Thursday, October 6, 2011

You've Got the Light You've Got

Scottsville 05, 2011

One of the challenges of being an opportunistic photographer is that you frequently can't wait around long enough for the light to be right. You are where you are when you are, and that means that sometimes the light's good in all the right ways and sometimes it's just not working with you.
Professionals shooting on assignment approach things a little differently. They're hired to shoot specific things or places. Theyre expected to get it right. My friend Dave does terrific architectural photography. But to do this work hes frequently up and out of bed in the wee hours of the morning in order to be on site to catch the first warm rays of sunrise light on whatever structure hes shooting.
Im pretty lazy when it comes to getting up before the sun. I do get up at 5:30 a.m. most days for a five-mile walk. But thats done out of health necessity and its a real battle some mornings not to reach over and turn the alarm clock off and sleep in for another hour.
Very often the time I have to take personal pictures is dictated by some other activity. So there are many times when Im not shooting in optimum light.
I should mention here that although I do know my way around a photo flash and have a good one, I vastly prefer shooting in natural light. When you get down to it, all we photographers have to work with is light and color. So it might as well be natural.
This past weekend we drove through the little town of Scottsville, Virginia. Scottsvilles a hardscrabble little place nestled along side the James River just south of Charlottesville. Until they built a levee around it, the river routinely flooded Scottsville. Because of the flooding, very little has been built in Scottsville in the last seventy-five years. (Actually, such is the sad fate of Scottsville that very little of anything has been built in Scottsville in the last seventy-five years.) So what survives in Scottsville tends to be worn smooth by age, use, disuse and the river.
If I was shooting photographs of Scottsville on some kind of assignment, or merely wanted to do a thorough job of it, Id arrive before sunrise and not leave until after sunset. But I wasnt working under those conditions this past weekend. We werent in a hurry, but we were up driving through Scottsville on our way to somewhere else. So after parking the car and walking around for a few minutes, we were back on our way.
What made me stop the car in the first place was the scene shown above. I was drawn to the shadows in the doorway and windows, particularly the range of tones, from very black to very white. The building is painting a dull putty color that didnt look bad in a color photograph. If Id been there at sunrise there might have been a warm golden tone to the light and I might have had a very different impression of the scene. But the warm glow of sunrise had passed by the time I got there, and I decided that the impression I had of what I saw was better portrayed in black-and-white. 
Working with natural light can be satisfying and frustrating. But its also means that the same scene can be seen in hundreds of different kinds of light throughout the day, which just gives us more opportunities to see things in different and interesting ways. 


  1. As a relative new comer to photography and for the most part self taught I often get away with technical blunders that would make a seasoned photographer shudder.

    My usual method is to shoot whatever, whenever with little thought to lighting unless the sun is shining directly in my face and I can't see anything else in the viewfinder. I once heard this "technique" described as ambush or guerrilla photography. More than one frame has been saved from my digital scrap heap by the use of black and white.