Lessons from the Scene: Understanding Light

 by Stanley Leary

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The object a few inches in front of your eye (your camera) is not as important as the object a few inches behind your eye (your brain).
There are those who can pull more out of the old box camera than others can get out of a $10,000 system. It’s not the camera. (Heard that before?)
The Greek word "photography" means "painting with light." The Greeks knew a thing or two; so lets take a look at this way of creating art.
What a particular photographer has to offer that is different from any other photographer is the way he or she sees. Learning to see light is part of fine-tuning your unique way of seeing.
Many of the National Geographic photographers like to photograph early in the morning and late in the afternoon using what they call the “golden time.” It is call golden not just because the light is warm, but because the shadows are long and scenes take on a beauty not seen at other times of day.
Bill Fortney, a representative for Nikon, says: “The light of the moment is perfect for something, maybe not what you wanted to photograph, but something.”
When a photographer is flown half way around the world and given a limited amount of time to complete coverage he or she must make the most of what time he or she has. Knowledge of light is essential to the professional photographer.
There is a need to understand how to use The National Geographic’s “golden time” (if there is time) as well as Bill Fortney’s suggestion of a need to know how to work with whatever light there is at the time. Some travel books suggest the best time of day to visit a location. Travel guides on Hawaii’s volcanoes recommend late afternoon and early evening when the lava flow is brighter than the sunlight.
I like to photograph people in open shade. It hides wrinkles, opens up shadows and avoids squinting. Open shade is found on the opposite side of a building or large object from the sun. It’s called open shade because there’s nothing above the subject except the open sky.
On overcast days this flattering and soft light isn’t just hiding behind buildings – it’s just about everywhere.
This beautiful light is good for close-ups as well as people pictures, however, it’s not a good time for landscapes; it is the opposite of the “golden time” mentioned above.
As a self-assignment photograph the same subject from the same angle at different times of the day.
Photograph your house early morning, noon, at dusk and even at night (you may need lights on, like the porch or landscaping lights). Usually one of the photos stands out as the best. Note: save the photo for when you want to sell the house.
Learning to see light will improve your photography and your appreciation of life outdoors in general.