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All about the light

As photographers we know that sometimes, it’s all about the light.

But often the five star image is a perfect storm of finding great light with strong content; impactful framing with sharp focus at the best aperture/shutter speed for that particular image triggered at the decisive moment. Can’t be too hard, right?

We all know it’s no easy task, arguably even more difficult for the street photographer with little or no control over many of the elements that make our images great.

You don’t need everything to come together for every photo to be successful, but if you’ve got great light — you’re way ahead of the game with increasingly good odds of making a great image.

It is why we wake up early for sunrise and stay well after the sun goes down for the beautiful blue-hour light.

As photographers, we are looking for light and with the tools we have now, there are really few limitations. I’m looking for nice, even light even if it’s very low, as with this image made recently in Old Havana. My D5 is remarkable in low light and this shot was made at ISO 8000 with a favorite new lens, the 58mm f1.4G.

So on the street I follow the light to take me to five-star images. I like to shoot with “good light” but of course good light is very subjective. Different light tells different stories.

Early morning sunrise and golden afternoon sunset light are givens, almost cliche. Sometimes I prefer a harsher light on my subject which works to tell an edgier street story. I also love seeing how color is transformed into gray tones with black and white — which tells a different story.

Arguably, light is more important with color work.

Mainly because, color can be distracting — hi-jacking the viewers’ attention from where you want their eye to go when light is too harsh or contrasty.

Just like your eye is drawn to light areas in the frame, certain strong colors can have a similar pull — a visual weight tugging at the viewer’s eye for attention.

This is why I often use a desaturating tool in post-processing and why a warm bath of golden light can subdue distracting colors, bathing all colors in a warm glow.

In photography, there really is no bad light; maybe it’s just inappropriate light depending on the subject.

With black and white harsh light can work well or I can boost a flatly-lit scene by adding contrast. There are pockets of harsh mid-day light in Chicago illuminating street life in strong graphic ways which can make great photos.

This bold, hard light may not work for a portrait (or maybe it would) but might be ideal for the kind of architectural details Chicago is famous for.

When I study the light it opens my eyes to photographic possibilities I hadn’t noticed before. Observe how light changes relative to your camera position as you do a compositional dance around your subject looking at new angles and notice how the direction of the light affects your subject.

So when I’m on the streets of Chicago this summer, light will often be my first consideration. I go to where the light is.

If the sun is out, I look for where it bathes the city and will start there.

Where the sun beats down, light will be interesting and harsh. As I move around the scene watching how light hitting the subject changes, I learn how to react to the light instinctively, swiftly getting myself into the right position.

Where there is harsh light there there is also a shadowy alternative nearby. Then there’s reflected indirect light, bouncing off Chicago steel and glass which can be soft and beautiful.

The indirect light in Old Havana make it one of my favorite destinations for street photography (but mostly it’s the people) and I love wandering around at night to capture the magic that artificial light sometimes creates.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to light?

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