A photographer on the street needs
to be resourceful. Without the aid
of assistants or studio lighting, we
must find light sources in unlikely
places. Once we discover that
a building can be a reflector, it
allows us to break the monotony
of flat shadows caused by the sun.
Broad daylight is a photo killer. An overhead light source blows out highlights and renders shadows black. Even with post production, there is often nothing that can save a black shadow. When it happens, our pictures become flat and two dimensional. How can we take a three dimensional image in the middle of the day? We can save a bright scene when we learn to use the surroundings to light our subject.
For those of you, who are not familiar with James Nachtwey, have a look at these clips:
A Sensative Man
I have not met James yet, but it is clear from his interviews that he exists outside of the bounds of a typical photo journalist. If I had to describe James in one word, I would say he is sensitive. He is famous for working in volatile conditions like war, famine, and genocide. Beyond his cultural sensitivity he is also incredibly sensitive to light. Its worth noting that he still works with film cameras, so he is not shooting at ISO 102,000. Even in the midst of a fire fight he manages to bring back visual lessons which explain why his images have so much “Carrying Power.”
For a picture to have “Carrying Power” it means that the design of an image is so strong that you could recognize across a dimly lit room. The most iconic images of art history often have incredible carrying power. Take a look at the image below? Does it look familiar? Of Course…because Rembrandt was a Master Artist. His self portraits have incredible “carrying power” and they possess a classical rhythm. His paintings use light and dark as a visual expression of sound.
Find a Rhythm
Have you ever heard someone describe a photograph as having great rhythm? Ever wonder what they are really talking about?
One way to introduce rhythm into an image is to create a composition that alternates lights and darks. As the background and the subject change from dark to light to dark to light to dark to light…and so on, an image starts to develop a rhythm. If we image an image with no rhythm we could think of an all white canvas, like Robert Ryman. The canvas is white from corner to corner. Its not much different that banging a huge gong. Its has one note that rings all the way through. This creates a monotone image.
If we leave Ryman to his all white canvases and take our cue from Rembrandt we will look for images that vary between light and dark throughout the frame. For those photographers who prefer to capture natural light, establishing a coherent rhythm in midday sun is a challenge. The change from light to dark is often too harsh and the visual concert changes from Chopin to a three year old banging a drum with a hockey stick.
Architecture Reflects Light
Like a Zen riddle, the answers to our photographic problems are all around us. Many times we are too focused on the subject of a scene. We loose sight of the surroundings and forget to uses the resources at hand. One ingenious way of combating harsh daylight shadows is to use reflected light. As the sun moves across the sky it bounces off every surface. When we photograph in a city there are plate glass windows, limestone walls, or white cars which bounce strong sunlight back into the scene. It would be amazing if an assistant could follow us around with remote flashes or reflector shields, but that is rarely an option. Plus it would be so destructive to the natural sense of a scene that it is hardly worth attempting. If we can coordinate our subject and an near by building we will be in business. We can salvage an punchy light and transform it into a soft rhythmic transition from light to dark.
Many of us would be happy to harness the power of reflected light on a tame corner downtown. James Nachtwey, on the other hand, likes to give himself a challenge. His subjects do not always show up on time, rarely abide by any schedule, and never stops when he says cut. James has to literally roll with the punches and see what comes at him. His style of work requires him to be responsive to content and design very quickly. I bet if you ask him, he would say that over the years his reaction times improved with practice.
A few years ago, when I first saw his Palastinian Molatov Cocktail shot I instantly thought of Magnum Photographer Susan Meiselas work in Nicaragua. I am not sure if she was the first photographer to produce a famous body of work from the conflict with the Sandinistas, but her work is outstanding. In one of her iconic images she captured a very similar scene to Nachtwey. Both shots have young men throwing Molotov cocktails.
The images come from the same gene pool, but have a few formal differences that we can study to improve our work.
- The subject is a young man (presumably angry) throwing a fire bomb at a neighbor.
- The pictures are taken in the middle of the day.
- The sky is clear.
- Both images are essentially back lit (that just means the photographer is positioned on the shadow side of the subject)
- Both men are mid throw.
- Meiselas front view of the subject.
- Nachtwey has a rear 3/4 view of the subject.
- Meiselas is forced to expose for the shadow on the chest of her subject. This makes the subject flat. If you squint your eyes, he looks like a silhouette.
- Nachtwey uses the white wall on the right to bounce a considerable amount of light into the shadow of the subject. The subject reads as a round form because there is plenty of reflected light in the shadow.
How To Use Reflected Light
Try a little experiment at home. Go to a table that gets direct sun light. Place a solid colored object, at least as big as a vase on the table in bright sunlight. On the shadow side of the object, hold a white plate about six inches from the object. Notice how the shadow becomes lighter or darker depending on the distance of the plate to the object. This is how reflected light works.
Suggestions for reflectors on the Streets:
- Light colored stone buildings
- Plate Glass Windows
- The flat side of large trucks
- Low Billboards
- Car windshields
At a human scale, we can see how Nactwey positions himself to allow the reflected light of the building to illuminate his subject. He succeeds in taking a well lit image in harsh lighting conditions. If that wall was not there, his subject would have been a black outline. It would have been dead flat.
By using the building properly, his subject pops off of the screen. This is exactly the effect we want to achieve in our images. We want full, volumetric subjects that read as round forms, not cardboard cut outs. This is not to take anything away from Meiselas’s work. Her image is mostly two dimensional, which creates a more iconic image like Korda’s Che Guevara, but we want to be have variety in our work. If we are in control of our two dimensional and three dimensional images we will have a stronger body of work.
Photographers and artists face many of the same problems. Both groups are trying to create the illusion of a three dimensional space on a two dimensional surface. In order to combat the inherent flatness of a photograph or a canvas, artists worked for centuries to develop techniques to create the illusion of depth. The importance of reflected light in the body of a subject has been widely known by artists for centuries. Photographers can learn from the lessons of classical masters and apply these proven techniques to their images. Harnessing reflected light is not difficult, it only requires that we are aware of our surroundings. If we know the where the sun is placed relative to our subject and we can look for a scene that will be well lit, half of the battle is complete. Next we need to wait, as Nachtwey waited for our subject to fill the frame.
I will not attempt to improve upon the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson when he wrote:
“ Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture — except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button — and you depart with the feeling ( though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something.”
(The Mind’s Eye p.33)
So go out and “Get Something.” Give yourself an assignment and go explore reflected light on the streets. See if you can brighten the shadows of your subjects by noticing the exact moment they are illuminated by a show window or a stone wall. Practice the technique until it becomes your own. It will be another tool in your box of tricks which will allow your work to come alive.
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