Quite a few weeks ago, I assigned my sisters and me this prompt: We all have our little obsessions. What are you currently obsessed with? A book? An idea? A movie? A song? A project? An activity? Write all about it.
You can go here and read all about Christy's obsession with plant choices as she transforms the outside of the new house she and Everett just bought and you can go here to read all about Carol's obsession with, and commitment to, daily walking or racking up steps.
Over the last six years or so, I have been taking a lot of pictures.
On Saturday, when I was walking on the Appalachian Trail in New York (pictures here), I gave a lot of thought to how I go about taking pictures, examining within myself what I do and what I don't do.
A basketball analogy popped into my mind. On offense, some basketball teams work to impose their will on the defense; on the other hand, some teams take what their opponent's defense gives them.
Since photography is all about light, photographers who work to impose their will on their pictures are, if using natural or environmental light, exacting about when and where they take pictures. They don't just take whatever light the day gives them, they calculate when to take their pictures so that what they want to capture is in accord with the light of a certain time of day. If the elements or the environment are not cooperating, these photographers, often professionals, bring their own light sources to a shooting session and use other apparatus to create the light they want.
I have never been this deliberate in going out to take pictures. Saturday was a good example. The Deke and I took our time Saturday morning easing into the day -- and I squandered the morning's light. After dropping the Deke off at the Pearl River library and making a quick trip to Costco, I headed toward the trailhead where I would join the Appalachian Trail. On the way, I stopped at a diner in Tuxedo, NY for an afternoon breakfast.
I arrived at the trailhead after 2:00, not knowing what light the afternoon would give me, but, as I always do, I went in search of light and let the light I found, that is, the light the day gave me, determine where I pointed my camera and how to set my levels of exposure.
This is my current obsession. More often than not, I photograph light.
The light I discover (or the light the day gives me) determines, more than anything else, the subject matter of my pictures. Or, put another way, I go in search of light and take pictures of what the light illuminates and what the light casts shadows upon.
This obsession with photographing light has inspired me to do almost all of my shooting in my different cameras' Manual mode. I try to create images that don't replicate exactly what a person might see, but to create images of my own making.
Knowing this, it should make sense, then, that when I go see paintings, say, at the National Gallery, I like looking at the different painters' studies of light. I like to look at what the source of light in the picture is and where the light is coming from and what the quality of the light is and how the light affects the paintings' colors and shadows, and how the light creates feeling in me as a viewer, how light creates not only the painting's mood, but mine.
For example, here is Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son":
Light illuminates this scene from the left side of the picture and from a source that is above the father and his son. Maybe it's a window. The light heightens the physical contrast between the father's affluence, as seen in his clothing, and the tattered and torn garments of his prodigal son. The light makes the father's moment of forgiveness the focus of the scene, but, at the same time, there is enough light cast on the brother that his disapproval of his prodigal brother stands in relief to his father's kindness and acceptance. The light in this painting is metaphorical, standing for the light of grace, of the father's tender mercy. So strong and focused is this light of mercy, that the other witnesses, aside from the brother, are obscured in the shadows of the room, especially the woman behind the father, who is barely visible.
Now Rembrandt did not let the light come to him in this painting. He did not "take what was there"and paint his picture. He carefully and artfully took full control over the lighting of this scene. All the same, for me, this picture helps me see the power of light in the midst of darkness and the power of subdued, darker colors and the power of a preponderance of shadow.
Had I photographed this scene, I probably would have done so in black and white. I would have decided that the contrast between the lighted parts of this scene and the unlit would stand in even stronger contrast in black and white and that the theological lesson of this story would be strengthened by an absence of color and more emphasis on the light and the shadows. A black and white shot would look something like this:
I would have done my best to photograph the light.
Please, just because I used an example of Rembrandt does not mean I think of myself as a Rembrandt with a Nikon in my hand. But Rembrandt, like other painters I return to again and again, as well as photographers whose work I enjoy and learn from, teach me a great deal about light and seeing and working to bring light to life in pictures.
My obsession with photographing light is immature. I have much learning and growing up to do. Photographing light does mark a shift in my mindset when I take my camera on hikes and walks or when I go into a town like D. C. or Kellogg. I used to think primarily about the objects in front of me: that building or that flower or this creek or that person on the street, I'd say to myself, would be fun to photograph. Now, especially when I am in a park or in the woods, I look for light I like and how it plays with water or leaves or buildings and I try to photograph that light, trusting that a pretty good image of the object will result.
So, here are a few pictures I took while walking the trail around Greenbelt Lake on a very sunny October Saturday morning nearly ten days ago. As I walked, I looked for light and when I saw light I liked, I took pictures. Now, on this day, most of the light I liked was shining on leaves, so I took lots of pictures of leaves. The light led me to the leaves. I wasn't thinkng as I walked around the lake that this would be a leaf picture day.
So, here's one. I was shooting at 100 ISO. I adjusted my lens to 200mm and put my aperture at 6.3 and the shutter speed at 1/640 of a second. The leaf is attached to a tree, as I remember, and I liked the shadows that were on the leaf and I hoped that with the exposure I chose that I'd get the leaf, but all behind it would be dark. And that's what happened. The light led me to the details of this leaf, the small shadows that are cast on it, and the hope that I could make the leaf, and nothing else, the focus on the picture.
Later, the light led me to some leaves with much more color. I was enjoying taking close ups with my lens at 200mm and the f6.3 seemed to be working. I decided to increase my ISO to 200 and this allowed me, I think, to take this picture with a faster shutter speed, 1/1600 sec. You can see that the light illuminates the leaf in the foreground differently than the ones in the back and I enjoyed creating this contrast, made possible by photographing the light.
Toward the end of my walk, I found light and shadow playing on benches, on a place to come have a sit. I've taken a ton of "come have a sit" pictures over the last couple of years. I wanted to make this picture darker than what the scene looked like if you'd been standing near these benches with me. I can't explain it, but I prefer darker pictures and I really prefer darker black and white pictures. So, I let less light into my camera by putting my aperture at f10 and I gave this picture a deeper depth of field. I put the focal length at 30 mm and the shutter speed at 1/125 sec. The ISO was at 100. I pretty much got what a wanted in this picture. I find benches can be moody and I liked the contrast between the bench that is sunlit and the two that are in the shade and shadows. I'm fairly certain I cropped this image to remove the foreground that had been there. I would say that when it comes to photographing light and shooting in black and white, this is the kind of picture I like the best.
This was a fun assignment. I'm glad my sisters and I wrote about healthy obsessions, ones that animate our lives and make life meaningful for us. We are pretty good about our obsessions that way.