A love of light

by simonrleach

Light, well it is all around us, even in the middle of the night there are not many places I seem to be able to go now to avoid it. As a photographer it’s our life: the reflection of light from a surface we wish to observe, capture and show others. The illumination of the stories that we want to tell.

Whilst light is fundamental to life, as scientists down the ages will tell you, to photographers it is fundamental to understand its characteristics, to admire its beauty, even to control and manipulate it artificially. This knowledge and the use of light is perhaps “The” principle creative element of photography. Whether you are going to use a camera to capture it or Photoshop or CGI software to generate it, light in a final picture can set emotions, guide a viewer, enhance a message and elicit a response. I am surprised at how regularly I am asked by other photographers about lighting, especially by those just starting out. The only conclusion I have made is that with the transformation to a digital environment we have forgotten, and perhaps no longer teach, the principle relationship of photography and light. Has photography become so ubiquitous it doesn’t matter? A question for another day.

Okay, so I am old fashioned, a Luddite; these things no longer matter; it’s all about pressing the shutter release; the subject, the concepts, the metaphor. Well then, why is it that the shot of the old man sat smoking a pipe in some remote place is interesting, but add a shaft of light and we all pause a little longer? The lonely young woman on a street may be a story but the orange glow from street lighting or a first light of morning softness adds something we want to understand?

It’s the same in a studio type environment: understand what your light is doing, see how it falls, and you are away into a whole new world. Artificial light is not just about illuminating to get an exposure that’s not too dark, it’s about adding something: painting with texture and colour, exploring the subject in front of you and showing it to your audience. Light is not something to be frightened of, it just requires practise and a little confidence. I am afraid I am not a subscriber to the set lighting approach either, I do not subscribe to teaching where to place lights for this shot or that shot. Instead, be confident. Look at the subject and the light falling on it and trust when it’s right for you. If you’re starting out, don’t over complicate things. One light will teach you vast amounts and still give you good results if you use your eyes. As you start building up to bigger sets you will need a light meter. I don’t care what anyone says, you can’t tell the relationship between different light sources through the back of the camera no matter how good your screen.

In the end photography should be enjoyable and lighting should be fun, not a chore or a nightmare to avoid. Look at the photographs you like, see how they use light and open your eyes. Learn to embrace this most engaging of elements.

Will be sharing more on November 29th