David Wilhelm, Matt Crawford, Che Crawford On lights. Wilhelm Photography, originally uploaded by Www.ArtandSteel.coM.
The word "photography" comes to us from the Greek phrase "writing with light." Light is the essence of photography as both art and communication. Yet many photographers fail to make the most of it. They use light only to expose their film, instead of also using it as a means of communication.
For example, many organizational photographers will mindlessly blast an electronic flash at every indoor subject. While that automatic flash of light may assure that every picture will "come out OK," anyone and anything caught in the merciless glare of a flash will probably appear harsh and unnatural looking. Pictures made with a flash will ultimately look very much like each other, exercises in form rather than content.
Many of those who rely on such formula lighting approaches are commercial photographers. They direct their pictures rather than discovering them, leaving little room for spontaneity or incongruity. They use their lights and strobes to create the equivalent of stage sets, and they often treat people as props instead of living, breathing human beings. They may create images appropriate for advertising, but their pictures will fail as editorial images because they usually lack substance and credibility.
On the other hand, photojournalists who use cameras to communicate ideas, instead of literally recording subject matter, almost always will use light as a medium of expression. The best of them will use fast films and fast lenses capable of producing excellent results in natural light, instead of relying on automatic use of flash. Shadow and darkness in their pictures are as important to the message as areas of illumination. They will use light and shadow to abstract and imply as much as to reveal information. They realize that intrusive bursts of flash will call attention to the photographic process itself and cause people to become self-conscious. By using natural light, they can allow people to relax, forget the camera, and go about their work in a natural, spontaneous manner.
In our first example, Philadelphia freelancer Kim Weimer creates an effective portrait of a man in need of a liver transplant by using natural light to express several points. What is in shadow is as important as what is not. Only half the man's face is visible. The half resting in the shadows represents the unknown -- referring to the great uncertainties that a man in his situation must eventually accept. A mindless use of "fill" flash here would have utterly destroyed this point. Two other people, whom we assume to be his family, provide additional context for meaning. The woman at left is rendered as an abstract profile, providing a frame of reference representing this man's responsibilities and at the same time, his support. We know she is there for him, but her own feelings and appearance are not the point of this picture. The poignant face of the child at right is partially defined by the soft natural light, yet it also blends into the dark side of the man's head, becoming an integral part of an uncert ain future. This portrait asks as many questions of its viewers as it answers. It stimulates thinking -- the ultimate goal of any good picture. And it does so largely because of its mood and message as defined and obscured by light.
In our next example, freelance photographer Robert Clark, shooting for SCANA Corporation (Columbia, S.C.), also creates a portrait using light to effectively express meaning. We never see the face of his subject. We see instead the golden tones of the setting sun warming the gray hair of an unidentified World War II veteran. His military hat, with its gold badges and lettering, is also bathed in the sunset's rays. The time of day, and indeed, the time of this man's life, is symbolically expressed through the quality of the light Clark chooses to define his subject. While we may never learn the identity of this man, he represents all who served in a war that is now long ago and far away. Yet all who view this picture will share a nostalgic moment with him. Complemented by several pictures of World War II bombers on display, this picture is an integral part of a tribute from SCANA to those "who have preserved the freedoms we enjoy today."
In our third example, a Bechtel Corporation photographer (San Francisco, Calif.) also uses light to express meaning in a shot of construction workers participating in an exercise session. By shooting into the rising sun, this photographer abstracts the scene to give it meaning. It is dawn, the start of a new day, and with it comes an obligatory exercise session. Once again, it is the nature of the light that gives this picture its substance. What better way to define the beginning of another day of hard work?
Our final example shows off the capabilities of a Deere & Co. (Moline, Ill.) tractor. This machine is designed to get the most out of time -- to be as effective by night as by day. By choosing a very high vantage point and the precise time of day when darkness and daylight blend into each other, the photographer makes two key points. This tractor is equipped to go the distance -- both in the ground it must cover and in the timing of its schedule. Its powerful lights illuminate the job both fore and aft, making it easy to operate at any time of day or night. The tractor seems quite small when contrasted to the vast dark landscape, a measure of the task it must master. This picture communicates its message largely through what is seen and what is not. It offers eloquent support to my contention that photographers should regard light more as a means of expressing meaning, and less as a matter of just properly exposing their film.
Philip N. Douglis, ABC, is director of The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 30th year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers a comprehensive six-person Communicating with Pictures workshop every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona.
Douglis, Philip N. "Light: use it to communicate, not just to expose your film." Communication World 18.4 (2001): 46. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 July 2010.