Light is your paint, your camera the brush

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AestheticsNoun: A guiding principle in matters of artistic beauty and taste; artistic sensibility.
AestheticAdjective: Characterized by a heightened sensitivity to beauty.

In this image from the wheat fields of Eastern Montana I positioned myself so that the low-angle sun is shining directly into the combine’s cab to illuminate the driver. Notice the fine texture of the wheat, which is only somewhat enhanced by the angle. If I had moved more to my right, there would be more shadows on the back side of the wheat heads. But my primary focus was the man driving the combine and the overall image color.
In this image from the wheat fields of Eastern Montana I positioned myself so that the low-angle sun is shining directly into the combine’s cab to illuminate the driver. Notice the fine texture of the wheat, which is only somewhat enhanced by the angle. If I had moved more to my right, there would be more shadows on the back side of the wheat heads. But my primary focus was the man driving the combine and the overall image color.

You make aesthetic decisions all the time. What color to paint the kitchen. What blouse goes with what skirt. Can you wear a black sock on one foot while wearing green on the other? (The answer is “no” to that last one.)

Learning to see the world differently is part of aesthetics.

As you evaluate light and its effect on your surroundings or on the faces around you, you are practicing aesthetics. You are exercising your own personal definition of beauty.

Each time you make an image, you are expanding your personal definition of the word “aesthetics”.

When you are shooting landscapes there isn’t much you can do to control natural light, after all, you can’t exactly turn down the sun. But you can control where you stand and more importantly where you aim your camera and therefore control the angle of light.

Definitions of types of lighting

Here, at the beginning of our tutorials, we are going to talk mostly about natural light and how to work with it. When the sun is right behind you, shining directly on the front of your subject, we call it “front lit”. When an object is front lit, it is harder to discern shadows and shapes unless they are very powerful. The shadows fall mostly behind the object so remain out of sight.

An object lit from the side is logically called “side lit” and light illuminating from the back of the object is called “back lit”.

There is also what is known as “flat” lighting — the light is very even and seems to come from everywhere at once. There are no shadows. This type of light is great for close-ups of all types including wildflowers and I like it for portraits because it is soft and smooths out skin tones and flaws. To enhance texture, use direct light from the side, from above or below.

You will hear these phrases in upcoming columns, so be sure to remember their definitions.

Responding to light

Emotions can be stirred by light. Do you ever feel a little sad as the sun sinks below the horizon? Or joyous at light breaking through a storm, when it rains and shines at the same time? These emotions can be transferred to the image making process. If a scene stirs something inside you — pick up your camera and capture it. Try to figure out what it is about the sight in front of you that moves you. Don’t be afraid to analyze your own emotions.

You may think I have a rather passionate, romantic view of light. Well, it’s true. It has been my friend, my companion for years. It enables me to do what I do.

Light, and its many moods, is with me always, when it changes, when it interacts with shadow to shape what I am seeing.

And I wonder at the pure beauty of it all.

Some days, it seems, I breathe light. And when I am out of Gatorade and crackers in the middle of nowhere, light is my nourishment.

Photo Exercise/Assignment: Choose an object that has texture and photograph it from different angles and at different times of day. See if the light changes your perception of that object. There is no perfect way to create a great image, so experiment! Remember, you don’t have to pay for film now that you are shooting digital.

Next: Color and what the heck is white balance?

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

— George Eastman

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