Lead Kindly Light
In the introduction of his book, Light, Gesture and Color, the photographer Jay Maisel includes the following words:
“One of the first things in Genesis is: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good….” Ever since then, photographers have been complaining about “bad light.” “The light sucked, so I went home.”
- “It rained all day; there was no light.”
- “I only shoot at the golden time.”
- “The sun went in; there was no light.”
There is no bad light. There is spectacular light and difficult light. It’s up to you to use the light you have. It won’t always be spectacular and sometimes you may not get much light at all. Use whatever light you find. It may not be inspiring or wonderful. You work with the hand you’re dealt.
Stop complaining about the light. Without it, we keep bumping into things and can’t see the gesture or color.”
Recently I emailed James a link to a Webpage about how the works of a particular school of painters were used as a source of inspiration for a landscape photographer. Thinking about what I had read, particularly about using light to manipulate of the emotional impact to the work, caused me to ponder more generally whether the subject of light is too underplayed in photo club discussions. To redress this I proposed that we should perhaps put the link to the article in Camera Clips. James in his inimitably decisive manner immediately put it back on to me to extend the idea. (reply to Richard’s e-mail) He had also seen a need to address light and lighting, from a somewhat different perspective, and thoughtfully provided some additional ideas. That encounter led to this article.
Let me not mislead you, there is no rigorous research to underpin this collection of thoughts. In this subject this author is feeling his way in the dark, in contradiction with the article’s snappy title. The thoughts may be woolly, and in some cases even contradictory, but hopefully they may, at least in part, resonate with some readers and promote a more active exploration of light and its influence in image making. I am happy to discuss any of my suggestions, but I am unlikely to engage in their defence. They are simply observations made while making a personal journey of discovery. I am just an explorer of photography who finds more enjoyment in the journey if I don’t waste time quibbling about signposts and obsessing about the destination.
Turning then to the place of light in the photography club world, the most commonly encountered phrase I can recall about light is the conciliatory, but irritatingly unhelpful phrase, “ ….but unfortunately the light was not kind to you on the day”. One wonders why more kindness is required of light when it already provides the one indispensable ingredient for our photography – light itself. Phrases such as “..nice light..” and “ ..good lighting..” also come to mind. More positive though these may be, they are hardly insightful. Often they seem to be just tacked on at the end of the compositional critique. Is the management of light really only a matter of waiting for the light to be kind, then using it nicely for good purposes? I certainly hope it’s not that restrictive.
In the matter of light, Jay Maisel’s plain talking wisdom has become a growing influence on my thinking, even though I initially resisted it. If you are not familiar with Maisel please have a look at this link before you read on. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3U7bnIYcvRM.
So picking up from Maisel’s earlier stated challenge, that we have to “work with the hand we have been dealt.” Three broad options seem available to us.
- supplement the light with physically manipulated artificial lighting and passive sources (reflectors)
- use post-processing to mitigate the undesirable effects
- accept the light we are offered, understand it and then throw away the previous concept we cherished for our image and move on instead, to whereever the light leads us. The image just might become a spectacular example of our own unique inspiration and testimony to the creative harnessing of the light’s offering.
The first option, supplementing the light with additional sources, is common enough in the photo club environment, particularly to those who practice portrait photography. The nature of the equipment and the techniques are well known and their application is generally well critiqued in club activities, so I will not cover the subject here. It is of course generally limited to small scale subjects and not applicable to genres such as landscape. However if you are interested in an instance of when “small” is not so small, track down a copy of the documentary film Beneath the Roses. It is about the American photographer Gregory Crewdson shooting large scale tableau photographs for his series of works of the same name.
The second option, using post processing to overcome excessive contrast in our image, may be a repair of sorts for an image intention marred by the unkind light. We can use the tools in our preferred post processing software, perhaps augmented with a High Dynamic Range (HDR) package. One such approach Don’t be afraid of the dark – shoot for the light was discussed in the February 2014 edition of Camera Clips. The image Rawnlsey Park Sunset essentially called upon this approach when one evening the anticipated golden sunset glow on Rawnsley Bluff did not eventuate. The sky was gorgeous and tree lining the creek cried out Flinders Ranges. So it was shot straight into the sun and the shadow detail recovered in post–processing. The objective was to allow the light in the sky to be fully expressed without burnout, while preventing the shadows from hiding the intrinsic qualities of the landscape.
In the opposite sense, to intentionally reduce the unwanted flatness of indirect lightening, post-processing was used to attempt to re-establish the vitality of the tropical sunrise lighting in Townsville’s Urban Quarter. The impact of a beautiful, low angle, golden light was stolen at the moment of capture by an unkind passing cloud. The rushing photographer did not even notice what had happened until later, and was then forced to correct the results of his carelessness in software.
Turning to the third option. This stands apart from the first two, in that they are fixes for what the light failed to do, while in the third we work with what the light itself suggests. We allow it to guide us. For the fix-it options we start with a concept for our image, pretty much independent of the light we are given, and if the light treats us unkindly we fight back and, particularly in the case of option 2, often with limited success. Worse still, while having the skirmish with the unkind light we may miss the possible extraordinary opportunity that the kindly light is offering us.
This is a particular danger for people like me – passionate believers in fully exploiting the capacity of modern cameras and post-processing software. Armed with this smug feeling of technology-driven visual omnipotence, I am a sort of photographic super-hero, able to jump high dynamic ranges in a single f-stop, and take on lighting conditions that would have been impossible even ten years ago, let alone pre-digital. However when I look at Max Dupain’s black and white images of Sydney I am halted in my tracks. How did this man, with his “ancient” technology, make images with such power that they have survived all manner of changes in photographic taste? He found visual expression that I am not finding. I am reasonably sure, despite significant technological limitations, or perhaps shepherded by those limitations, that he was guided by the light he was given. Sure, he had preferred times of the day when he shot, but he used light and shade so effectively in making his images, that not only do they seize your attention, they have also frozen in them the intrinsic character of his environment. I can still sense the essence of his photographs when I wander through today’s much changed Sydney. If you don’t know Dupain’s Sydney work you can borrow the book, Dupain’s Sydney, from the Mitcham Library.
As a response to this revelation I, and I am sure many others, have consciously embarked on a path to rediscover the intrinsic power in the light itself. Ironically, in this matter, I feel that I am often still in the dark, but I will share with your some of the beacons that I am following.
Jay Maisel, whose ability to see an extraordinary image when most photographers would overlook it, attributes his ability, not to his long career as a photographer, but to his earlier experience of painting, as a fine art student. Regrettably for many of us, we are no longer at a point on our life journey where we can easily replicate Maisel’s formative experience. Remoulding our visual perception is a tough call. However if we look inquiringly to the work of the masters of the visual arts, with guidance and reflection, we may creep towards an insight that facilitates our recognition and more effective use of the light we have.
An insightful reflection by the landscape photographer, Robert Rodriguez Jr., titled Lessons From the Hudson River School of Painting, is the article I sent to James. (https://luminous-landscape.com/lessons-from-the-hudson-river-school-of-painting/). While you are absorbing Rodriguez’s ideas also look at this video presentation by him. (http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/tips-and-solutions/bh-prospectives-video-landscape-photography-robert-rodriguez-jr) Note that Rodriguez stresses the need to practise your skills on the landscapes you know and have easy access to. You can repeat your experiments at short notice and you can correct your mistakes. You are able to put your time into discovering and building your own style and escaping the emulation trap.
Man and dog captures the pervading mist and foreground wintry light that characterise many winter days in Belair National Park. This is my own “down the street” landscape, and delightful as it can be for walking, it is a formidable challenge to photograph. It is a small scale landscape characterised by a visual chaos of trees, discarded branches, huts, fences, tennis courts, etc. In this instance the comparatively simple foreground and misty background, enhanced with local contrast reduction, helped to reduce the customary visual clutter as well as capturing the atmosphere.
Rodriguez also mentions the term chiaroscuro (from Italian: chiaro, “light”; scuro, “dark”) technique employed in the visual arts to represent light and shadow as they define three-dimensional objects). Chiaroscuro has been used by both painters and photographers to increase the emotional intensity of the image. I find that Chiaroscuro, in an image like Passing, can create a visual tension that imposes a sense of drama, in this instance in the everyday world of a car park.
Another dark/light concept that may be of value is notan. Arthur Wesley Dow espoused the use of notan as one element of a compositional framework that he promoted as a pathway for teaching drawing to children. Dow intended that his method would encourage the development of greater creative capacity in a student learning art, as opposed to the traditional learning model of copying elements of existing artwork. Is there not something that resonates here for us as amateur photographers?
Notan, Japanese in origin, is pattern expressed only in black or white. High key (extreme contrast) black and white photographs may start to adopt a notan aesthetic, and possibly respond to the application of Dow’s compositional concepts. To me this is very much still a work in process. While notan seems intuitively more applicable to monochrome work Dow does also extend his concepts to colour work. If you are curious Dow’s instruction book is available from Project Guttenberg.
One approach that helps to desensitise us to literal interpretations of what we see, is to shoot at night, when the number and nature of the light sources transforms mundane subjects into magical and mysterious forms. Ignore what you already know about the subject, its function, its shape and its colour. Ignore the significance that it has to us in the daylight. Just let the arrangement of the light (and colours) guide your framing. If the light and colours fight each other then try monochrome. In fact try monochrome anyway, it means you can concentrate on light and set aside colour for a while.
Shooting in colour in artificial light, especially when there are different colour sources involved, can produce interesting effects. Is this just a gimmick or can you use such lighting to move from a fluky, fancy image to a personal visual statement? If you haven’t done so try it and decide.
If you choose to experiment with black and white, hopefully you will be shooting in raw and you will be able to set your camera so that it will display your image in monochrome on its monitor screen, and give you immediate feedback. If you shoot in raw, as opposed to jpeg, the colour information will still be available if you later want to experiment with effects such as colour filtering.
To see some good examples of local night photography have a look at the selection of Alex Frayne’s Adelaide Noir images on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXPb58nHtC8). Better still get a copy of his book of the same name from Wakefield Press in Thebarton, and support a local artist. It has many more and far better quality images than the video. It is also ridiculously inexpensive.
My attempts to hone my light awareness in daylight have been far more challenging. I try to look for the light, simply as patterns of dark and light and colours, and reject the temptation to be distracted by the everyday interpretation of what I am seeing. When I find such a pattern I photograph it and after post-processing I ask myself how well I had anticipated the produced image at the time of capture. In this exercise I am not interested whether there is “story” present. I am just stretching my ability to see and capture an image on its aesthetic qualities alone. However some days, as a bonus, gesture (a story) just comes along with the light, as it did in the earlier image, Passing.
James also reminded me of the time honoured trick of just going against your instincts. Photograph traditionally problematic lighting situations and see what images you do produce. James also provided the following examples. These are not meant as photographic gimmicks, they are legitimate ways for us to better understand the “tricks” that light can play when we ask our camera to record it. These effects can be our enemies, and interfere with what we want to create, or, if we befriend them, they may help to make our image more powerful. In the earlier image Rawnsley Park Sunset the rays surrounding the sun itself possibly enhance the image. Regrettably I didn’t foresee the condition at the time I shot it, let alone think how it could be strengthened by a simple change in aperture setting.
Now I suppose the all-important question must be confronted. “Look this waffly light stuff is all very interesting but where’s your story mate? What sort of picture is it without a story? Well the “story”, Maisel’s gesture, is quite safe. My experience is that however hard we try, there is little danger that we will be able to consistently produce images devoid of a story – even when we produce extreme abstractions. Some internal force makes us prefer certain subjects and how we visualise them. Despite my efforts not to do so, I know I am always accepting, rejecting and altering shooting opportunities based on those deeply seated preferences. In these exercises I am just trying to temporarily offset a deep seated bias for a “story”, one that, if untamed, invariably places subject ahead of aesthetics. This force just needs to be turned down for a while, in order for the aesthetic skills to develop. In the longer term I hope the two forces will work in harmony.
I recently attended the Trent Parke exhibition, The Black Rose. I found it to be an inspiring celebration of light when light is used with passion to energise the image. In the same rooms, only several years ago, I experienced similar feelings with the J M W Turner exhibition. Unfortunately I have no insight into what inspired Turner, but Parke has shared with us knowledge about the emotional turmoil that he considers inspired his work. On the other hand, Jay Maisel, a visual artist whose work and opinions I clearly hold in high regard, says that emotions (“pain”) has no place in his motivation. What a tangled web is our understanding of art – my understanding anyway. In this matter of light, as for any aspect of art, I think we just have to pick our way through the options, balancing our instincts against the works we see and the words we read. Personally I find the words of art scholars and curators generally far too obtuse to get me anywhere before I lose patience with their arcane language. As for photography competition judges providing useful criticism, I have long abandoned that avenue. Unfortunately I think we, the photo club community, have set them an impossible task and we have no right to be disappointed – but that is another subject in itself. For me the place where I find my best inspiration is in the works and words of the artists themselves. So it’s back to the books, the galleries, the internet and my overworked camera.
Having been coerced into writing this essay I have discovered at least one immediate benefit. I have realised that it is about time I bought a new road map for my journey, so I am off to order my own copy of Light, Gesture and Color. I would like to think my subject may have value to others. If you find it has and you have questions please ask me. If you have additional ideas please share them with us all by sending them on to James.
May the light be with you, and you with the light.