Light Composition & Detail
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“Light is more important than location or expression”. That’s what one of my mentors Mr Kevin Wilson FMPA. FBIPP. FRPS. told me when I began taking my photography seriously. And seeing as he has all those Fellowships in loads of organisations, give talks all over the country 17 European Kodak Gold Awards and clients happily paying him big fees, I figured I best listen.
And whatever genre of photography you love, this holds true for all of it. If the light is inappropriate for the subject and the composition isn’t thought out the photo will be dull. Period.
However expensive the camera / lens combination is, it won’t make any difference to these things because light and composition are not camera functions.
It was 20 years ago Kevin told me that and it probably took me a year to consistently see results of applying it. It seems to me that ‘seeing’ light and composition is not something that comes naturally to most photographers when they start out. It has to be practised. We have to be patient because there isn’t a quick fix fast track method.
Of course there’s image editing software available but it’ll take longer to learn manipulation at that level than to see light and composition.
Instagram introduced filters some years ago and others followed suit. You can of course get presets for all kinds of photo editing software, but that’s trying to make a silk purse out of a pigs ear. In my experience you have to shoot a good original to get a good final image.
Photo editing software is not about fixing something that went wrong. It's for polishing your personality, vision and style into a photo.
So Mr Browne, why are light and composition your 2nd and 3rd Building Blocks of Photography and not 1st and 2nd?
It’s because there has to be some driving force behind them. Something to unite them in harmony via the camera’s lens into an image someone wants to linger over. And that something is You and your Brilliant Brain because cameras are not creative, they can’t think for themselves.
Light and composition are what makes or breaks an image. I see it all the time with my students. Some arrive with amazing top quality gear but their photos are disappointing.
Other’s come along with some stunning images but have no idea how they achieved them. When questioned, they say. “I don’t really know what I did. It just looked nice so I took it.”
Someone who can see a photo in the first place will always beat someone with an expensive camera who can't.
But how do they see it? Are they in some way more gifted than the rest of us?
Some certainly are more gifted than others and that’s true of everything not just photography. But if like me you are not one of them, you have to learn it through practise and self-discipline.
How? I think light is the harder of the two. Our eyes are always adjusting light levels and dynamic ranges so we can see everything in shadows and highlights. We see quantity of light - “Oh my word that’s bright” but are less likely to see Quality of light.
That’s whether or not there are shadows and highlights. How strong they are. The direction they’re falling. Where they’re falling. Or ask ourselves if they enhance or detract from what we’re looking at.
One sure fire way to begin seeing light is to notice when you think. “That looks nice.”
If something appeals to us visually it’s because the light works for it. Look again, specifically at the shadows, highlights or lack of both and make a mental note of them.
Look for similar light in other scenarios and ask if it looks good or not. Sometimes the same light on a different subject will look horrible. You have to find appropriate light for the subject.
Appropriate light for the shots I took in the video was strong sun and hard shadows to make the scenes and details work. Look at the difference between the photo of the town square with and without sunshine and shadows. There’s even a nice big red arrow to show you what to look out for.
Composition is a bit easier because it’s only how things align or are arranged inside the viewfinder. Basically it’s a combination of where to stand and the angle you point your camera.
Stand (or sit or lay down) in the right place so the elements align pleasingly. Then look all around the viewfinder at the whole photo (not just the subject) and by pointing it up, down, left or right you adjust where they are within the frame.
That really is all there is to it. But you do have to practise.
If you are struggling with composition, light or both there is a wealth of information all over the web (this video and article included), which you can turn to for guidance. If you’re serious and feeling fed up with conflicting or confusing free stuff, invest in one of my courses or workshops and I’ll guide you through it one step at a time.
I promise you you’ll learn much faster and easier that you will alone.
But you still have to put in the work yourself. No one can make it happen for you. Only you can do that.