Monday, June 7, 2010

It's the light Stupid!!!!

Nathan McCreery

“It is light that reveals a matter; the form and shape of an object. It is light that allows us to "peek" into the soul of our subject and to expose its essence.” Nathan McCreery 2004 from an address to the Imaging Professionals of the Southwest meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico

There are five things that you need to know about light. I believe that if you know, and understand, these five things you can effectively photograph anything and make it look as good as it can look. These five things are; quantity, quality, direction, spread and color.


Quantity; almost every one understands that sometimes there is a lot of light and other times there is less light. The quantity of light available to expose sensitized material, whether it is a silver halide emulsion or a charged coupled device (sensor in a digital camera) is measured by a light meter of some kind. An exposure meter simply measures the amount of light available to a scene and translates that amount of light to a series of numbers that tells you how to set your camera to get a “correct” exposure. You have to measure the amount of light incident to the scene to know how to set your camera’s exposure controls. I won’t spend a lot of time on this subject since most people can look at one situation and realize that there is either a lot of light available or not a lot of light available. The ability to understand that is, or should be, pretty intuitive.


Quality; here’s where a lot of people really have trouble understanding and seeing, and some never do grasp what we’re talking about. There are two qualities of light; spectral and diffuse.

Spectral light is characterized as being harsh with shadows that have sharply delineated edges. Spectral light sources are small in size, relative to the object being photographed. As such direct sunlight will be very specular in its quality. The smaller the light source is, the more specular its light will be.

Specular light is one of the most difficult light sources to work with because it is so harsh in its nature. As a general rule, the more specular the light source is, the more difficult it is to work with. Because of that characteristic I usually suggest that beginning photographers avoid using it whenever possible. It is interesting note that some of Ansel Adams most well known and iconic landscapes were created using a spectral light source so it isn’t that the light source can’t be used to create stunning photographs. It’s just that it can be difficult to use, and it requires visual sophistication and technical skill to make it work for you and not against you.

Diffuse light has the characteristic of emanating from a larger light source. The larger the light source, the more diffuse the light quality will be. Diffuse light has the characteristic of having soft edged shadows and of being a gentler light source, and also being relatively easy to work with and being very forgiving. Objects that are illuminated with a diffuse light source will have more open shadows.

Another factor in using Diffuse light is that it has lower overall image and local contrast than spectral light. In fact where spectral light can have a contrast range, or scene brightness range, that is almost un-manageable, a scene that is illuminated by diffuse light may be so low in contrast that the scene, as presented, is boring and in need of a boost in contrast.

There are two times each day when you are guaranteed the very soft luminescent light that photographers covet so much. One is just before sunrise while the illumination from the sun is reflecting back into the scene off the western sky. At this time of the day the moisture from the previous evening is still on vegetation and the light will be very soft and diffused. The other is after the sun has cleared the western horizon. Again, the quality of light will be very soft and luminescent with many of the same characteristics as pre-sunrise. One other benefit to photographing after the sun is down is that, many times, the color of the light will be noticeably warmer than at sunrise. I try to use both times of the day to make photographs when I am working.

The unpredictable factor that can create amazing light possibilities is cloud cover. When there is strong cloud cover, the clouds themselves become the light source rather than the sun. Essentially they become a giant diffuser or, in some cases, a reflector depending on their orientation to the sun and the scene. To summarize, diffuse light will occur outdoors when the sun is hidden by the curvature of the earth, both before sunrise and after sunset, when there is significant cloud cover, and when the direct light of the sun is blocked by a physical structure such as a hill, mountain or building. The bottom line here is that the photographer needs to be ready to deal with these qualities of light and know what to do when they present themselves. When you are out, even when you aren’t making photographs watch the light and learn to see what it is revealing to you.


One of the most important things to watch, and be aware of, is the direction of light. Watch the effect its direction is having on the thing you are interested in portraying. What is happening to the highlights and the shadows?

It is the direction of light that will give an object the illusion of being round in a photograph. Remember that a photograph is only two dimensional but we need to create the impression that our photograph has depth and dimension. If we don’t the photograph may appear flat and uninteresting.

The only tool we have at our disposal to do that is light direction. When the light source is at an angle to the scene or object we are portraying one side of the object will reflect more light back to the camera than the other side. It is this difference in quantities of light reflecting off the object to the viewer that will create the feeling of roundness and give depth and dimension to the scene. You also will find that not understanding what the direction of light does to scene can be deadly in the production of a finished photograph.

Usually, when the light is directly overhead, it is not very conducive to making great photographs. There can be a tendency to be so “taken” with an object or subject or scene that we respond emotionally to it. The camera only sees the scene analytically. It is incapable of an emotional response but the emotional response is what we want. Because of this we must learn to see things the way our camera sees them. .


Spread; when I speak about “Spread” I am talking about how many stops difference there are between the most brilliant highlight in the image and the deepest dark tone where you will want separation of tones. Usually, in your photographs you will want the highlights to carry detail, or tonal separation, and the dark areas to also carry detail, or a separation of tones. The times when you will want to have highlights with no detail or large areas of dark tonality without detail are relatively small. We almost always want the highlights and the dark tones to carry detail. Of course there are exceptions to this “guideline” but they are definitely the minority.

It is important for you to know your media and its exposure characteristics. You need to know which part of the image you meter is reading to give you exposure information. You need to know how many stops of light your media is capable of recording before you begin to have either highlights that are blown out, with no detail, or shadow areas that are blocked up with no detail. My understanding is that a digital camera set to record an image as a J-Peg file is only capable of recording about a 4 or five stop range of tones. If we set the camera to record the image in RAW it will increase that range some but there will still be many situations in which the range of tones in the scene will far outstrip the camera’s ability to record them.

When this type of situation arises, and it will, the photographer is faced with at least two possibilities. Record the image with the knowledge that you are going to lose either highlight detail, with the highlights completely “blown out”, or shadow areas that are so dark that they carry no detail. Neither option is desirable. The other possibility, or option, is to remember the spot and come back to it when conditions are such that the spread is within your camera or media’s limitations.

It is very important that the photographer pay close attention to spread, or scene brightness range, to get a digital file or negative that will closely mirror what the photographer had in mind when they made the original exposure. Don’t rely on the camera to save the day for you. You need to manage the creation of the original exposure so that it gives you the information you will need to create the photograph you see in your head.


In the days before digital it was mandatory that a professional who photographed in color have an understanding of how the color of light would affect a photographic image.
For instance, the color of light emitted by a fluorescent light is markedly different that the color of light the proceeds from an incandescent light bulb. If you weren’t aware of the difference there would be a big, very unpleasant surprise when the film came back from the color lab. The same holds true for film that was exposed by an electronic flash, film that was exposed outdoors under sunlight and film exposed using a regular light bulb. Each light source had a different color temperature or color and each had different filtration requirements to get a pleasing, if not accurate, color balance in the finished work.

Of course, every digital photographer today understands that the white balance of the camera must be set on the correct calibration so that the file as it comes out of the camera is as accurate as possible. It is necessary that you make sure that the color settings on your camera match the color of light that is being emitted by the light source you are working with.

In Conclusion

If your desire is to create truly eloquent works of photographic art the road probably won’t be easy. There is a daunting learning curve. While it is true that modern photographic equipment has made the task easier than ever, it is also true that you’ll never be able to consistently produce work that is greater than your knowledge level. My strong suggestion to you is that you begin with all haste to become as knowledgeable about light as soon as you can. Only through understanding light, and a few other things, can you begin to create the masterpiece that is hiding within you. It’s the light we photograph, not the object.

This essay is owned exclusively by Nathan McCreery. It may not be reproduced by any means, in part or as a whole, without his express consent. It may be used in areas of scholarly research with the correct and appropriate citations. Copyright 2010, Nathan McCreery, Clovis, New Mexico.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Where has all the Beauty Gone

This essay was first published in "LensWork" in 1999. It was written by a good friend and one of the finest contemporary photographers of the landscape in the world today; Bruce Barnbaum. Bruce does excellent photography, all produced in his darkroom the traditional way, not a pixel in sight! It's worth a read. I would be interested in your response. Bruces work has been a great influence in my photographic work and he has direct ties back to Ansel Adams, the god of light.

Where Has All the Beauty Gone
by Bruce Barnbaum

On August 11, 1996 I attended a photographic exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York City titled "Perpetual Mirage, a Photographic Narrative of the Desert West." Included in the large exhibit were about a half dozen landscapes by Ansel Adams and a few of Edward Weston's print. Much of the exhibit was filled with photographs of suburban tract homes and industrial parks by Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and others. Why?

It seems to me that the Whitney Museum and the exhibitor's curator, May Castleberry, is either caught up in fad-or perhaps it is the leader of the fad-of boycotting beauty. In its place is a boring combination of ugliness, shock value, social commentary, or just plain humdrum, boring work. The photographs by Baltz, Robert Adams (never to be confused with Ansel), and the like fall largely into the latter two categories.

These photographers tend to refer to themselves as "realists," stating the imagery of Ansel Adams and others of his ilk have no pertinence today because the magnificent landscapes are being decimated, and people should see what we're facing, not the romanticism of what existed. There is certainly an abundance of truth behind such statements, and the writings of Robert Adams state the case with supreme eloquence. Anyone who has watched the loss of open space to inappropriate development, and the general decline in the traditional character of the West, would agree wholeheartedly with Adams' writings. But one wonders if the photographic work produced by these "realists" offers a strong counterbalance for the offending "romanticism?" I don't think so, because they are not offering up art with their everyday snapshots. To show the nation (or the world) the things that we see everyday, and to show it in an everyday manner, raises nobodies level of understanding. It expands nobody's horizons. It does nothing because it tells us what we already know. It doesn't even attempt to show everyday things in a unique, or insightful way. The work produced by this school of photography can best be termed "the dull school," or "the boring school," or the "humdrum school." It is artistically weak, perhaps even artistically devoid.

The history of art-all art in all media, including painting, sculpture, photography, music, literature, etc. has been one of raising peoples awareness, appreciation, and spirit through a combination of artifices. Beauty is certainly the greatest. Deeper insight is still another. Surprise is yet another. And drama another. The work highlighted in the Whitney display exhibited none of these attributes. There is no beauty whatsoever, no deep insight, no drama, no light, and surely no surprises, except of course the undesirable surprise that everyday, workmanlike snapshots were displayed in a museum with such a lofty reputation.

In producing photographic art, light is unquestionably the most essential ingredient, yet none of these photographs exhibited interesting or unusual light. They were as dull in their lighting as they were in their subject matter. Appropriate light can and should be used to help make a statement, but the repetitive use of flat light on boring subject matter makes no statement because it fails to hold the viewers attention. The viewer looks once with disinterest and walks away yawning, to yawn again at the next image. ( I will not be moved by the argument that dull light is the best vehicle for expressing dullness.)

Furthermore, there was no context for the dullness. Ugly development was not shown destroying whole landscapes, but only shown in detail, thus the negative contention that the landscape is being to such intrusive dullness. It could not even be determined that the development was in the West, except by written statements from the photographers that they were there. (I happen to believe that the landscape is being lost to inappropriate random development-I see it everywhere I go-but failed to see it in those photographs.) The photographs not only lacked beauty, but the even lacked the context, and yes, think of beauty...if not in the subject matter they photographed, surely in the prints they produced.

Is beauty a thing of the past? I don't think so. Art will always be based on beauty, and the best art will always be beautiful insightful, surprising, poignant, etc. It will possess qualities opposed to dullness and everyday vision.

Did Rembrandt try to produce ugliness? Did Shakespeare try to use everyday language? Did Puccini run away from a beautiful sonata? Did Dostoevsky shun deep insights? Did Picasso avoid surprise? Did Beethoven sidestep the dramatic? Did Twain shy away from sharp-tongued comments? Did Frank Lloyd Wright shun stunning new ways to meld natural and human interruptions? Will any of these artist's be remembered? Of course! They will be remembered because they were true artist's who produced singularly striking works of art in their fields by remaining true to the essence of art. By contrast, the boring images exhibited in the Whitney Museum will not stand the test of time because they were so devoid of every essential artistic ideal.

The work of the humdrum school will continue to be exhibited in places like the Whitney Museum by curators like Ms. Castleberry, but does that work bring about any new revelations or change anything? I see no evidence of it.. Does it add to the beauty of the world? Not a whit!

But if the same question were asked of the work of Ansel Adams, the answer is a resounding YES! Several national parks owe their very existence to the work done by Ansel. Kings Canyon National Park in California was created after several senators were shown Ansel's photographs of the mountainous realm. The same is true of several other parks and wilderness areas that exist today. Unless the crazies from the the far right wing of the political spectrum have their way, those parks will outlive all of us and will stand forever as a legacy for centuries to come. Ansel's work changed America...for the better and forever.

Ansel's famous "Moonrise over Hernandez," "Monolith, Half Dome," "Yosemite, Clearing Storm,", "Sunrise, Lonepine and the Sierra Nevada," and so many others remain etched in people's minds who have no interface with photography other than in their lasting impressions of individual photographs. Ansel Adams work did indeed have an impact and a pertinence-and continues to have pertinence that the humdrum work displayed at the Whitney Museum could never hope to equal. The reason is simple. Ansel' work is beautiful. It's dramatic. It sings, and we sing with it. It's uplifting to our spirit to see it. It surprises us with its glorious quality of light. We walk away enchanted by what we saw, and it remains a part of our memory. The humdrum school produces nothing that has that effect on us.

So why did the Whitney Museum fill an exhibit on the American West with such and abundance of dull snapshots? I can't answer that. I can't even begin to comprehend and answer. It appears that Ms. Castleberry and the Whitney Museum have lost their bearings concerning art in their search for a social statement. But strong statements must be artistically strong to be effective, to say something, to raise our level of awareness, to make us think, to make us change, to make a difference. Those exhibited at the Whitney failed to make any real statement because they failed miserably as art. Obviously the Whitney and it's curator, Ms. Castleberry, never recognized that failure. My guess is that the public did.

reprinted by permission of the author
copyright 1999.