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Thursday, 08 October 2020


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I am not sure I agree with the not being able to teach it. If someone can learn to become attuned to it then it can be taught. What I suspect is that it takes a long time. It’s a bit like saying we can’t teach creativity. Yet we are all inherently creative. It’s just we were trained out of it at school and need to learn how to do it again.

But I think the point is really about how important seeing and playing with light is to our love of photography. Which is so true.

I see a post from Len Metcalf, the person who introduced me to the concept of "luminous photographs" in an article published in On Landscape.

Permit me to quote from Len's wonderful article,

When I think of a beautiful photograph that is full of luminosity, I am considering how the highlights glow and are separated from the other tones within the image. How my eyes are lead through the image by the highlights. I like to call this ‘the dance of the highlights’. In a luminous image the subject appears to glow.

Here's the link: https://www.onlandscape.co.uk/2016/04/luminous-photographs/

“The Sun will rise and fall regardless. What we choose to do with the light while it’s here is up to us. Journey wisely.”

As an aside, I used to follow Paolo Roversi a lot and loved his work, back in the '90's, when I was somebody. The studio I worked for did a lot of fashion and his work was prominently featured in "W" magazine, which we used to get. Fashion photos on an 8X10 view camera! Whew!

I feel the same way about the whole of photography; from image capture to editing to print, and even to display lighting. Anyone can learn the techniques. The hard part is deciding when, where and to what degree to apply those techniques. The most important tools are between the ears.

"Photography has given me many gifts. The best of them is a pure and simple enjoyment of light."


Albert Watson has described a very useful exercise on learning to see and control light. Spend a day doing what he describes & you'll gain a lot.

Large light sources relative to the subject create soft or no shadows. A small light source relative to the subject, such as the sun in the sky, with no clouds to diffuse and enlarge the area of the source produces sharp edged shadows.

All you then need to worry about is the position of the light source, or sources, in relationship to the subject, plus its colour temperature. (Warm sunlight at the beginning and end of the day as it has to travel a greater distance through the earth's atmosphere than at noon, when directly above.)

Innocent fun looking that'll keep you amazed & wondering for a lifetime.

Interesting story about Annie L., and I have to say that I had a number of years overseeing photo crews in Florida working on spring catalog fashion shots back in the 90's. There were a lot of freelance pick-up stylists, lighting techs, and assistants down there for the season, and my own crew assistants would end up carousing with those people almost every night we were there (waking up hung-over photo assistants at 4:30 in the morning for a 5:30 call time was a greater part of the job!).

Needless to say, there was a lot of gossip from the group, at large, about working with the "greats' in NYC and California, and one of the stories (among many others) was about how dependent Ms. L was in relying on "lighting tech" photo assistants to get her projects done! After the initial lighting was set up, there was a lot of "moving the lights around" and taking multitudinous Polaroids until there was something that she saw and "liked".

Not the previsualization we were all led to believe happens with the pros. Of course, this all falls under the "take it with a grain of salt" category, and of course, people always like to dish about the foibles of the 'greats'. That you have a story that she wouldn't have realized she was in a nice lighting situation until after the "on-the-fly" pictures came out, seems to play right into this.

All our heroes are human!

In 1972, I was hired as an intern/assistant/general dogsbody at a small, strictly non-Hollywood film production company. We made what were called in those days “industrial” movies (basically short films made to promote and/or sell a product) and also made many training filmstrips, mostly for the fast-food industry. (For the younger set, I should explain that a filmstrip is a series of photographs arranged in a story-telling sequence on a single strip of film and shown by means of a special projector.)

I had been involved with photography since 1968, and was eagerly looking for a way to make a career out of it.

My first out-of-the studio assignment was to go along as a helper on a shoot for some audio-visual training filmstrips for Arby’s Roast Beef. We went to a brand new store in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where everything was still sparkling new and clean.

As I said, my company was by no means a large operation. Usually, a two-man team was sent out on jobs like this: a director, who was also in many cases the script writer, and a photographer. I was just along to help out and to gain experience.

Our lighting setup for this kind of work usually consisted of three 1000-watt daylight blue tungsten floodlight bulbs in 18-inch reflectors which we called “scoops.” I was salivating with anticipation, because this was finally my chance to learn all about lighting ratios and exotic stuff like that.

We set up the lights at the work area and the photographer moved them around a bit. He turned to the director and said, “That look okay to you?” The director said, “Looks good to me. Shoot it.”

And thereby I learned the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned about photography: photography is all about how things look. If it looks good, it is good. Shoot it!

Speaking of observing light, for me the most interesting artist of our time is James Turrell, specifically his "skyspaces". They're (semi) outdoor installations that allow viewers to observe the sky in subtly (or not so subtly) changing light conditions. Would love to read Mike's experience of visiting a skyspace, especially a dawn or dusk session, which really can be transcendant.

My previous comment short-sightedly didn’t mention the inverse-square law – essential knowledge when using small light sources. Be it natural light from a window or artificial.

Think of a candle, lighting the surface of a piece of bread a foot from the flame. Now imagine the candle light is a spoonful of jam evenly spread across the bread. However, if bread is placed two feet, double the distance from the candle, the same amount of light will spread out to cover four pieces, with each getting only a quarter of the light (spoonful of jam). Double the distance again to four feet between the flame and the bread, when the same amount of light (spoonful of jam) will be covering sixteen slices of bread. Doubling the distance between a small light source and a surface, requires not twice as much light but four times, to record the same tone/s. That’s the Inverse Square law, or if you prefer, The Toast and Jam law. Hence the futility of small in-camera flashes at concerts and sports event.

To read up on this and other immutable lighting topics, the best book I’m aware of is ‘Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting’ by Fil Hunter, Paul Fuqua, and Steven Biver. Straightforward, clear and thorough. Every other book I have seen about photographic lighting, seem to be comprised of author photographs and lighting diagrams, but with scant reference to first principles.

As for Annie Liebovitz, it’s hardly a surprise she used to rely on lighting technicians. Surely her real skill was to recognise and engagingly amplify visually significant elements of celebrities, thereby both consolidating and enhancing their celebrity. My understanding is that she had an agent who would guarantee placement of her photographs in a number of well-regarded magazines, if her subjects went along with her ideas.

Hence, Clint Eastwood, who notoriously dislikes being photographed, tolerating being tied to a post in the middle of a film set. Bonds the viewer know he’ll break free from in seconds.

Intimations of nakedness - Bette Midler from above, buried in red roses; the dubious picture of Whoopi Goldberg, also from above, bathed in milk. A naked Keith Haring, painted as one of his own paintings, which is echoed by her Steve Martin portrait, in a white suit brushed with black to echo the Franz Kline painting on the wall behind him. Which came first?

Also, the extraordinary picture of a naked John Lennon, a vulnerable white mouse crawling up the side of the black clad Yoko Ono, just hours before he was killed.

Now the market dynamics of celebrity and such images has been shifted by the internet.

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