In the first of a new series, Michael Freeman explains how you can work creatively with natural illumination even when you have no apparent control over the light
It’s easy to focus on the subject alone, but light is critical to photography. Michael Freeman shows you what to look for in natural light, and how to make the most of way its angle and colour changes throughout the day – and into the night
I’m not the first person to say that the quality of light can make or break a shot, and it might be a cliché of photography, but it also happens to be true. Unless you have a subject in front of you that is so amazing that it wouldn’t matter what light it was shot in, the one thing you can do to improve a photograph is to make sure it’s attractively or excitingly lit. That in turn means developing a sense of lighting – a conscious appreciation of it – and developing that sense to the point where you know why the lighting is the way it is.
When I’m shooting outdoors in unpredictable circumstances, I try to keep in my mind a sort of scale of the importance of the light in front of me. At the lower end of the scale the light is just there. It doesn’t matter, I can work with that, but at certain times of day, in particular weather and configurations of street and buildings, the light starts to take over. It imposes itself on the scene and therefore on the image. At the very top of the scale, the shot is all about the light effects, and the subject can be completely ordinary. Australian Magnum photographer Trent Parke works consistently at the top readings of this notional light barometer, and probably speaks for the hard core of light obsessives when he writes “I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”
This month we’ll take a look at developing a feeling for light and making it a priority most of the time, but also at how to achieve results practically. After all, it’s easy to be smug about a stunning shaft of stormlight that you were lucky enough to be in for a crucial view, but what do you do when the lighting is less special and yet you still need to shoot? It calls for a two-handed approach to lighting. One is to have an idea of what lighting might best suit your subject, then wait it out or return another time. The other is to shift gears and look for subjects that the light you’re under is good for. All light can be very good for something. American photographer Galen Rowell wrote: “I search for perfect light, then hunt for something earthbound to match it with.” It also works with less-than-perfect light – see opposite.
Mount Kailash seen from a viewpoint at over 5,000 metres, where the air is very thin. This,
combined with the use of a polarising filter,
has resulted in a stark, high-contrast image