The medium of photography is light. It can be natural or created,… diffused, filtered, angled, bounced or reflected but it is the film’s reaction to that light which ultimately creates an image. The three sources of light used most commonly by photographers are natural sunlight, incandescent (tungsten), and electronic flash. All have their own characteristics and can implemented or applied at the discretion of the artist to re-create his or her vision. Creative use of light can prove to be one of the most valuable tools in a photographers arsenal when used to augment the subject, add highlights,… even to tell its story.
Foetidus of Fire
This marsh plant (Symplocarpus foetidus) is unique in that its bulb produces heat. This helps to melt the ice and snow around it and allows this hardy plant to be among the first to push through the soil each spring. In an attempt to illustrate this process, a filtered electronic flash unit was positioned behind the plant and fired through the largest leaf. With the foreground and background elements naturally lit, the bright orange/red color of the leaf suggests that a fire burns from within.
Dramatic backgrounds can be created by positioning the camera at 180 degrees between the primary light source and any reflective surface. The resulting effects can be controlled with the aperture ring and corresponding shutter speed settings. In this example the subject is positioned in front of a small waterfall with the sun illuminating the scene from directly behind the camera. The reflected sunlight off the falls and a wide aperture setting create out of focus halos of light.
This is a studio set-up and illustrates how back-lighting can be used to accentuate the minute physical details or characteristics of any subject. This photographic technique can be performed in the field but it can be easier and more productive in a controlled environment, where the light can be adjusted and positioned for maximum effectiveness…and without Mother Nature’s “interference”…(translation:, the wind).
Incandescent lights provide the primary illumination of this thistle plant and a small flashlight positioned behind the subject highlights its thorny stem. A blue poster-board was used as a background and an 80-A lens filter balances both light sources.
In the photographic realm, the opposite of light is shadow. How often do we curse the days when harsh sunlight creates those deep shadows,… dark abysmal voids lacking detail and design? When faced with this scenario think of how the extremes in contrast can be used as an advantage to create a point of interest…. as in this example of a sycamore leaf which had recently fallen onto the hood of a bright red car.
Of Color and Shadow
Natural light can be our worst enemy or our best friend, dependant upon our perception and awareness, and our ability to recognize what is available and ultimately adapt. Combining light sources in nature on a sunny day can be an exposure nightmare but the resulting balance of cool and warm tones can often play together in perfect harmony. In the example of this small waterfall, a heavy overcast of trees creates deep shade which is represented on film as a cool bluish tinge. Peaks of early morning sunlight on portions of the rocks and water are recorded as warm highlights.
Learning to use light creatively can benefit any photographer. Whether it's natural or man-made, playing with light in all its forms can be a rewarding experience,...and the results can be fantastic!
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