I am obsessed with light. I guess that’s a rather obvious statement considering that I am a photographer and we paint with light, but… I’m really really obsessed with light. To the point that it’s obnoxious. Bad lighting – lighting that’s too dim or too harsh and coming in at an unflattering angle – drives me completely bananas. The dressing rooms at H&M on 5th Avenue have this terrible, harsh overhead lighting that puts deep shadows under your eyes and makes it difficult to see what you’re trying on and how it will look in the real world. I’ve written them several letters (because I am a crazy person) trying to explain the problem with their lighting and how they could fix it. They always say they’ll consider it, and send me a coupon, but they never change it. (Not that I actually expect them to; it just makes me feel better to tell them.) I finally had to stop shopping there, because I just couldn’t handle the unflattering lighting.
On the other hand, pretty light will literally stop me in my tracks. On our flight to Hawaii, the light coming in through my little airplane window was unbelievable. We were flying into the sunset and the light reflected on the Pacific Ocean was so golden and beautiful. I spent an hour photographing my glass of wine and my engagement ring (the only two objects at hand) from different angles with my iPhone (because my camera was out of reach), shifting in my seat and bending the light in various ways. At one point I briefly thought about asking the couple in front of us if I could take their photograph, but luckily my craziness does have some limits. “Are you actually going to drink any of that wine?” John asked after an hour. “Yeah, when the sun goes down,” I replied. (Can we give John some kind of trophy for being married to me?)
If you’re interested in photography, you have to love light and you have to be able to really see the light. In any and every situation. It can drive you mad, but it will make you a really great photographer. If you can see the light, understand how it’s falling on your subject, and know how you can manipulate that light, then you will be able to create beautiful photographs on any kind of camera – from an iPhone to a dSLR.
The only way to start understanding light is to practice and play with it. Photograph the same thing in the same spot at different times of day and in different weather. Even different seasons will produce different types of light. January light is completely different from July light. Examine how light falls on someone’s face in different situations and think about whether that particular light is flattering on the face – is falling evenly on the face or are there hot spots and deep shadows? Direct overhead sunlight, dim lighting in a restaurant, sunset light. Put the light directly on someone, then turn them around and photograph them with the light behind them. How does it look when half of someone’s face is illuminated and half is not? Take a photograph with the sun actually in the frame with your subject, then recompose and put the sun just out of frame. How is each photograph different? You’re going to start to see huge differences, and you’ll be able to walk into any lighting situation and see – I need to turn these people this way or that way to get the result that I want.
Playing with light in different situations is also a great way to master correct exposure. I can usually walk into any situation and have a pretty close guess on what my shutter speed, ISO, and aperture should be to get the result that I want. I will walk in, look around, set my camera for what I think it should be, and then take a quick glance at my light meter to see if I need to make any adjustments. Usually my first guess is pretty accurate, and it’s great for wedding days when you’re moving from scene to scene, room to room, and the lighting can change in an instant. Being able to immediately have a good idea of what my settings need to be for correct exposure is just something that has become second nature to me, after years of practice and taking thousands of photographs that were exposed incorrectly. (Playing with different types of light will also help you learn when your light meter is lying to you, because your light meter can be wrong in certain situations. Sometimes you need to let your instinct overrule your light meter.)
While it would be great if I could always shoot in soft, pretty sunset light, the fact is that sometimes I have to shoot portraits outside at noon in July, or weddings inside at 8pm in the winter. And I need to deliver consistently beautiful photographs. Learning to see the light and understanding how it falls on a subject is an important first step for any photographer. So grab a camera and go play outside and see what happens.