The Keeper of The Light

Photography is the capture of light. Without light, photography is only an abstract thought.

Reflected backlight reduces these reeds, to shape or contour, but little else.  Two dimensional, but pretty.

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The warm, yellowish light of sunrise, turns this white gull feather into a pink one. The light doesn’t lie. When I first found the feather, I glanced down and said to myself, a (white) gull feather. My brain knows that feathers from the gulls in this area, are white. As soon as I looked through my macro lens and my subject turned into shape and form instead of a literal feather, I could see the pink.

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Late morning sunny day light is the light that we nature photographers try to avoid, but all light can be beautiful. It is dependant on the subject and its surroundings. I made sure the background here was far enough away from this Coneflower, to remain soft and unobtrusive. I kept the sun high (I really had no choice in that), but just far enough to one side to add texture to the top, while the sun mixed a few soft shadows throughout the petals. That gave them dimension. I am not going to say, that I observed every single petal and checked for shadows, but I can tell you with confidence, that I examined the scene with experienced eyes and knew how to “see the light”.

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Blue light is all around us. If the water in this waterfall seems a little blue (not sad), that’s because it is. The subject is deep in a forest, but on blue sky days the color of that sky will bounce into the forest and paint the water with the most beautiful shade of blue. I could have counteracted this affect with a warming filter or by switching white balance settings on my digital SLR, but why would I? The color is true and honest to the circumstance at hand. I have known many photographers that would not have seen the blue while in the field, and would have been disappointed when they got home and did see it.  Being an oservant photographer who notice these things, takes experience.  It’s that simple.

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If photography is about the capture of light, then it must hold true that it is the job of the photographer, to “see” the light, and either change it or leave it. My preference most of the time, was to see it, and leave it.

I had a friend who was a nature photographer, and he used to drive around in his pickup truck with a pan or box filled with dirt and plants. He would go where he knew he could find Salamanders and catch them, place them in the pan/box, photograph them and “hopefully” release them. He sent me a film picture that he had burned on a CD, and asked if I would look at the image, work with it a little with software, and send it back via email. I assumed he meant add any sharpening it might need. I did that and sent a copy back in email. He asked me why I turned the Salamander to the color blue. I did not change the color at all. I asked him about the photographic circumstances surrounding the making of the image. He said he put the pan/box on the open tailgate of his truck, added the Salamander and made some pictures. I asked if it was a sunny blue sky day and he replied yes. All that big blue sky, was reflecting back into that tiny bit of shade that the roof of his truck created, and painted everything blue. He never saw the blue in his slide, or the digital file that was burned on the CD. He knew that the Salamander, and everything in the pan/box, was any color except blue. He adjusted his brain to see what he believed the colors should be, instead of what they really were do to the reflected light. When he separated himself from the experience and from the image he created that day, and viewed the picture that I sent him, he immediately saw all that blue. We went through those same issues many times. He just struggled to get out of his own head, and judge the color in an unbiased fashion. If you’re in a green forest, you will often find a green bias to subjects that you photograph there, that are of a different color. It happens a lot with flowers. A yellow flower will sometimes be green. The secret is to understand when you are in circumstances (like the sky) where this will happen, and clear your mind of what the color should be, and see the true color.

Part of the job of any type of photographer, is to “see” the color, either by knowledge, or by clearing your mind of preconceived ideas.

It is certainly true that sidelight (top photo), through the creation of small shadows, will produce shape and texture, and front light (almost front light in the bottom photo) will produce a flatter appearing photo. That doesn’t mean that flat light can’t be beautiful, and even appear somewhat dimensional, when it’s handled right. My composition/perspective in the second photo, makes all of the difference in minimizing the flat feeling, by accentuating the hill. My low perspective leads you up that hill. Hills are not flat and they create a somewhat dimensional image in and of themselves.  Even though the hill runs up and down, and side to side, not in and out, or towards and away from us.  Finally the warm colors of the plants, visually separate from that rich blue sky. Two dimensional light winds up being a part of fairly three-dimensional image. Both images were made at White Sands, New Mexico.

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I know I sing this same song all of the time, but I love shadows. Photographers have been running from shadows since the advent of photography. HDR and other forms of digital image editing, have led photographers today to use shadows, although those techniques are used mainly to “light” the shadows. It doesn’t really eliminate them, but bring lots of detail to the shadows.  Don’t be afraid to use shadows as they are presented to us from nature.  There are artistic choices to be made. There is detail to be realized in both my flower photo and my Monument Valley image below, but not a bit more than the artistic choices that I made in the field would dictate.

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Overcast light, is still light.  Every type of light has value. Overcast, in flower and autumn image making, has long been accepted for its saturating powers, but with big picture landscape image making, not so much. I normally leave out the sky itself in those landscapes, but sometimes you get lucky. There’s nothing like the color saturation derived from soft over casts skies, with some storm clouds to add an extra dimension to the photo.

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Photograph light. Capture it and use it to say what you want to say. Learn to speak about light with your photographs. It is a part of your language as a photographer. I would often notice light long before I realized the subject. Sometimes I would “see the light” and then search for a subject to insert into that light.

There are a million tools (sometimes gimmicks) out there today to turn a straight image into an abstract, to create (after the fact) the light we would have liked in the first place. We can compensate for the color of light while we are making pictures, or three years later while we sit at a computer. We can crop and change the entire dynamic of what existed at the moment we conceived an image. There is not and never will be, a substitute for an artist with a camera, who has the ability to see while they are on the scene. That includes seeing, and “keeping” the light.

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During my earlier days as a photographer, I loved the idea that there were so few others doing what I was doing. Of course most people had a small camera or had at least taken a picture or two during their life. The headaches and cost of serious film photography was so great, that time and money kept many people from serious image making, and the rest just didn’t want to take what was a “point and shoot” experience on a holiday or a vacation, and turn it into such a big deal.

There were two reasons for my serious journey into photography. One, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working in an office or a factory, and two, I had studied great photography enough to realize, that I truly admired those who had a special “vision” when they looked at a scene, an object or a person. They had a talent for bringing things together in visual coherence, that most didn’t seem to have. I wanted that, and I wanted to use it. I also wanted to do something that few others were doing.

The more things change the more they stay the same.

Today everybody is a photographer. We are truly getting to the point where the quality of cell phone imagery, and even the availability of more serious photography equipment, may allow us to hit a 99% level on the number people in the world who can call themselves photographers. Still, there are those who can see things come together through a viewfinder, and those who can’t.  In the end, there will still be those who create imagery…….and those who take pictures.

I hope each of you are as in love with this thing we call photography as I have always been. If you are, you are a special breed.

God Bless,                                                                                                                                       Wayne

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