Light – the Final Frontier

For most people (non-photographer types) light is just something that is. In my opinion, it’s taken for granted, and underappreciated. But, for photographers, light is magic! It’s what makes our photographs have life. Without light, photography wouldn’t even be possible.

I grew up in Buffalo, so you can believe me when I say, “I know snow”. There are different kinds of snow. If you’ve grown up around snow, you know when it’s just starting to snow, and it’s going to get worse, or when it’s almost done snowing. You know when it’s ok to go out in the snow, and when it’s not. My grandmother could tell how much longer it would snow by the change in size of the flakes. I’m not sure of the scientific basis behind her “Snowflake Size” theory, but when she told me the snow would stop soon, it always did – and back in 1965 we didn’t have the Weather Channel.

So, light to photographers needs to be like snow to Buffalonians. If you want to be a good photographer, you need to know light. You need to know the different kinds of light. You need to understand the times of the day when the light is perfect for portraits, or landscapes or still lifes. You need to be keenly aware of when the light is best for what you want to shoot. This takes practice. You need to be aware of lighting conditions. Watch for special effects the light creates on your subject. I’m mostly talking about outdoor, natural light. If you work in a studio, and have all kinds of lighting equipment, that’s different. You are creating lighting effects yourself. Outdoors, you generally have to wait for the right conditions to come to you.

Now here’s something that I need to get better at – the best photographers (or at least many of them) keep logs of when the light is best. So, If I’m driving home from work on January 12th at 4:45pm, and I see something that has perfect lighting, and I want to take a picture of it… well, it’s too late. By the time you notice something, the light is changing, and it won’t be back to the way it was a minute ago until next year! You can come close by coming back tomorrow at around the same time, but it’s never the same until next year. Every day of a given year is different. The sun is in a slightly different position. It may look ok tomorrow, but it won’t be the same. You need to write it down, note the date and time and what you want to photograph, and then next year come back a few minutes (or however long) before to get the shot.

Back in the early days of photography, those who painted claimed photography wasn’t art because it used a machine to create the images. Photographers, on the other hand, claimed it was truly art because you were only using a machine (a lens) to focus light and produce an image of something that existed in nature. The lens was just a tool to produce an image. I believe photography is painting with light. I believe photography is art, do you?