As shorter days close in, we take on the role of light hunters.
As photographers, we ought always to be seeking and shaping light through, at a minimum, perspective, position, and exposure. But for this exercise, we’ll be looking at light a little differently, seeking specifically to find and photograph light shapes in a meaningful way.
We are accustomed to identifying shadows as shapes; we shoot them often as playful silhouettes cast against the background or as fascinating patterns created by blinds or rails or branches.
But what if we approach our scenes seeking out shapes of light rather than shapes of shadows? And how do we distinguish the two? They can be found in tandem, to be sure: window blinds, for example, throw alternating bars of light and shadow such that rectangular bands of each are clearly present. But a light shape does not always begin where a shadow ends. The key here will be in continuity of edges: a defined, usually clearly enclosed “shape” of light must be present.
Look for intense light that funnels or enters through a limited entry way, then follow it to where the light lands. Though they may be easier to identify in darker settings, light shapes can be found both day and night.
The brighter the environment, the more intense the targeted light has to be to provide sufficient contrast to comprise a distinct shape. And what we’re looking for here are well-defined edges, which can only be produced by hard light.
Having identified one or more light shapes, consider next how you’ll incorporate them compositionally. Does the light shape illuminate something that is meaningful? Or can you move your subject — in whole or in part – into its space? Think about the way a light shape constitutes a limited, highly distinct space of intense illumination: does it expose, does it sanctify, does it scorch?
Careful with your exposure here: there’s a good chance you’re going to have to choose between exposing for the illuminated shape (and preserving the details therein while sacrificing to the shadows the details outside its perimeter) or exposing for the surrounding area (while blowing the details within your light shape).
The best approach will very much depend on your intended subject and the atmosphere you wish to create. Consider carefully what details throughout the frame are most significant to the story you want to tell, and expose accordingly.
The slabs, slants, and shapes of intense, unusually “urgent light” we’ll be seeking were common in American painter Edward Hopper’s work, as the artist studied light shapes intently. “Room in Brooklyn,” “Office at Night,” “Summer Interior,” “Chair Car,” “Hotel by a Railroad,” “Girl at Sewing Machine,” “Sun in an Empty Room,” and “Summer in the City” (and I could go on and on) are all worth examination in this context.
You’ll note in these that while light and shadow are obviously both critical, you can see that the larger role is played by well-defined light shapes. Writing about of Hopper’s “Room by the Sea,” one New York Times critic characterized the work’s parallelogram of light as glaring, penetrating, and “overdetermined, as much psychological as natural.”
Indeed, many photographers avoid the severity of light shapes, perhaps responding to the emotionally (or even negatively), akin to the interpretation of the NYT critic cited above.
There is no denying the aggressive role light shapes play when they are present, and often we seek to work around them rather than with them; how can we instead harness their power to work for, rather than against, us? And even if hard light and harsh edges are not your style, consider playing along purely as an exercise; anything we can do to strengthen and stretch the way our eyes examine the light will benefit us as photographers.
How can you become a more creative photographer? Shoot thoughtfully, experiment frequently, collaborate with fellow artists, and embrace creative and technical challenges. Join me for new photography exercises and creativity assignments! I regularly present creativity exercises for photographers as part of a community challenge for Clickin Moms members.
At the conclusion of the exercise, Editors’ Choice images are selected from among the exercise submissions and shared here with you on the blog. Congratulations to all of the featured photographers, and thank you to all of the members who participated in this exercise!
Be sure to participate in the next exercise! Become a Clickin Moms member (if you aren’t one already!), and join me over on the forum where I have posted the next challenge, “The Lost Art of Copying.” I’d love to see your photos!