Long before I called myself a photographer, I was struck by the beauty of light seeping into buildings.
Street scenes such as Afternoon Chat by Fan Ho or Grand Central Terminal by Hal Morey have been etched in my mind, and as much as the scene is interesting in itself, it is the dramatic shafts of light that contribute to the striking beauty of the portrait. I love to dream about how this light must have been a regular occurrence in olden days, when cities were filled with smog or buildings were thick with smoke from cigarettes, which I’m imagining are the types of environment in which Fan Ho and Hal Morey created their beautiful pieces of work.
So how can we create the perfect conditions in our own homes for capturing life’s moments in some magical shafts of light?
1. The Light
For any image, light is everything. For images with dramatic rays, it helps to seek light with special qualities.
Look for hard light shining through windows and creating harsh shadows on floors and walls. Note how the light changes around your house, depending on the time of day and season. Capturing this type of dramatic light will be easier towards the start or end of the day, when the sun is lower and will be shining directly through your windows.
Light changes so much in my own house as the seasons evolve. I captured many of the images shown in this article around autumn and winter. Now we are entering spring and summer here in Australia and the sun rises so quickly in the morning that it’s hard for me to capture the morning rays in this room now. However, the rooms at the back of my house receive some gorgeous golden sunset light at this time of year, so I turn my focus to that part of the house.
2. The Haze
There are many ways to create the haze that helps to capture these beautiful rays. For these images I used a little fog machine, which I bought from a local homeware store for $40. These machines give off quite a bit of smoke fairly quickly, so I let it puff away with the door shut for a little while, and then I wait for the wispy smoke to settle into a soft haze. Once I am happy with the haze, I ask the kids to come in and play! Here’s a fun behind-the-scenes video I recorded to show you…
I have also seen images where the photographer has burned food, sometimes accidentally and others intentionally! Make some pancakes, burn toast or sizzle some bacon in the morning and watch as the stunning early light of the day is captured in shafts of hazy light. I’ve seen other images where the photographer has shaken dusty old rugs or thrown flour into the air so that the particles sparkle in the path of the rays. There’s also water spray, so if your bathroom window catches some beautiful rays, get your kids (or yourself!) in the shower/bath at the right time of day for the light and capture it in water droplets and steam.
3. The Shadows
You will also need to consider the shadows. Capturing shafts or rays of light is more effective when the light is contrasted against a darker background. Shooting straight on to a window won’t result in an abundance of dramatic light rays as they will blend with the general light from the window. You need to position your camera at an angle that will capture light on dark.
4. Getting Playful with Patterns
Playing with different shapes in front of the light source can be fun. I used shutters for most of my images shown in this article, as I loved the long rays created through the slats. However, I used a patterned blind for the below image of my son playing with a rocket as it added more texture and interest to the image. Play around with different patterned net curtains/fabric in front of the window. Venetian blinds with thin strips will give a different effect to the wide slats on my plantation shutters. One large window with no inner grid will produce one large shaft of light, spotlighting your subject.
Above all, have fun!
My kids loved playing in the fog (although it can get a bit thick so I didn’t let them play in it for too long), and I fell in love with the dramatic light that it captured, so we all made some sweet memories together!