Now that you are getting to know your camera, we would like to talk about light and shadow. For without those two elements, we don’t really have anything to see or shoot.
Well, “duh” you’re thinking, but hang on. Let’s dissect the phrase above.
Light to illuminate: Of course. It is obvious, right? Sunlight, moonlight, strobe light, flashlight — light has to fall on our subject in order for us to see it. Taking a decent picture means you must evaluate and choose your light carefully.
Shadows to shape: If you have a photo of a ball that is lit straight on, you can’t tell if it is spherical or flat because there are no visual clues. But if there is a shadow on the ball, we can see that it is indeed a sphere and not just a flat circle.
Let’s take these thoughts and put them to work making a good image.
Learning to see
Good image making is much more than just learning the technical stuff (but you need that under your belt too). It is learning to see in a different way.
Let me repeat that: To make good photos you must learn to see the world differently.
How many times have you gone on a great picturesque vacation to some place like Yosemite?
You excitedly hop out of the car and snap a shot of an azure alpine lake surrounded by craggy mountains. But when you look at the image at home it doesn’t look quite like you thought it would. Dare we say it might even look boring?
Most days, the light is not intriguing unless it is very early or very late in the day, when the shadows are the longest.
Photos taken during mid-day, with the sun overhead, fall into that “flat and uninteresting” category.
Landscape shooters know this and plan their image making accordingly.
When to pull out the camera
Shooting in the early morning and late afternoon is a good general rule. So if you drive by that lovely alpine lake at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, you can take a snapshot to show you were there.
Or, if you are trying to create a memorable image, return when the light is better and shadows have given the land contour.
Exceptions to every rule
There are times when a high overcast skies can be a boon for photographers. Forest scenes with lots of trees look best on high overcast days — just be sure not to have that bright white sky in your image. These kinds of days are also good for flower and macro photography.
Leave your camera inside, step outside and take a look. Where is the source of light? What is it doing — is it shining straight down, or is it oblique?
Are there shadows on things giving them texture and dimension? Or is it about noon and it is hot or cold and nothing looks good? Perhaps the shadows are too harsh and obscure details you want to see. Try this exercise whenever you go somewhere. Educate yourself to see.
“The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
— DOROTHEA LANGE