I was having a discussion with a friend yesterday on Facebook about an image when the discussion turned to light. I thought it might be a good idea to expand on that discussion in my teaching series.
Light, is the essence of what we do photographically. The word photography derives from the Greek φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs), “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.
Photography has been with us for a while. The first surviving mention of the principles behind the pinhole camera, a precursor to the camera obscura, belongs to Mo-Ti (470 BC to 390 BC), a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Mo-Ti referred to this camera as a “collecting plate” or “locked treasure room”. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) understood the optical principle of the pinhole camera. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree. The camera obscura was known to earlier scholars since the time of Mozi and Aristotle.
So light is a big deal when we talk about photography. Without light, even the best of cameras will not produce an image. OK, so that sounds like I’m stating the obvious, you need light to make a photograph right? But what about this light? Is all light equal? Nope, not by a long shot. You will hear two terms used by photographer’s to describe light, quantity and quality. With quantity we are concerned with settings, how much light is going to strike the light sensitive material with given camera settings. That’s the easy part, the technical part that every photographer must learn. There are artistic choices to over or under expose an image, but again, all that is technical. The second term is the tough one. What is the quality of light? This is a question that can open a life time of study. Every photographer needs to look at light and learn from it. Soft early morning light, harsh late afternoon light, the light in shade and the light and contrast of shadows, they are all different and affect the subject we are photographing in different ways. I wrote my friend on Facebook yesterday morning “Yeah man light, we hate it, we love it, we curse it, we pray for it. When it is doing it’s magical thing all we can say is thank you!” I am constantly looking at the light and how it is going to affect the image.
In my opinion the difference between making a good photograph and a much better photograph can be as simple as looking at the light, and capturing the decisive moment. I have seen thousands of images on the web, especially in the venue of street photography where the subject is in focus, and the photo is properly exposed, and yet the image cries out, “so what?” I agree that the decisive moment can override light considerations. There are many Pulitzer’s that prove that point, but unless you have a potential Pulitzer in your viewfinder you are much better off if you look at the light and make good lighting decisions before you push the shutter. Doing this will help avoid “so what?” images and tell a better story. Looking at light will help make images with impact.
The story behind the top image is a good case study. The story is a little long but I think it is important to know the history to understand my decisions at the moment of capture.
I had at one point in my life, devoted a year to study with a group on monks. During that year I found the life of a monk in those times not in the public eye very interesting. What I found was very obvious but missed by a lot of people. I found that monks were just ordinary people and they did very ordinary things. So ordinary that often they would dress in “civilian” clothing to try an avoid the public looking at them as special. In Thailand where the country is 99% Buddhist there are a ton of monks, in fact most Thai’s spend some time when they are young wearing robes and studying in a temple as part of their schooling. So in Thailand because of the numbers and because of the nature of Buddhism it is very easy to observe a monk doing ordinary every day things. So a long term project I have is to to capture this every day life of monks. I had seen the monk in the photo smoking a few times, and since smoking is not usually associated with those in a religious order it struck me as a good image to show the humanness of the monk. However in the past when I had seen the monk smoking the light was not favorable to a good image. Not the quantity of light the quality. My desire was not to just make an image of a monk smoking, that would be a “so what?” image. The morning I made the image I was invited to the temple to partake in a ceremony. The light is almost non existent in the temple, I was shooting at ISO 6400. The light was also flat and soft. Nice, but …. well not great. Then during a break I watched the monk go to a corner and saw how the light was striking him. It was good. Nice contrast. Then he lit up. The smoke hit the light and was beautiful with the contrast on his face and robe. Now the challenge. He was aware of me standing a few feet away. (with a camera in a temple in rural thailand yes, you will be noticed) So I waited patiently without pointing the camera until his focus was no longer on me. Then I fired when his expression was also good.
So the gist of the story is I waited. I waited two months in this case from conception of the idea to fulfillment, I waited until the time and location was right in the temple and the moment was decisive in the right light.
This is what I routinely do on the streets. I choose a time of day I know there will be good light and then look for it. The people will be always there, the light will not.