Light – and the absence of light – is inherent in all photography. Photography literally means: “Writing with light”. The amount of light coming in your sensor will ultimately determine what your image will look like from an exposure perspective. But light is far from being neutral – it shapes your image, it emphasizes your story, and can ultimately transform the reality to create new worlds as mysterious and powerful as those found in our dreams. Knowing when and how to use light is key to creating greater impact with your photography.
In this chapter, I explain and analyze 4 different effects that light can have on your image and your story, looking at it as a continuum: from very basic tonal differentiation to radical light transformation. The transformative power of light has no limit - it is a world of possibilities that I encourage you to explore. Now.
1. Creating separation
At the very basic level, light acts as a separator between your subject and the background. Back to the core of our perceptions, the human mind can only distinguish elements in visual art if, and only if, they have different colors or shades of a similar color. In B&W photography, when colors are de facto absent from your composition, the only way to define your subject vs. the background is to create tonal differentiation. In other words, you need to capture elements with different values of light if you want them to be distinct from one another.
Separation: Light subject vs. darker background
In this image, the lady walking is clearly distinguishable against the background. In fact, I waited for that very moment to take the shot, as I wanted her head and face to contrast against the background. Since I was range-focusing (i.e., using a small f-stop to ensure that a maximum number of possible subjects would be in focus, regardless of their distance from me). Although useful, this technique also brings far too many distractions: foreground and background tend to be a long continuation from another, making it hard to separate the subject from its environment.
Separation: Dark subject vs. lighter background
Tonal differentiation also works the other way, with a darker subject positioned in a lighter background, as in the photograph here. In both cases, the distinction between figures and ground is clear and indisputable, which is the basic essence of traditional composition. The separation in this image is further created by the shallow depth of field, a useful tool to bring up subjects at close range.
2. Generating emphasis
A more advanced use of light in your composition can allow you to emphasize your main subject. In other words, light can help create better stories if used smartly and appropriately. Think about how light, and its opposite – darkness - can contribute to your composition: leading lines, blockers, frames, negative space. All those elements will support your story by leading the eyes to what really matters – and get rid of what doesn’t.
Emphasis: The effect of selective lighting
In this image, the use of light is more sophisticated: it shapes the story and the image. By applying light and darkness selectively – in areas within the arcades, I not only clearly separate my subject but also isolate her, thus creating that feeling of silence and strange quietness that seems to fall on her. The eyes are unmistakably attracted to her, while the exploration of the darker zones on her right and left leaves us wondering what can be hiding behind.
Emphasis: Leveraging negative space
Another purposeful use of light is negative space. Dark negative space brings up feeling of loneliness and silence, while light negative space will generally convey more positive feelings. In this shot, the negative space not only highlights the two subjects, but also brings them in contrast to the wide and empty city behind. The eyes move from the couple to the massive city sleeping behind them, structured and shaped by light and dark. The sense of perspective is amplified by the tonal variations at the center vs. extremity of the city, providing an interesting counterpoint to the couple.
Emphasis: Leading the eyes to what matters
Light can also act a blocker, like that shiny ray of light on the steel of the bridge in the picture below. The line created separates the photograph into two distinct areas: the dark part of the left, where our eyes do not want to stay or linger too long, and the brighter part on the right where the subject stands. As a result, more emphasis is given to the subject, as the eyes are forced to shift on the right and rest on the illuminated face of the woman.
3. Adding substance
Furthermore, light can create elements of its own – secondary actors that will help you tell a more subtle and powerful story: silhouettes, shadows, reflections. Those elements often convey more mystery and depth to your stories, helping to emphasize underlying emotions in your images. Those elements will create substance if they reinforce your existing story – which means, if they do not contradict the story in place.
Substance: Creating meaningful atmosphere
Light can add tremendous substance and depth to the story when it generates additional atmosphere. The light in this image is making the shot: this is because the atmosphere is misty and mysterious that our eyes wonder a little longer. The scene itself and the protagonists do very little to capture our attention, but placed within this explosion of light, they become timeless and memorable, just as the story.
Substance: Capturing stolen reflections
The sun has this wonderful aptitude to create new elements in photographs. Reflections are one of those elements that only light can create, and, if used properly, will add significant substance to your story. In the photograph below, the little girl looking beyond the window is facing her own reflection. Elements respond to one another – as if her reflection was an extension of herself, and extension of hey journey into her mind.
Substance: Shadows as extension
Shadows – that other artifact created by light – have a strong symbolic value. They tend to show that we are dual in our humanity, that there are two of us – the dark and the light, the reality and the dream. In the picture below, the shadow of that little girl is enhancing the story, not creating conflict as we could suppose so. That little girl alone imitates the world of adults as she proudly wears her feminine hat, yet behaves like a child in her attitude and posture. Her shadow and negative space around only enhance that story by offering a representation of that world of hers, of that imaginary place where she stands – bridging the seemingly separate worlds of childhood and adulthood.
4. Creating tension
The most powerful impact of light that can be found in photography is to create meaning. When new elements created by light – or absence of light – detract and contradict the story in place, you are in fact creating new meaning. This is probably the most interesting and inspiring use of light for street photographers. New meaning will be created if, at the end of the day, elements with contradictory meaning come together to form a greater whole. This is the power of opposites – stirring emotions in multiple directions to create, ultimately, meaningful tension.
Tension: The opposition of light and dark
Tension is born out of the confrontation of opposites. Light and dark are in constant opposition with one another, and are associated with opposite feelings as well, as we already discussed in this article. In the photograph below, elements created by light do not act as an extension of the characters, but appear in total contradiction. The beautiful woman rests in the dark, while the strange-looking woman with naked legs is in the light. This inherent contradiction creates a feeling of mystery: the beautiful woman is not who she seems to be. From that dark corner, she seems to hide a secret that she will never share
Tension: What lies beyond the frame
Tension can be created by what is suggested to the viewer. Light in this picture contributes to create an atmosphere of film noir, in opposition with the relatively simple scene in front of us. The fact that the light seems to originate from outside the frame adds an extra dimension to the picture: the mind cannot help but imagine the source of the light, the proximity to the subject, the speed at which it may be coming. So much can be said about not saying too much – like in this picture!
Tension: What's hidden in the dark
Light can also transform and personify ordinary objects. In this photograph, light is not only acting as negative space. In fact, it brings together two key elements in the story: on one side, the group of people happily walking. On the other side, hidden in the dark, the shadow of a car coming at them. There is a strange and powerful contradiction between those two elements, and the car can easily be perceived as another character of its own – with motives of its own. As a result, the image conveys a threatening feeling, a sense of cinematographic drama that gives a totally new meaning to the image.
Hope you enjoyed this article... and to the next and final chapter of this book very soon!