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Light Matters

Simply taking a properly exposed picture is only part of the equation. That’s not to say you can’t go around taking pictures all day long. However, you must be able to translate the story through that exposure as well. You have to be able to convey emotion by use of light, body language, angle of view, and so on (Figure 4.16).

Figure 4.16

Figure 4.16. A soldier’s face is covered with sand after a 6-hour ride to the Syrian boarder. (Photo by Andy Dunaway)

Lens (mm): 70, ISO: 400, Aperture: 5.6, Shutter: 1/80, Program: Aperture Priority

My manual from the Department of Defense’s Basic Still Photography Course suggested I take pictures with the sun to my back and, when in doubt, just set my camera to f/8 and shoot. Many of the guys called it the “f/8 and be there” setting. Sure, they were good go-to settings, but I wasn’t creating meaningful pictures—I was just letting these rules dictate the look of my photography, not to mention the quality. One day I said to hell with all of the rules. My new mantra was, “Know the rules to break the rules.”

By experimentation, I came to my own conclusions. If you want to put the sun to your back, go ahead. Just remember, it takes light make an exposure, but the shadows create the dimension. Approach each scene by reading the light source first; explore the space, shift, and watch (Figure 4.17).

Figure 4.17

Figure 4.17. Marine Lance Corporal Taylor K. Truen rides aboard a Marine Corps CH-53E helicopter near Camp Lemonier, Djibouti.

Lens (mm): 70, ISO: 200, Aperture: 11, Shutter: 1/80, Program: Manual

If you slow down enough to move through these motions, you’ll begin to see light in a whole new way. Shoot toward or into the light to create breadth and mood. When possible, use color to convey the emotion of the scene or to push your subject forward or backward; cool colors fall back and warm colors jump forward. To distinguish the importance of your subject in their environment, avoid drastic crops into their body, while perhaps cropping others. Even your lens selection should play a part in how you want to relay the story.

Light is as fundamental to photography as an understanding of aperture and shutter speed. Great lighting is a big factor in creating a great photograph. A photograph of any subject can be improved or worsened by a change in the light in which it is photographed. To best understand how this happens, you must understand the four fundamental qualities of light: intensity, color, direction, and contrast.

Light has intensity

Intensity, the first of the four qualities, is perhaps the easiest to understand. Light can be bright or it can be dim. However, the intensity can change based on your relationship to the light source. Imagine yourself in the desert on a cloudless, sunny day. The light here is, no doubt, very bright. Now imagine yourself walking into a palm grove on that same day. The deeper in you go, the less intense the light becomes. The intensity of the sun has not changed. However, by placing palms between you and the light source, you have effectively filtered or reduced the intensity (Figure 4.18).

Figure 4.18

Figure 4.18. A U.S. Army soldier hunts down enemy forces in the palm groves in Buhriz, Iraq. This image demonstrates the theory of filtered or reduced light intensity. The sunlight has not changed overhead. However, the palms of trees over the subject’s head successfully diffuses the intensity of the existing light.

Lens (mm): 38, ISO: 400, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/500, Program: Aperture Priority

Light has color

What we consider to be white light is actually made up of equal parts of light of all colors. Again, warmer colors have a forward-moving effect, whereas the cooler colors tend to fall back. You can use this to isolate or draw attention to your subject. Figure 4.19 demonstrates how a small amount of red can pull the viewer’s eye.

Figure 4.19

Figure 4.19. Soldiers use a corkboard to post American and European currency with their names signed on them and messages to other military units. (Photo by Andy Dunaway)

Lens (mm): 18, ISO: 100, Aperture: 4, Shutter: 1/100, Program: Manual

Light has direction

When we express the direction of light, we always do so from the perspective of the subject. Front light is that light which strikes the front (or camera side) of the subject. Sidelight is light that strikes the subject from either the left or right sides. Back light is light that illuminates the back (opposite camera) side of the subject.

Simply because you’re shooting uncontrolled action in natural light does not mean you relinquish the power to move yourself into a better light direction. If a window lights your subject straight on with flat light, move yourself until the light is short or rimming your subject’s face. It’s that simple (Figure 4.24).

Figure 4.24

Figure 4.24. After being relieved from guard duty, U.S. Army Spec. Orlando Garcia takes a smoke break at the Iraqi police station in Buhriz, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 55, ISO: 400, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/60, Program: Manual

Light has contrast

Observing the shadows is the easiest way to identify contrast. Distinct, deep, hard-edged shadows are evidence of harsh light. The harsh light of bright, cloudless sunshine is difficult to photograph in, especially if that harsh light is also sidelight. It can be difficult to come up with an exposure that will show detail in the shadows and not overexpose the highlights. Likewise, it can be difficult to expose for the highlights without completely losing the shadows. It’s up to you as the photographer to choose the most pleasing, and sometimes least adverse, alternative. When faced with no other choice than to shoot in high-contrast light, I try to find unique ways to work around the unattractive lighting.

For instance, Figure 4.25 was taken around one o’clock in the afternoon and not a cloud in sight. I had no choice but to shoot under terrible lighting conditions. So I opted to disguise the nasty light with the environment around my subject—in this case, bars on a window.

Figure 4.25

Figure 4.25. A U.S. Army soldier rummages through the rubble of a bombed-out building during a cordon and search for weapons caches and anti-Iraqi forces in Old Baqubah, Iraq.

Lens (mm): 23, ISO: 200, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/2500, Exp. Comp: -0.3, Program: Aperture Priority

Soft light—the light of an overcast day for instance—is the quality of light most photographers prefer (Figure 4.26). Soft light seems to wrap around and envelop subjects. It’s great for color because there are no hot spots or overexposed areas to detract from a subject’s true color. Light, whether bright or dim, always has direction and color. Although I can appreciate soft light situations, they aren’t my favorite. I prefer more direct, contrast-laden light. Shadows are what I build my pictures around to create mood and dimension. If I choose to use a softly lit image, it’s because the moment outweighs the light.

Figure 4.26

Figure 4.26. Marine Corps recruit David Briones stands in formation during physical training at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Lens (mm): 66, ISO: 400, Aperture: 2.8, Shutter: 1/1500, Exp. Comp.: +1.0, Program: Aperture Priority

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