This is the first in a series on basic photography theory, something to help budding photographers take their imagery to the next level. It’s not designed to teach specific techniques or styles, but simply to invoke thought.
Nearly any person you meet will have a camera with them anywhere they go, whether it’s a full fledged interchangeable lens system, a waterproof action cam, or their cell phone. With that many camera out in the world there’s that many more images that people see every day, either online, in books or magazines, or while out around town. With photography being so commonplace in today’s lifestyle, it’s easy to forget where it came from.
Photography comes from the Greek words φωτός (phōtos) “light” and γραφή (graphé) “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light.”
With a definition like that, it should come as no surprise how critical lighting is for photography. What might be surprising is just how much difference lighting can have on an image.
Here are three images were taken inside of the Reagan Center in downtown Washington DC. This first one was taken years ago on a high school field trip, with a basic film camera and an on-body flash.
I had managed to be in this building at the right time of day for the sun to shine through the skylight and illuminate the back wall. Using a flash unit helped to add a bit of fill light to the large area, but over-illuminated the lamppost. Without that flash, the lamp post would’ve been as dark as the area around it, essentially turning the entire right side of the image into negative space. I haven’t talked about composition yet, (it’ll be a later post,) but it’s the arrangement of bright and dark areas that make this image engaging to look at. The bright areas pull your eyes to the top of the image, following the lines and curves of the lamp and skylight.
Years later, I revisited that location, and I attempted to reshoot that image in digital. I had gone at a different time of day than before, which made for different lighting through the skylights. I also didn’t have a flash with me. Something I did have however, was the ability to shoot in color.
There is no bright skylight pattern on the back wall and, while the lamp still stands out from its background, it’s not because of lighting but because of the coloring. The dark grey post differs from the white columns and the marbled orange lamp glass differs from the angular blue skylight.
Taking this same image and converting it to black and white, we see its vastly different than the earlier shot.
The lamp is practically invisible, it blends in so well with the background.
All three of these images have the same subject, and the same composition. It’s the lighting is the only thing that’s changed between them, yet that’s enough to make each a significantly different image. The first image is an abstract piece while the last image starts with being chaotic in the top right corner and transitions into order as the viewer shifts to the bottom left. The colored image between them is something else.