This newest challenge is deceptively simple: to identify, shoot, and produce a photograph predicated entirely on light.
It’s not enough that your image has beautiful light or that you use light to enhance your subject; the goal is to capture an image that integrates light in a way that is so unusual, so beautiful, or so compelling that the viewer can’t help but remark on the light itself.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate your normal subject matter if you wish (doing so can be a challenge in its own right), but your goal will be to ensure that the visual strength or interestingness of the light will be as noteworthy as your “main” subject (such as a person, object, or scene).
If you’re feeling ready, you have all the info you need to tackle this challenge, so pick up your camera and head out! If you’re feeling uncertain, intimidated, or are looking for more guidance, training, or inspiration to approaching the exercise (or even your photography altogether!), then read on.
As photographers, we know full well the importance of visual training. We learn to pay attention to details, to anticipate moments, to isolate design elements, to explore perspective, and – of course – to train our eyes to recognize and utilize the light. A good place to start is by taking inventory of the light in your home. From there, you can expand to your yard, your neighborhood, or new places — but start by training your eyes to see your everyday environment in new ways. Here are a few simple but incredibly eye-opening exercises:
1. Keep a light journal
Buy a small, sturdy notebook (Moleskine and Miquelrius notebooks are my favorites!) to use as a light journal. Here you will record your observations about the light in your home. If possible, you’ll want to block out a full day each time you do this exercise. The morning of the exercise, write the date and your wake-up time at the top of page one. Walk around your house until you find ONE room in which the light itself catches your eye. Stop in this room and make notes in your notebook. Is the light warm or cool? Is it hard or soft? Is it abundant or minimal? Is it producing any interesting patterns? Is it causing any surfaces to throw color casts? What shadows are produced in the room? Three hours later, do it again: write the time and date on a new page of the journal, and walk around the house until you find an area with noteworthy light (it’s okay if it’s the same room!). Record your observations. Repeat every three hours until you go to bed. Your journal might look something like:
July 1, 2015 – 7am: LIVING ROOM
After several episodes of study and recorded observations, you’ll find that you have not only begun to hone your observation skills when it comes to the light but have the foundation of incredible personal resource in the pages of your notebook (one which you’re likely to reference often).
2. Identify all of the highly reflective surfaces in and around your home
When light hits a surface, it either scatters back as diffused reflection, or — if the surface is smooth and homogenous — bounces back as a mirrored image. Add a section to your light journal to note the highly reflective surfaces throughout your home. Take inventory of each room, identifying the smooth and shiny surfaces such as glass, metal, water, tile, granite, and wood — all of which are likely to produce specular reflections. Areas that host these surfaces are good candidates for interesting interactions with light as it changes throughout the day.
3. Study a single room
Identify a room or area that appears prominently in the light journal — that is, one that hosts significant or interesting light throughout the day, especially if it also contains reflective surfaces. This time, instead of actively exploring your house to seek out interesting light, write down the date and room, then make note of the present weather and simply observe the light within your selected room, returning to it at intervals (every hour if you can) throughout the day. What is the light like in this room at 7a? At 10a? At 1p? At 4p? At 7p? Some of these time periods, the light may be underwhelming or even absent, and you’ll want to note that, too! Your journal might look something like:
July 2, 2015
7am: [weather conditions] + [observations] 10am: [weather conditions] + [observations] 1pm: [weather conditions] + [observations] 4pm: [weather conditions] + [observations] 7pm: [weather conditions] + [observations]
Develop more comprehensive notes about your selected space by continuing to study it during different seasons (this is the reason recording the date is helpful in your notes) and on days of markedly different weather (clear, cloudy, overcast, rainy, snowy). Expand the breadth of your light journal by creating time-of-day notes on other rooms as well.
4. Photograph a time lapse series with a static subject
You’ll notice that the three prior exercise don’t actually require a camera, and you may be itching to shoot! As in the prior exercise, choose or place an object in an area that you know or suspect receives significant or interesting light throughout the day (probably somewhere within proximity of a window). Spend several days or more photographing this unmoving object every few hours. Maintain the same perspective for at least one shot each period. Moving around can be tremendously enlightening so you can see how your position influences your perception of the light, but get at least one shot from the same location each time for ease of comparison. Consider establishing some additional controls to ground your study of the object in the room, such as:
- Leave the color temperature of your camera set to 5500K for the study so you can observe visually how weather and time of day affect the color of light and perhaps even the color casts produced within the room throughout the day.
- Keep your aperture, shutter speed, and ISO stable so that you can visually observe the abundance and location of light as it intensifies or slips away throughout the day.
- Alternatively, adjust ONLY your shutter speed or ISO to achieve correct exposure each period, recording the difference in stops throughout the day.
Wait until you have at least a dozen images (or two days worth of study), then pull them all up on your screen together, compare them, and make notes about the difference in angles, quantity, quality, and color of light.
Now that you’ve spent some time exploring light and honing your ability to recognize opportunities, come back to the original challenge: capture an image that integrates light in a way that is so unusual, so beautiful, or so compelling that the viewer can’t help but remark on the light itself. You may use the info gathered in your light journal to guide you towards a corner where the light dances in the evening, a glass door that throws back a fascinating pattern of light and shadow, or a room that catches magical specks of light every morning. Or perhaps you will venture beyond the home, applying your new knowledge and more acute awareness of light and its nuances to seek out or watch for opportunities outdoors or on-location. Just remember that your goal is to elicit commentary about the LIGHT — nothing else should (forgive the pun) outshine it.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges.