by Harry Flashman
Introducing some darkness
Everyone who embarks on the study of photography
meets a definition of photography as “painting
with light”. Whilst you certainly need light to
be able to record an image, lighting is not the
be all and end all of photography. In fact, too
much lighting is detrimental for any outstanding
1 - Circle or ball?
So, you need light to be able to record an
image, but you need “dark” (otherwise known as
“shadow”), to give the subject being
photographed some form. Using light in all its
directions and intensities to illuminate your
subject is really only part of the art of
photography. The other part is to “paint with
When a young photographer first gets his
‘professional’ lighting equipment, he (or she)
tends to flood everything with enormous light
levels and from all directions, made possible by
the electronic flash. Every part of every
subject is totally covered with the light, and
the new young photographer is delighted with the
fact that there are no dark corners left unlit.
Unfortunately, there is something missing from
these types of shots. And that is a certain lack
of form or shape. The only contrast in the
highly illuminated final photograph relies
totally on color. Yellows on blue are very
popular under these circumstances. I, too, in my
early days, have photographed a model in a
yellow dress against a blue doorway. Super shot,
but missing something, but at the time I didn’t
know exactly what that was.
Example 2 - Extreme
light and shadow.
The item that was missing is the third
dimension. On any photograph you get a two
dimensional image - height and width. However,
the third dimension, depth, is totally missing.
This third dimension, the so-called 3D effect
can only be produced by some visual trickery,
which we call ‘shadow’. It is the shadow which
differentiates a circle from a ball, but if you
blast the spherical subject with so much light
that there is no shadow, the final result has no
shape, no depth, no 3D effect (see example 1).
This is why the photographer has to use shadow
to give the impression of the third dimension.
This makes a 2D image look like a 3D one, and is
done by careful manipulation of both the
lighting and the shadows.
Take the outdoors situation, for example. We
always suggest to the novices that they should
photograph early in the morning or late in the
afternoon. Do not shoot in the middle of the
day. One reason for this is because in the early
mornings and late afternoons the lighting (from
the sun) is directional, skimming along the top
of the earth’s surface, and makes for plenty of
shadow. In the middle of the day, however, the
sun is directly overhead and does not make for
pleasant shadows, and even landscapes will look
flat and featureless. Look at some of the famous
landscapes done by Ansel Adams and you will see
what I mean. For a photographer, the middle of
the day is purely for siestas, not for
photography. It does mean that you get up at
some dreadful early hours in the morning to
drive to the location, but the end result is
worth it (((see example 2).
One of the problems with new digitals is the
powerful on-camera flash. This pops up at any
time and overpowers the natural lighting, and
being centrally mounted makes for a photograph
flooded with light, but no real shadow. If you
disable the on-camera flash, you will also get
better photographs, other than after sundown,
where you need some light source to be able to
register an image, but try altering the ISO
rating before using flash.
Portraiture - a difficult branch of photography?
friend of mine is doing a photography course by correspondence, and the
latest test is portraits. A very important subject, since portraits of
people represent around 90 percent of all photographs. With portraits, names
like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon come immediately to mind. Many
portraitists, especially as photo technology improved, have produced
spectacular portraits with dramatic flash strobe lighting, or have used
amazing props to give the photo just that little something extra, but was
that really needed? I would suggest No!
Look at this week’s photograph, that of the eminent historian Thomas
Carlyle. It was taken in 1867 and is ranked as one of the most powerful
portraits in the history of photography. I have written about this before,
but it stands repetition. This is photography with a capital P!
Now look again - technically it is imperfect. There is blurring of the
image, but when you realize that the shutter was open for probably around
three minutes, then you can see why. The sitter could not possibly remain
motionless for that period of time.
The dynamics of this shot come from the very first principles of photography
- painting with light. It is not the subject - it is the way you light the
subject. The light is falling on the sitter almost from the side and
slightly above. One eye is partially lit and the other in shadow. The hair
and beard show up strongly. The photo is totally confrontational.
Analyze further. If the face had been front lit, and both eyes, the nose and
the mouth were all clearly visible then there would be no air of mystery.
The dark shadow areas of the photograph have made you look further into it.
You begin to imagine what the features were like. You also begin to imagine
what the person was like. You have just experienced the “perfect” portrait.
The shot was taken by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 - 1879), a British lady
who had been raised in India, in the days of the British Raj. Surrounded by
servants, she had never had to do anything for herself, and yet, in her late
forties she took up the new-fangled notion of photography. This was not the
age of the point and shoot simplicity we enjoy today. This was the age of
making your own photographic plates by painting a mixture of chemicals all
over it - chemicals you mixed yourself - exposing the plate in a wooden box
camera and then fixing the negative in more chemicals and finally making a
It was the 29th of January 1864 when Mrs. Cameron finally produced her first
usable print. She had made the exposure at 1 p.m. and in her diary recorded
the fact that by 8 p.m. she had made and framed the final print. (And you
think you are doing it tough if you have to wait two hours, instead of one!)
However, she would not have managed to photograph so many of the notables of
the era had it not been for her next door neighbor, the Poet Laureate,
Alfred Lord Tennyson. After Tennyson saw his portrait he persuaded his
eminent friends to sit for her as well. Most of these portraits were
different from the Thomas Carlyle photograph in that they were taken in
profile. Mrs. Cameron felt that the innate intelligence could be more easily
seen in the profile and this may have been the result of the influence of
the quasi-science of Phrenology, whereby your cranial bumps showed your true
talents, which was all the rage at that time!
Julia Margaret Cameron contributed to photography by showing that it is the
eye of the photographer that dictates the photograph, not the “smartness” of
So you can stop reading the photographic magazines to see if you should buy
the latest offering with 300 megapixels and one zillionth of a second
shutter speed and dedicated flash power for up to three kilometers and just
go out and take photographs with what you have got. Look at what is in front
of you and “make” your own photographs “work” for you. Thus endeth the
inspirational lesson. Thank you Mrs. Cameron. Class dismissed!
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