Connoisseur of Light (Part 1)

Every discussion about photography sooner or later includes the maxim about the fundamental importance of light. In my favorite workshop, the one I call Light, Shadow, Night and Twilight, students learn how I see and utilize the found light (as vs. controlled or studio light.) In the process of promoting that same workshop, I have repeatedly been called a master of light and shadow. While I appreciate the complement, having just spent a week in Finland, I am thinking I would prefer to maybe call myself a connoisseur of light.

Being called a “master” is certainly flattering, but mastery also suggests a degree of control. Since I do almost no photography where I actually control the light, I never quite think of myself as really mastering the light. A connoisseur, by comparison, is defined as a person who is an expert at something (in this case understanding found light) or has informed and discriminating taste (in this case about how to evaluate/photograph that found light) or understands the details, technique, or subtleties and thus is able to act as a critical judge.

Though I have been aware of daylight for as long as I have been alive, I started looking at light seriously when I studied photography in high school in Southern California. While studying the history of photography in college (also in in Southern California,) I continued expanding my appreciation of the use of light, especially looking at that in the work of established photographers. Once I became a professional photographer I started applying in my own work, the various approaches to light that I had seen in the work of others.

Starting out as a newspaper photographer in Southern California, the land of Hollywood light, gave me a good starting point. The naturally stunning light that is the norm in Los Angeles (especially in the winter) gave me a baseline by which to consider light in other places. While working for small, medium and large circulation newspapers in the West, I learned, largely by trial and error, how to respond to (and photograph) the light that I found. I sometimes wonder how I might have evolved as a photographer had my formative years been in a place with grey weather, constant clouds and minimal sun, like Albany, New York, where I was actually born.

Working later in places like Israel, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Italy and a myriad of other countries have given me the opportunity to really look at found light and become something of a connoisseur of that light. If a wine connoisseur is someone who has tasted hundreds if not thousands of wines to develop his or her informed and discriminating taste, why would my experience be any different? To follow on the wine analogy, it is one thing to say a given wine is good or bad, but it is altogether another thing to say why that is so. In my experience, the exact same thing is true with photography and light. Lots of people say certain places have great light. The analytical side of me says yes, but how do you define that, how do you know that? And in my case, how do you teach that?

Having just spent a week in Finland, I think I am now more of a connoisseur of light than ever. If you look at the sun charts below you will see the path of the sun in the four places that shaped my appreciation of light the most, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Bangalore (India) and Helsinki. In a place like Bangalore the sun literally shoots straight up in the sky in the morning, and spends much of the day nearly or straight over head, particularly in the summer time. That yields the bad mid-day light that photographers know about (and generally should try to avoid.)

One of the interesting things about the chart for Bangalore, India is how it suggests that if you are going to photograph there, in order to get the best light you should go there only in winter, spring or fall, which is precisely what I like to do. The sun in Singapore, which is another place I work often, moves similarly to the sun in Bangalore but the humidity that dominates the weather in Singapore means that I see and utilize the sunlight there much less.

By comparison, look at the arc of the sun in Finland, especially during the summer. Except for four short hours during the middle of the day in June, most of the day’s light comes from a sun that is below the Wells Point, below the 45 degree point in the sky when the light is best. The length of time that the sun is low on the horizon is amazingly long and thus better for the kind of photography I like to do. Part of the time in Finland was cloudy but much of which was sunny and because of that, I have whole new appreciation, a whole new connoisseurship, of the way the sun’s movement creates magical light.

Though Finland and India are useful examples, where I really learned to refine my appreciation for the movement of the sun is in Los Angeles (where I grew up and started my career as a photographer) and Philadelphia (where I started to develop my ongoing expertise in my light studies.). If you look at the chart for those two cities you will note they are more similar than they are different.

One thing I came to appreciate (and now can see with this chart) is how, in Philadelphia, the sun is below the Wells Point for almost half the year, vs Los Angeles, where the sun is below the Wells Point only about one third of the year. Of course, what Los Angeles appears to lack in terms of time with sun low on the horizon it more than makes up for by the fact that the vast majority of days there are clear and sunny.

To continue to develop my expertise in sunlight, my connoisseurship, I plan to continue going to different sunny places to sample the light, just like a wine expert might sample the wine. I have been to Argentina already and will be going to Brazil next year, to continue my “education” in sunlight.

Though there is no obvious chemical explanation, I will be the first to admit that places with magical sunlight, like Missoula, Montana and Helsinki (in the summer) do make me feel as if I get a bit drunk on the light itself. What they lack in alcohol, they make up in the vitamin D that sun produces in my skin and that may explain part of my reaction. The best thing of all about getting drunk on magical sunlight is the lack of a hangover.

You can study this further on a very useful web site run by the Solar Radiation Monitoring Laboratory at the University of Oregon.

An equally interesting Motions of the Sun Simulator is run by Nebraska Astronomy Applet Project

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