Through the Gadling Lens: Look for the light

I just got back this week from a quick trip to a spa.

It sounds luxurious, doesn’t it? Well, actually, it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong — the facilities were lovely; however, I didn’t actually go to relax. I went along with a friend, Beth, who was giving a talk there, and while she was working I planned on working on several book projects that have looming deadlines ahead. When I wasn’t writing, I was taking as many photos as possible for these same projects.

Beth has been a very kind fan of my work, and has flatteringly used the word “soulful” to describe my images. One afternoon, she asked if she could follow me around with her camera, to have an impromptu photo lesson. As we set off, she said, “Okay, so show me how to take photographs like you do.”

“You want to know the trick?” I asked, smiling.


“Okay. The trick that every good photographer knows: before you take the photograph, look for the light.”
“I have no idea what that means,” she said.

The concept is actually very simple, and really can mean the difference between a good photograph and a great photograph. The trick is to forget all the “rules” that you’ve learned in photography before — how you always have to make sure the sun is behind you when you shoot, that sort of thing — and then actually pay attention to what the light is doing, even more than what your subject is doing. Often, when I shoot, the actual subject is of secondary interest to me than the light.

I’m not making any sense, am I?

Okay, here are some examples that will make my point:

The shot below was taken early Monday morning, as my friend was going out on morning kayak adventure. As she was putting on her life vest and getting her kayak ready, I looked out across the lake, and noticed that there was mist rising from the calm water. Looking down one end, away from the sun, the mist, while discernible, was hard to make out. However, looking into the sun, the mist was easily seen, seemingly giving the lake actual life.

“Would you mind paddling out toward that direction?” I asked my friend.

She did, and then I composed the shot. The mist and the golden rising sun, combined with my friend’s solitude and the stillness of the water, gives the feeling of total peace. It was easy to capture the feel of the morning, as a result.

Later in the day, when the sun is high in the sky and at its brightest, it becomes imperative that attention is paid to what the sun is doing: even though intuition would indicate that a bright sky is best when taking a photograph, the truth is that a brilliant sun can cause harsh shadows and stark contrasts — it can be challenging, for example, to take a decent portrait in bright sunlight, because noses and hairlines can cause strange shadows. However, bright sunlight can be beautiful for emphasizing colour and texture, as shown in the images below.

If, however, the light is really, truly bright, and is making for some ultra-harsh contrasts, sometimes you just have to make that work for you. Water is a great way to show how bright and harsh the light is, while still producing a story-telling shot.

See? Even though it’s hard to make out the boat and the water skier (not to mention the foliage in the landscape behind them), the point of this image is to show how bright the sunshine is — which it does, to maximum effect.

The rule to look for the light isn’t just for outdoor shots: it works for indoor shots as well. Natural light indoors is often filtered through windows and drapes and blinds, giving it a much softer quality of light, but still adds to the general mood inside. And if the light happens to rest on reflective surfaces, more’s the better. A great example is how the light is falling on the glassware on the restaurant table, below:

Again, the story in the above shot really isn’t the flowers, or even the glassware — it’s all about the light.

In addition, sometimes, when you’re looking for the light, all that you really notice is the shadows — the depth that the darkness can add to the final image. Don’t be afraid to capture that as well, as shown in the following shot:

Notice how in addition to the light on the tops of the petals of the above flower, what really brings some depth to the images are those parts of the frame which are in shadow. Again, just pay attention to what the light is doing.

And finally, to dispel the myth that you shouldn’t shoot into the sun: there comes a time, usually during the Golden Hour (that time before sunset, when the light turns all lovely and golden), that results in all objects in its path getting a lovely halo effect, as shown below:

The trick in getting a shot like the above is to not actually shoot directly into the light — otherwise, the flowers would’ve been in total silhouette — but to angle your camera so that it points slightly away from the light. That way, you still get some colour from your subject, but you can capture that lovely halo.

Another example:

Again, notice how the camera isn’t aimed directly at the sun, but still allows the sun to halo the details of the long grasses. Using the light in this manner totally enhances the mood of the photo.

I hope this helps! Remember, light first, object second. I guarantee it will help the feel of your shots immensely. As always, if you have any questions or additional comments, as always, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.

Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.your