Oct 242011

Reflected Light

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.


West Bank, Palestinians fighting the Israeli Army. © James Nachtwey

Fill Light

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:

The War Photographer

TED Talk

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.

Self Portrait 1660. Rembrandt van Rijn

Find a Rhythm

Have you ever heard someone describe a photograph as having great rhythm?  Ever wonder what they are really talking about?

Self Portrait. Rembrandt van Rijn

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.

I kid you not, this is a white painting. And his work sells for over $500,000-$1,000,000 for a new piece. Robert Ryman

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.

When we block in the lights and darks of the image we begin to understand how our eyes can recognize a rhythmic switch between light and dark.

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.

West Bank, Palestinians fighting the Israeli Army. © James Nachtwey

Bombs Away

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.

NICARAGUA. Esteli. 1979. Sandinistas at the walls of the Esteli National Guard headquarters. © Susan Meiselas

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.

Nachtwey is standing behind the subject, who is essentially backlit.  © James Nachtwey


  • 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.

The reflected light comes from the sun light bouncing off of the wall and lighting the shadow side of the subject. © James Nachtwey

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

Local Resources

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.

Korda’s image of Che Guevara is icon, it is nearly two dimensional. We want be aware of whether we are making 2D or 3D image. © Alberto Korda

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.”

—Henri Cartier-Bresson

(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.

If you like the articles and want to join in the composition conversations friend me on Facebook or G+ on Google.  Drop me a note to say hi or leave a comment below.  I look forward to hearing from everyone or seeing you at The Workshop.


Enjoy-Adam Marelli



  8 Responses to “James Nachtwey”

  1. Really enjoying your articles on composition and light! Keep it up!

  2. Thank you Ryan,

    Happy to hear you are enjoying the articles. Now if I can only find some more time to sit down and write some more.

    Do you find these helpful in your photographic practice?

  3. Hi Adam. Thanks for taking the time sharing your knowledge through your blog. Over the past weeks since I read your posts, I’ve become a lot more thoughtful with every shot that I take. :)

  4. Hey Cedric,

    I really could not ask for anything more. Its nice to be able to share some of my experiences and understanding so that you can push that shutter more thoughtfully.

    Keep it up!

    And if you get stuck along the way, just let me know.


  5. Hi Adam,

    I’m from Spain and I reach this web searching something about composition (in photography), but something deeper than rule of thirds and I want to thank you for sharing all your knowledge. I’m impressed with your analysis and I think I have to learn a lot more because it’s incredible how the people shot only with a couple of things in mind and they think they know a lot of photography, e.g., almost everybody think that Bresson uses the golden section and you have demonstrated that this is a shallow analysis. Thanks to your posts, I’ve learnt how to use the other grids (diagonals) in lightroom.

    And as a “collateral efect”, I’m starting to understand the Masters Pieces of drawing, now it’s easier to see Caravaggio, Da Vinci, Vermeer….. ;-)

    Of course, I have watched the first lesson of your Master (Mr. Barnstone) and it seems an extraordinary teacher, I’m thinking of buying some of the lessons, what do you recommend ??

    And please, go on with your own lessons, I’m discovering how important the composition is. Do you have some helpful link to investigate more ??

    Thanks, thanks a lot !!!! I’m going to review these Great Compositions again….

    • Hello Oscar,

      There is a shortage of material available on composition. Considering it is one of the most important aspects of photography there should be more, but for some reason there is not much.

      Other articles I have found on Cartier-Bresson and the golden ratio are terribly inaccurate and confuse readers more than educate them on the ideas at work behind HCB’s viewfinder. Instant drawing is what he called his photography. And pushed to label himself would have preferred to be a Surrealist Photographer. Robert Capa insisted he use the term “photo journalist”. Cartier-Bresson did not think of himself as a journalist.

      The collateral effect is evidence that design, underwrites all good art. A firm understanding of design allows and architect, a typesetter, and a draftsmen to use a common language. Once the design principles are understood the Master works will come alive as if you have just taken a drug.

      In essence, many of the paintings of Caravaggio, Manet, Degas, Vermeer, they are all Street Photography.

      Watch Myron’s entire series. He requires that students take his introduction course twice because there is so much information. Its is impossible to absorb it in one round. From that we can discuss further how to apply it to your photography.

      Be Well-Adam

      • So you can reduce in most of the cases, nowadays, a good photography is a question of luck. Obviously, the more pictures you take the more probability you have to take a good one.

        I think we are missing the essences, the roots of the Art and I’m not thinking of being a Master Photographer but doing your best with your camera because most of the people are much concerned about depth of field or speed and golden ratio or simply trying to acquire the best lens and that’s all. And there is a world beyond your eyes.

        And of course, the matter is the artist that have reached that master level probably will never transmit that knowledge. It’s incredible that thousand years ago we’ve got those master pieces and only few people know the true of composition rules.

        So that, again, thank you very much to you and Mr. Myron to let us know the secrets of the Art.

  6. Hey Oscar,

    There is a funny quote by Cartier-Bresson, you may have heard. He said “Anybody has done ten good photographs in his life. What is interesting is consistency.”

    If we are slaves to our subject matter we spend our entire lives chasing photographs. If we are recognizing design as an “instant sketch”, which is the essence of a photograph on the street, we are free to photograph anything we like. Our aim, should be to improve our ratios of success beyond ten photos.

    Personally, I believe that artists have a cultural obligation to pass on some important lesson they learned to the next generation, so the younger ones are not starting at zero. Many photographers tend to skip over design. They are the only ones who know whether they are withholding techniques or if they do not understand it themselves. Financial success in photography is not tied to design. As a result there are many successful, terrible image makers. But that is not our concern.

    Art has always been a game of small successes.


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