Light: Learn to See
By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP
Image ©Don Chick
Looking is not seeing.
Seeing involves asking what, why and how as your eyes take in a situation. Seeing is what an artist does while taking in the world around them.
The journey from looking to seeing is part of artistic growth. It’s a conscious decision at first, and with time and experience it becomes a subconscious act of the mind. If you are open to growth, the seeing process never ends. It’s when you think you’ve arrived that you lose the ability to grow and continue to see.
Growth is a uniquely personal experience, but there are ways to facilitate the process. One object lesson is an art classic: photographing a white egg on a white piece of paper. An egg is a perfect piece of sculpture, a gift of nature, that is most likely sitting right in your refrigerator. You don’t even need a large piece of paper. Simply take a sheet from your printer to use in this lesson.
The first element of the lesson involves caring. “Why should I care about an egg?” you ask. The reason for caring is that if you don’t think you can learn anything from the egg, you’re right. You won’t learn a thing. If you think you can learn something from the egg, you will.
Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If you think you can do a thing or you think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” Caring in the beginning and throughout the entire course of your career as an artist is crucial to growth.
With the egg lesson you’ll be exposed to light, shadow, form and shape. The smooth form of the egg enables you to begin to see the transition of shadow detail across a form. The white paper enables you to see the most subtle transition of shadow detail across a flat surface. The only other item needed for this lesson is a light source. You need to be able to modify your light source. For example, if you use a small light source you also need to have a large light source. You must be able to produce both hard and soft shadows on your egg and paper to learn the most from this lesson.
With egg, paper, and a single light source in hand, the first image you need to create is one with as little shadow detail as possible. This first image should be made with “flat light”. The egg should, as nearly as you can make it without any computer manipulation, disappear into the white paper. Try to do this with a variety of light sources that should include natural light and strobe light. Use a variety of light modifiers when making this image. It is not as easy as it appears, but you will find that your ability to “see” will be growing with each image.
Once you have an image with flat light, then create another series of images. You will still be using a single light source, but this time light the egg from the side, the back, as well as directly overhead. Try different camera angles, i.e., very low light angles and very high light angles. Again, try to utilize as many light modifiers in the creation of these images as possible.
Try using various point sources of light like the sun at noon time, a bare bulb strobe, or a flash that is positioned a distance from the egg. Also try photographing the egg outside on a cloudy day. To modify the light, try using diffusion material in front of the light source to soften the light, soft boxes, or umbrellas. You could also use a snoot on your light source, or use a honeycomb grid of differing degrees. You could even bounce the light off the ceiling! Use your imagination and creativity to give different looks to your lighting. The more images you create, the more you are training your eyes and mind to see.
Once you have created a number of these images, the next step in the learning process is to create a slideshow set to music. It’s best to arrange the images in random order. If the slide show program has a random order feature, let it decide the sequence. With the slide show created, hit the play button and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. You may find that there are some images you enjoy more than others. Some of the images you may find that you like it enough to have a print made to display it in your home. While you reflect back on what you just watched and when you play the show again, remind yourself that these images were made with one light source. One light has the ability to create images with a broad spectrum of mood and emotion. Light is that powerful!
Try the same lesson again except this time photograph a group of eggs. Try using multiple light sources. You may even decide to add color to some of the images this time. Remember to involve your sense of caring as you use your imagination creating these images.
All these images are more than simply an egg and light. Each one is an important step in your journey and growth as an artist. Don’t just read this article and think “that’s nice.” Do the lesson and grow! If you want additional reading on this topic, locate a copy of Ralph Hattersley’s “Photographic Lighting, Learning to See.” The book is out of print, but copies are often available through used bookstores and online resources.
Visit Don's Web site at www.donchick.com for additional resources.