occasionally technical tuesday: look for the light

Gather 'round, children.  I have a secret to tell.

As you know, on Occasionally Technical Tuesday, I've already told you tales of how to buy a camera and a lens, and we've discussed how a camera works.  This week, I shall expose the secret all good photographers know about making a beautiful shot.  This secret, once you know it, will be the key to transforming your good photographs into great photographs.  It will minimize or even eliminate the amount of time you'll want to spend on Photoshop, or using other photo processing software, trying to edit away mistakes or flaws in the image.  When you learn and master this secret, my lovelies, cherubim and seraphim will sing, harps will play, and viewers of your images will gasp in wonder.

And the secret is:


Now, when I say look for the light, I'm not just saying notice if it's sunny or overcast out, and then just go ahead an take the shot anyway.  Oh no, my pretties.  I'm saying forget all the rules and look for itStudy it.  Watch what it's doing, how it's falling, the shadows it's casting.  Examine it -- watch to see if it's glowing, or streaming, or dappling.  Study it so hard that you almost forget what your subject is.  If you're doing it right, in fact, your subject will almost become secondary

To illustrate, the following are examples.  To be clear:  all the photographs in this post are taken straight out of the camera:  I haven't processed any of them in any way.  This is not to say that I wouldn't eventually process them -- I tend to process all of my shots -- but the focus should always be to take the best shots you can with your camera, to minimize the photoshopping or processing you do on your desktop.  Your motto when you shoot should always be do the work before you click the shutter.   Minimize the work you do post-processing.



Okay, so this first shot was taken early one morning in Austin a couple of years ago:

On this particular morning, my friend wanted to go kayaking.  As she was putting on her life vest and getting her kayak ready, I looked out across the lake, and noticed that there was mist rising from the calm water; however, looking in one direction, away from the sun, the mist, while discernible, was hard to make out.  Looking into the sun, however, the mist was easily seen, and the result was that the lake seemed to come alive.

"Would you mind paddling out toward the sun?" I asked my friend.

She did, and then I composed the shot.  Now, obviously, she's almost in silhouette, but the fact is I wasn't photographing her, per se -- if that was my intent, I would've taken a picture of her while she was stlll on the dock -- instead, I was focusing on shooting the scene.  The mist, with the golden light of the rising sun, combined with my friend's solitude and the stillness of the water, gave an ambiance of total peace.  And that's what I wanted to photograph.  And being able to accomplish that, it was far more important that I paid attention to the light, more than pay attention to the subjects in the shot.

Make sense?

Now:  later in the day, when the sun is high in the sky and is at its brightest, it becomes even more imperative to pay attention to what the sun is doing.  The reason is because even though intuition would indicate that a bright sky is best when taking a photograph, the truth is that a brilliant sun can cause harsh shadows and stark contrasts.  For instance, have you ever heard a photographer say that they prefer to take photos under overcast skies?  That's because it can be challenging to take a decent portrait in bright sunlight, because noses and hairlines can cause strange shadows.  Here's what I mean.

The following shot of Marcus was taking midday, when the sun was right overhead:


See all the shadows that are happening on his face as a result?  His eyebrows are casting shadows on his eyes, which gives his face almost a sinister look.  His nose is casting a shadow on his upper lip, giving him a Hitler-esque look.  Those two things alone are enough to result in a poor (or at the very list, slightly evil) shot.  And yes, in theory, I suppose, I could "fix" those shadows in Photoshop, matching the light on his left cheek to the one on the right, but frankly, that is way more work than I care to do.

What I'd rather do is ask Marcus to please move his chair into the shade provided by the overhang in our house.  So this shot was taken at the same time of day, in the same back garden, but this time, with his chair moved:

See the difference?  No weird shadows on his face and you notice his blue eyes instead.  This is why photographers like overcast or diffused light -- it's much kinder to portraits.  (It's also why, by the way, you'll see photographers use reflectors, or even flashes on bright days -- it's to get rid of those awful shadows.)

That said, don't write off bright sunlight entirely -- because the truth is that stark, overhead light can be beautiful for emphasizing colour and texture, as shown below.



Of course, there are other things to watch for when looking at the light;  for example, I'm fond of noticing when light makes things translucent -- for example, in the petals of these daffodils that I bought last week:

Or Marcus' orchids:

Again, in the last two photographs, I wasn't shooting the flowers per se, as much as I was shooting what the light does to the flowers.  When you photograph with the light in mind, it allows you to see the subject with a different perspective.



Similarly, take a look at dappled light:

Dappled light occurs when there are several points of light falling on something -- like light through the leaves of a tree, or in the case above, through plantation shutters.  Dappled light wreaks havoc on faces when you're taking portraits; however, it's awesome on flowers and other still life subjects, like the gerberas in our living room.



Sometimes, when you're looking for the light, all you really notice are the shadows -- the depth that the darkness can add to the final image.  Unless you're talking about portraits (like above), don't be afraid: sometimes shadows work too, as in the following shot:

Notice how, in addition to the light on the tops of the petals of the flower, what really brings some depth to this image are those parts of the flower which are in shadow. 



"Bokeh" is one of those words that photographers love to throw around, which basically means an obviously shallow depth of field.  However, you'll find the term used most often when lights are in bokeh, particularly points of light, because it makes for such a beautiful shot.

Remember this shot from the last podcast?

The image above is the unprocessed version.  What helps to add appeal to this shot is the shallow depth of field (which, you'll remember, is achieved when you've sent your aperture to a low number).  In this particular image, I concentrated the focus on the tree to the far left of the image, allowing the rest of the image to go out of focus (a shallow depth of field).  Because of this, all of the lights in the receding trees go into lovely circular blurs of light.  Bokeh, is a great way to add interest.

And finally, let's just go ahead and dispel that myth of the light "always has to be behind you," once and for all:



There comes a time, usually during the Golden Hour (that time before sunset, when the light turns all lovely and golden), that results in all objects in its path getting a lovely halo effect, as shown below:


The trick in getting a shot like the above is to not actually shoot directly into the light -- otherwise, the flowers would've been in total silhouette -- but to angle your camera so that it points slightly away from the light.  That way, you still get some colour from your subject, but you can also capture that lovely halo effect the light gives.


Hopefully, all of the unprocessed photos above give you an idea of how to look for the light -- maybe even more than (or at least as much as) you pay attention to your subject.  Because here's the cool thing about this secret: once you know how to see the light, and are familiar with how your camera works, you'll find that the images that result will require little or no processing.  We'll talk about Photoshop more in an upcoming OTT post, but I'll leave you with this thought:  in my opinion, post-processing should be used to either (a) enhance, or (b) create art, but it should generally never (or at least very minimally) be used to hide mistakes.  For the most part, the power to create a good shot lies in your eyes, your knowledge of the camera and in the camera itself.  And by training your eyes to see the light, at least 80% of your shot will be made.

And with that, have fun practicing seeing the light, friends. 


Occasionally Technical Tuesday is a new feature here on Chookooloonks, where we'll tackle topics like choosing a camera, how a camera works, how I choose lenses, how I use Photoshop, how I pack for a photo trip, that sort of thing.  You can see an entire index of subjects we've addressed here.  I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know, occasionally.



A quick reminder:  I will be speaking at Towson University tomorrow at the University Union -- It's absolutely free, and open to the publicDetails can be found here.  If you're in town, I'd love to see some friendly faces.

Song: Put your lights on by Santana, featuring Everlast

Karen Walrond15 Comments