been a beautiful sunny day, but now the sunset was approaching and we faced it walking west, basking in the last light of the day. Arriving at an intersection, I looked to my right into the heavy blue shade of the buildings. On the next block down the sun shone only on one tree. It was one of those trees with the lime green leaves that I’m so fond of here in the UK, plane trees I think they’re called, and it was glowing. Each leaf was like a bulb of lime-coloured light.
I casually pointed this out to my friend and kept walking and talking. After about thirty steps I realised I was talking to myself. I looked back and he was still, like a statue, staring at the tree. I came up beside him and said “you like it, huh”. He replied that he had never seen such a beautiful tree before. I must admit it was beautiful, but it wasn’t the tree. It was the quality of the light.
When we talk about light and its qualities we think of words like soft, hard, diffuse, warm, cold etc. These are all very descriptive and useful, but I don’t think they tell a complete picture. For me, light is about how it makes me feel. Hard light makes hard shadows and I feel energized. The soft light of predawn on a cloudless morning makes me incredibly alive – with a great sense of anticipation and a fluttering of my heart. And if I go out into a grey London afternoon, with a sky of hammered lead and shadowless life, I can feel like my senses have been dulled and I struggle with my creativity and enthusiasm. I am affected by light to my core. I’m a true Light Monkey – and that is a great thing for taking photographs.
In today’s post, the third in my short series of five emails (we’ve also had Thinking in Threes and The Importance of Positioning) about simple ideas that will transform your photos, I am going a bit more meditative to try and help you get a bit deeper into your relationship with light.
As a photographer, it’s really important to understand the types of light and how to use them in your photographs. And there are already hundreds of decent articles that will take you step by step through light sources etc.
What this post is about is something a bit more ethereal – to learn how light affects you and the feelings that it conjures up, which you then put into your photos. Because photography is not just about the camera (your tool) or seeing (your vision) but about feeling too. A great photograph is truly a union of all three. And today I am focusing on cultivating greater feeling in yourself when you are taking photos using light, so you can translate that feeling to the viewer.
“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” Ansel Adams
And nothing conjures up stronger feelings in me than looking at interesting light.
The photos in this post are not a comprehensive collection of types of light. They are here because these are moments when I felt deeply moved by the light that I saw and I was able to capture it. There have been thousands of moments when I haven’t captured light that has moved me, or when I have just sat and admired it (although really that only tends to happen when I don’t have a camera with me!)
The photos are a collection of images of light that have made me feel something. For example – I was sitting in my house one late afternoon and felt the light change outside. I looked, and it was just spectacular.
Look at that gradation of colour. There were clouds but you couldn’t tell where they stopped and the sky began. So I took a photo…on my phone. Of course I couldn’t capture the full glory of the moment, just a little piece, but it was enough to satisfy me. When developing a connection with light, it doesn’t always have to be about taking crazy amazing shots.
“Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feeling and also experience them.” Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?
If you don’t feel that you are noticing light and how it is affecting you, don’t despair. You can learn. I’ve taught my wife to notice and be moved by light – and this is a woman who regularly leaves the house with her button down shirt inside out. She is full-on dreamy and not very aware of her surroundings. But now she is the one telling me to come and see this or that light: ‘isn’t it magical and wonderful!’. She won’t mind me saying that if she can become in tune with light and its ever changing qualities, then so can anyone.
Now – what is interesting light?
Any light that is doing something and has some sense of expression. How can you tell that? Easy! If you look at it and it makes you feel something, then that’s interesting light! It doesn’t have to be dazzling, or wild or particularly colourful. It just has to make you feel.
This photo above was taken on a foggy autumn morning. The light is very soft and diffused, there is no shadow from the tree. The light feels a bit melancholic to me, the beauty of it has a slightly dark edge. Something that I feel often in the cold months in England.
My two least favourite types of light are a cloudless sky with summer sun, when the light is high in the sky and creating high-contrast and harsh light with deep dark short shadows. It doesn’t make anything look very good as it’s too brutal. And then the light I mentioned earlier – flat, overcast, grey light that we often are blessed with on a wintry London afternoon. Not much that I can feel about that except, stay inside Tony, stay inside….!
I like skies that have cloud that provide amazing filters for dynamic sunlight; I like the sun to be low in the sky – which is why sunrise and sunset are so beautiful because they create long shadows and rich colours.
I like pre-storm light – steely grey light, shimmery clouds and a shimmer of silvery light. A feeling of impending doom perhaps?
I like epic light, matched with epic vistas. It gives me a sense of possibility and grand ideas.
And I like light that isn’t really one thing or another.
The light on the birds above is pretty eery, nebular. Somewhere between soft and hard light. The water has a slight specular quality, creating a little hardness to the soft foggy light, creating light with a magical feeling.
When describing light I like to think beyond descriptive words and go for words that are more emotive, that make me think of this connection between emotion and light. Like harsh, magical, dappled, boring, dull, wow, awesome!!
Why does light affect us so?
Light defines our day; its coming and going forms the basis of the rhythm of how we live. It gives us a beginning and a middle and an end to our lives.
Noticing light and learning to become connected to it, is about light in all of its forms, and significantly it’s also about the absence of light and the whole host of feelings that the rich array of darkness makes us feel (wonder, terror, fear, anxiety, awe, astonishment.)
“We lose a great deal when we lose the sense and feeling for the sun. When all has been said, the adventure of the sun is the great natural drama by which we live, and not to have joy in it and awe of it, not to share in it, is to close a dull door on nature’s sustaining and poetic spirit.” Henry Beston
(Beston incidentally wrote a lot about the beauty and depth of darkness, see this excellent Brain Pickings article about his book The Outermost House.)
As a photographer you are working on the grey scale, from white to black, and everything in between. You are working with shadow and tones as much as vibrant and colourful light. Everything in photography is, to a greater or lesser extent, an interplay of these things.
Much of my photography happens at dawn, and I can’t help but think that the feeling I get when I look at the sunrise and the beautiful light that it emits, is interwoven with the feeling of regeneration about the start of the day. Dawn light is connected to the feeling of potential.
“Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins” Rumi
Below, this was an amazing morning because the light had great clarity and super complimentary colours of the blue sky and the yellow lamp – artificial and natural light.
Photograph what light does to the world around you…..
Of course I love to photograph beautiful scenes of gorgeous light and sky, but sometimes it more interesting to photograph what light it doing to the world around you.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
Here is some stunning orange and red dawn light.
Because, like the plane tree in my little story in the beginning, light will transform your subject. It’s almost like it awakens something in your subject, by not only bathing it in light but also revealing something inherent in the subject. In the photo above, the light and the wall together seem like a perfect marriage don’t they?
“Light has both a physical and spiritual facet. Physically it defines objects, it allows the eye to recognise objects by their name, while spiritually it conveys emotional information about them.” Abraham Menashe from his book Dipping into Light
More of your subject will be revealed when it is in the midst of interesting light.
And remember – the great thing is that beautiful light is an almost everyday occurrence. It is always there for you, always free for you to capture.
Light is always changing
You are out shooting and perhaps a thin cloud has drifted in front of the sun. It could alter the temperature in the air. The light will most certainly change. Try to be aware of these slight changes. Maybe you turn a corner into deep shadow. What happens to the light around you then?
“Look at light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes, and then look again: what you saw is no longer there; and what you will see later is not yet.” Leonardo da Vinci
Monet famously painted the same scenes at different times of day, such is the change in a scene with the adjustment of light.
And sometimes it doesn’t matter if the light is gloomy – here a couple of artificial lights give the photo a bit of depth.
Light changes with the country, the city, the location….the light of Venice is crisp and colourful, the light of Istanbul is broad and intense… but changes again when fog rolls in from the Bosphorous….
And of course once you tune yourself into light, the rest of your senses seem to come more alive too – sound, smell, the feeling of your skin….
“Most people would guess that the sun is fifty or a hundred times brighter than the moon, but it’s a half million times brighter – evidence of the amazing capacity of our eyes to adjust to light and dark.” James Elkins
And a few photographers to look at who love light:
Eric Meola is an fabulous photographer, and his ability to capture light and colour is stunning. Take at look at this Prairie Light project.
Elena Shumilova, a young Russian photographer who has only been photographing for a few years has gained widespread acclaim of the light-filled photos of her children and their animals on their farm. She says:
“When shooting I prefer to use natural light – both inside and outside. I love all sorts of light conditions – street lights, candle light, fog, smoke, rain and snow – everything that gives visual and emotional depth to the image.”
And an injection of one crazy amazing fact that I told someone the other day and I was surprised that they didn’t know: about fire – it’s a tree living in reverse, as the fire is created by releasing the sunlight that made it grow!
So I hope that gives you some good ideas about connecting with light.
I want to end with this quote, which I love because it sums up this whole thing I have with light and seeing and feeling. Although I don’t totally agree about the technical part (because you know, the technical is the enabler of all of this vision and feeling), for the most part I concur with the sentiment.
“Fall in love with the world, shoot a lot and the technical problems will straighten themselves.” Abraham Menashe from his book Dipping into Light