Making Light Your Subject

“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

– George Eastman

If I could give you all one tip – and only one tip ever again – it would be to commit yourself to noticing light. Why? Because light is photography’s most interesting, engaging and diverse subject. It can bring texture to a boring flat landscape; it can bring humour and humility to a photo; it can make our heart sing when it illuminates a tree with golden light on an otherwise grey day. Learn to notice light, then learn to capture it and you are leaps and bounds ahead of most photographers (and I include many professionals there too.)

Paris at Dawn
© Anthony Epes, 2013

I believe that creating singular goals for yourself in photography really helps to train your eye. In college we had to do things like go out and photograph blue balls. They were exacting and difficult tasks, but they elevated my ability to see in an extraordinary way. And it’s those types exercises I’d like to encourage you to do to help you train your eye and help you take more interesting photos.

Paris at Dawn
© Anthony Epes, 2013

In all of my photo workshops I am try to get everyone to slow down. Many people I meet approach taking photos as they do other parts of their lives – in a sort of ‘getting things done’ sort of mode. Which, as I bang on incessantly about, is the opposite mind-state to how you need to be when taking photos (perhaps with the exception of war or event photography :))

Light is a huge subject when it comes to talking about photography. There is a lot of technical teaching that you can learn in order to capture the light the way you want it,  but what I wanted to do here was provoke your thoughts and give you a few ideas on the different types of light you can look for.

Look at the colour of the light

I am not much of a black and white photographer. I’ve done a little in my earlier life but colour is what really excites me. Probably my favourite photographer is Ernst Haas, someone who I think should be a lot more famous than he is. His work, particularly his colour work, is incredible: he looked at the colour of light, and worked to capture that in his work. So not just the beautiful shafts of light, or the sky, but he used its colour as part of his composition. When you can see the colour of the light it seems to add another dimension so you can also get a sense of its texture. It gives you a feeling of being ‘there’ in the photo.

© Ernst Haas

So as well as looking for light sources and for beautiful light, try to think how the colour of that light can assist the composition.

I think this photo of mine, below, shows the colour of light idea well too. Without the warm yellow colour of the light this photo would be semi- dull. Nice clouds – sure! But the yellow light really makes the photo pop.

Paris at Dawn

© Anthony Epes, 2013

Interplay of natural and artificial

One benefit to having such short days (yes, there are benefits!) is the more opportunities you have to see the interplay between the natural light and the artificial at twilight. When 4.30/5 pm hits, you have some brilliant opportunities to capture the fading blue light of the day and the arrival of artificial light. There is a huge amount to play with – go out and take a look.

Of course there will be a lot of competition for your eye: the glowing lights of shop windows, the luminous glow of buses, street lamps, the twinkerly, over-the-top Christmas lights – but that will be part of the fun. Look for the contrasts between natural light and artificial,  and ask yourself some questions:  what’s interesting here about these contrasts and interplay? What story are you telling? What feelings are you creating in this photo?


Along with lines and reflections, I think shadows are one of photographers favourite things. There is so much to play with when it comes to shadows, so many emotions we can create.

They can create a powerful opportunity to show a lack of light, to show contrast, and often to show humour too. Noticing where there is a lack of light can be just as significant as where there is good light.

Ray Metzker

©Ray Matzker

I will talk in my next post about the importance of pre-visualising your final photo when you are shooting, and one photographer I would like to talk about is Ray Metzker. Much of his work’s power was the created in the dark room, but it was no accident. He will have pre-visualised his photos as he was composing and capturing the shot. Metzer used shadows to incredible effect in his work.

You also couldn’t talk about shadows without mentioning Bill Brandt – master of the shadow that looks so simple, so easy, so opulent almost and yet is the result of some incredible planning, focus and vision. Very inspiring.

(There are some rather funny/silly colour shadow photos too here)

I am going to carry on with this subject next week as I have more ideas for you. I really hope you enjoy my thoughts – and I would love to hear your thoughts/feedback/ideas. What do you love to do with light in your photography? Please do comment below.