“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman the founder of Kodak.
All I could hear was the clink of the boatman’s oar and a gurgle as it sank back into the water. It was dark; even the birds didn’t get up this early. There was a quiet, eerie stillness over the lake.
Without warning the sky began to brighten as the sun pulled itself up over the horizon. The birds began chirping, children started calling out and the fishermen began returning from their night of trawling.
My boatman turned on the motor; it burped and coughed into life. I turned around to look at the treacle coloured lake and the golden light enveloping the boatman. It was certainly worth missing my sleep for this moment and image.
I chase light, follow light, wait for light, watch light and see where it falls in my pictures.
Light can be symbolic for some; for me it is fundamental. During an Easter ceremony I stood in the dark church waiting for the moment when a candle would be lit to represent the dawn. Pitch black, suddenly the first candle is lit and the priest’s face glows in the flickering light. Then another candle is lit, and another, rewarding me with enough light to make a picture.
Going from pre-dawn to sunrise or darkness to candlelight is a great way to see how light can impact your pictures. This is like working in a darkened room and gradually switching on the lights until you get the effect that you want. Greg Heisler the American portrait photographer works in this style. The first thing that Heisler does when he arrives at an indoor location is turn off all the lights. He gradually switches them back on and then adds strobes until he achieves the lighting affect he’s looking for.
In his first book, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds: Photographs from the Tropics photographer Alex Webb talks about the searing light and intense colours embedded in the cultures that he works with. Webb has a great understanding and instinct for light and can turn the simplest situation into a great image. A lot of his work is shot in the early morning or late afternoon when the light is low, warm and contrasty. Because of his ability to read the light, he still manages to achieve beautifully constructed images even when the light is “ordinary”.
In Webb’s new book, The Suffering of Light his evocative images convey humour, irony and pathos within the genres of street photography, documentary and photojournalism. The images were shot from lowlight to daylight and demonstrate how light can be used and controlled by a master photographer.
The Australian photographer Trent Parke considers light a major part of his work. He says, “I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”
While working on a project about Sydney, Parke researched areas where the light was at its best during different times of the day. On a working day he would go to each of the five spots he had chosen and shoot even if it was only for ten minutes at each location.
The great photo-essayist W. Eugene Smith was once asked if he used available light, he replied. “I only use available light, whatever is available at the time, flash, hot lights, or day light.”
Smith was a perfectionist and worked for approximately three years on his Pittsburgh project, “Dream City”. He shot twenty-one thousand negatives, an extraordinary amount of film for that era. Smith put so much time into the project that it cost him financially, professionally and ruined his health. Before Smith started shooting this mammoth project, he spent several weeks observing the light on the city. He took notes and used a compass to determine when, where and how the light would affect his subjects. The final prints from “Dream City” are moody, graphic and reveal a wonderful balance of shade and light.
I spent a number of days on Lake Tonlé Sap in Cambodia working with the hot, hard sunlight. I tried to shoot as much as possible in the early morning or late evening so I could produce rich highlights and deep dark shadows. Of course not everything happens at those times of day, so I try to get low and shoot with backlight or try for cross lighting.
On one occasion I wanted to pick up the trickles of water that came off the fish as the fishermen unloaded their boats and hoisted the nets onto loading bays. So I shot directly into the sun using the light to highlight the droplets of water trickling out of the nets.
Later in the day we headed further across the lake to a floating coffee lounge. As I climbed from the boat the sun threw its final beam for the day onto the owner who was standing in the doorway. I shot an image of him bathed in the rich warm light of dusk with just the hint of a highlight glancing off the side of his face.
Be aware of light. Choose it, use it and light up your photographs.