Why is lighting important in photography? In the world of fine art photography, light is more than a mere tool; it is an eloquent language of shadows and highlights, a palette of tones and hues that photographers manipulate to create compelling narratives.
The dance between light and shadow, an interplay as timeless as the medium of photography itself, makes up our most prehistoric narratives. However, in the realm of fine art photography, light takes on a transformative role. It’s not merely a source of illumination but an instrument that molds perception, crafts mood and forges the line between reality and imagination.
As American photographer George Eastman once said, “Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
To get to the heart of the significance of light in fine art photography, in this article, we will examine the language of light as a medium and explore the work of two artists who use light as their vehicles to telling their stories: one chasing luminescence and the other chasing shadows.
Light as a Storyteller
In the hands of a fine art photographer, light transforms from a passive element to an active storyteller. Just as a writer carefully selects words, photographers manipulate light to infuse their work with deeper meaning.
Light can guide how our eyes read an image. By harnessing the power of light, photographers guide the viewer’s eye, draw attention to specific elements, and create a narrative depth that transforms the photograph into a story. For instance, highlights clue guide us as viewers as to where to place our attention. Likewise, shadows can hide certain details or they can beckon us to closer inspection.
On the other hand, light itself can act as a subject in the narrative. Its defined presence can have symbolic meaning and its quality can stir certain emotional responses from us. A single beam of light piercing through darkness can symbolize hope, while the interplay of shadows can add layers of mystery and intrigue.
Understanding the Language of Light in Fine Art Photography
As we have begun to uncover light as a universal storyteller in the realm of fine art photography, we understand the ability of light to act as an invisible brush that paints emotions, feelings, and moods on the canvas of our photographs. In other words, it doesn’t merely illuminate; it speaks in a language that can be both subtle and glaringly obvious.
By truly understanding the various nuances and qualities of the language, fine art photographers are able to create compositions that resonate deeply, transporting viewers into the heart of their narrative.
The intensity, direction, and color of light shape the tone and texture of the photograph, each contributing its unique signature to the overall mood. Let’s explore how these characteristics translate into visual storytelling:
The intensity or brightness of light determines the contrast within the scene. Bright, direct light creates high-contrast images with clearly defined shadows and bright highlights, often used to portray a sense of stark reality or bold drama. For instance, Ansel Adams’s famous black and white landscapes demonstrate this use of light’s intensity, creating an enduring, dramatic impact on viewers.
Conversely, soft, diffused light creates low-contrast images, with smooth transitions between light and dark areas. This type of light is common during the golden hour – the short period after sunrise or before sunset – and it brings out a rich range of mid-tones. The tranquility that it infuses into the image can evoke a sense of serenity, romance, or even melancholy. Look at the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, who uses soft light to capture serene seascapes, fostering a sense of ethereal beauty.
The direction of light profoundly affects the appearance of the subject and its surrounding environment. Front light, hitting the subject directly from the front, tends to flatten the features, often used in portraiture to hide wrinkles and blemishes. However, in fine art photography, where the play of shadows is equally crucial, side-lighting and back-lighting often play a prominent role.
Side lighting, where the light hits the subject from one side, reveals texture and creates a sense of depth, giving the image a three-dimensional quality. The long, defined shadows cast by side light add drama and dimensionality, as exemplified in Edward Weston’s Peppers #30.
Backlighting, where the light source is behind the subject, often results in a silhouette effect, creating a sense of mystery or drama. Often this is achieved by shooting toward the sun or a dominant light source and placing your subject directly between you and that light source. Backlit scenes can create a sense of drama or dreaminess. This lighting technique can create strong graphical elements in a composition.
Light’s color, or its color temperature, conveys emotions and sets the tone of the image. Warm light, like the golden rays of the early morning or late afternoon, can produce a comforting, nostalgic, or romantic feel. It reminds viewers of the soft glow of a setting sun or the inviting light of a cozy room.
In contrast, cool light, often seen on overcast days or under the shade, communicates calm, isolation, or melancholy. This type of lighting can create images with a sense of quiet contemplation, as beautifully depicted in the minimalist photography of Michael Kenna.
Each type of light has its language, its tone, and its mood. By listening to these subtle whispers and commanding shouts, fine art photographers not only define their subjects but also create an immersive stage where captivating stories unfold.
Now that we have a grasp on the language of light, let’s examine how two photographers in particular, Trent Parke and Viviane Sassen, harness this expression in their works.
Chasing Light and Chasing Shadows
Fine art photographers don’t merely capture light; they chase shadows, seeking the perfect balance between darkness and light. It’s this chase that enables them to create images that resonate with emotion and tell captivating stories, making every photograph a unique piece of art.
Every photograph resonates with the mood established by the artist, and the creative manipulation of light allows photographers to blur the boundaries of reality and create a realm that exists somewhere between the real world and the imaginative mind of the artist. Two artists that harness this ability to bend light and meaning in projecting a message and mood are Trent Parke and Viviane Sassen.
Trent Parke: Crafting Moods with Light
By using techniques like long exposure, light painting, or chiaroscuro, photographers can distort reality, playing with the viewer’s perception and creating imagery that transcends the ordinary. This distorted reality offers an alternative perspective, enabling viewers to experience the world through the artist’s unique lens.
Trent Parke, an Australian street photographer and member of the prestigious Magnum Photos, has an intimate relationship with light, which is often seen as the defining characteristic of his work. He masterfully uses light and shadow to create stark, high-contrast images that narrate compelling stories about life, nature, and the human condition.
Whether it’s the unforgiving glare of the Australian sun creating intense, deep shadows, or the softer, diffused light of twilight lending a surreal quality to his scenes, Parke’s manipulation of light is strategic, poetic, and evocative.
“Glowing Man” is a striking image from Trent Parke’s series “The Christmas Tree Bucket.” In this photograph, Parke uses light not just as an illumination tool, but as a principal character, leading the narrative of the image.
The photograph features a man seemingly engulfed in radiant light, his figure glowing against a backdrop of darkness. Here, Parke has masterfully harnessed the power of light to transform an ordinary scene into a fantastical and surreal spectacle. The ethereal glow emanating from the figure creates an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue, inviting viewers to decipher the narrative lurking beneath the striking play of light and shadow.
To achieve the effect of the Glowing Man, Trent Parke sought out areas highly contrasted areas of light in otherwise dimly lit environments. Then, measuring his exposure on his camera meter for the dim interior, he consciously places his subject in lightly colored clothing in those pockets of extreme light. These bright clothes served to bounce even more highlights back onto the image frame, resulting in the photographic effect of fading the subject to white.
Check out this fantastic explanation and recreation of the technique Trent Parke used to make his Glowing Man shine.
Ultimately, this photograph is a testament to Parke’s deft understanding and manipulation of light, underlining its potential to drastically alter a scene and deeply influence the emotional response of the viewer.
In “Glowing Man,” Parke uses light to take us beyond the realms of the ordinary and into the realm of imagination. The glowing of the man reveals to us the narrative itself, of a figure transcending the transient through light, demonstrating its crucial role as a storytelling tool in photography.
Viviane Sassen: Mastering the Dance of Shadows
Shadows create depth and add volume to objects. They help highlight the form of the subject, enhancing the sense of three-dimensionality. More importantly, shadows are integral to the creation of mood and atmosphere. They can either be a subtle whisper in the background or a loud proclamation dominating the scene.
Viviane Sassen, a Dutch artist known for her work in fashion and fine art photography, has received both acclaim and criticism for her depictions of Africa and Africans. Her photography is heavily influenced by her childhood spent in Kenya, which fostered her fascination with Africa, its people, and its landscapes.
Sassen’s work often includes abstract, vibrant, and dreamlike images that stand in contrast to stereotypical depictions of Africa. However, her work has also been subject to critique. Some critics argue that despite her innovative approach, her photographs, particularly those in her “Flamboya” series, risk exoticizing or othering their subjects, perpetuating a form of visual colonialism.
But if we look at Sassen’s technique, we can see how light and shadow are central to her narratives. Just as in Trent Parke’s work, we saw how starkly contrasted lighting environments provided areas of extreme highlight. We also examined how measuring the exposure for the dim areas created an overexposure in the highlights.
With Sassen’s African portraiture, we see the opposite effect. Here the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows.
Sassen ultimately exposes for the brightly lit clothing, leaving the face and identity of her subject underexposed in the shadows. This blacking out and blurring of identity, is central to the reading of her narratives. In this video, you can hear Viviane Sassen describe her process as central to her intentions.
Critics argue that even though Sassen’s intention is to break away from clichés, she might unintentionally be perpetuating a form of the ‘white gaze’, where the perspective is rooted in a Western viewpoint, potentially limiting the authentic representation of her subjects.
However, these criticisms are part of a broader, ongoing discussion about representation, perspective, and power dynamics in art and photography, rather than a universally accepted view of Sassen’s work. It’s important to note that her work also has many supporters who value her unique aesthetic and her effort to portray Africa from a perspective different from the typical Western narratives.
What do you think about her work?
Finding Harmony: Why is Lighting Important in Photography?
The essence of answering the question of why is lighting important in photography lies in the chase of light and shadow. As explored in the works of Trent Parke and Viviane Sassen, a key to mastering the art of photography lies in its constant play with light, a pursuit to capture that elusive moment when light and shadow dance in perfect harmony.
In fine art photography, light is the magic that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, the mundane into the sublime. It is a painter’s brush, a sculptor’s chisel, a writer’s pen. It is the heart and soul of the image. By chasing shadows, fine art photographers weave narratives of light, crafting images that blur the line between reality and imagination.
To understand and master the language of light is to unlock the infinite potential of this poetic medium. As the renowned photographer Leo Tolstoy eloquently put it, “All the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.”
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