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March 24, 2010

Arizona’s Grand Canyon with only half sun above the horizon

I spend a fair amount of time around today’s photography industry. I travel to the trade shows, most of them, and I keep up on what is new, what is phasing out and what is rumored to be on the way. I also go to many openings, gatherings and lectures, encompassing a wide range of people and topics.

The further we go into this modern electronic game of photography, I’m always amazed at how much I hear about technology, both on the front end with digital capture devices, or cameras to normal people, and the back end, meaning workflow solutions, or software and computer stuff to normal people.

But what I rarely hear anything about is actual photography, the actual basics of making imagery. I guess that this information just isn’t flashy enough for the modern crowd, or the younger generation who have spent very little time learning photographic basics and have spent far more time on equipment, software, branding, websites and marketing. In some ways I can see the thought behind this. The business of professional photography is really in trouble, a reality that seems to get lost on many people, so creating a brand, marketing the brand, and trying to survive are important steps in being a photographer.

However, I also see the insanity in approaching the business in this direction. You can market and brand all you want, but in the end if you don’t understand the basics of photography you won’t produce a recognizable and unique product. My evidence of this is all around us, look at most publicly viewable imagery.

I recently went to a trade show and walked the entire floor, looking and listening to every speaker I could find. Without exception, every featured speaker spoke about what new piece of equipment had taken them to a level they could have never reached with last year’s version. Now I know this is bunk, and they know this is bunk, but many of those in attendance don’t, and that is one reason why we have the issues we have today.

Yes, you can buy the latest widget, and the latest software to go with it, but if you don’t have a basic understanding of light, timing and composition, it won’t matter what you have in your hand unless you are only trying to provide generic content……….

Well, a lot of people today are only trying to provide generic content, but for the REST of us, basic photography is what we must understand.

Backlit bliss in Sicily. Wings. White wings. Frontlit it doesn’t work people.

I would LOVE to go to a trade show and hear the truth from the speakers. I would love to hear the backstory of the work they are showing, or their real work, where they got up before sunrise or waited for the last feeble, fire-red rays of the day. But for some reason, this isn’t what sells today.

But for me, this is where it all begins and ends. Light. This post is simply about light.

Take megapixels, capture rate, color space, file format, lens magnification, file converters, actions, tweaks, the clone tool, layer masks, workflow, tagging, rating and watermarks and just toss them out the window. Take your machine with forty buttons and just put it on the floor and walk outside. Now look up. Look right. Look left.

Find the light. Be the light Danny. (If you don’t know this reference I can’t ever talk to you again.)

I’m AMAZED at the number of photo students who have never done this. AMAZED.

I’ve seen students work images on a laptop like a shuttle captain under pressure of a hull breach. Images shot at 12 noon on a cloudless day. I’ve seen portrait photographers, on the beach at sunset, in the most beautiful light you can imagine, shooting every single frame with direct, on-camera flash.

I just want to say, “Stop, please, let’s go back to the beginning.”

Up at 3am, drive two hours, on the floor waiting for this image. Light comes through like this for five minutes each day. Could have shot at noon and got JUNK

Figuring out and exploring light is one of the most entertaining aspects of photography, at least in my opinion. You know that feeling you get when you think you left your wallet or cell phone on the counter at the airport? THAT is how I feel when I’m out and the light is great and I’m not shooting. I feel freaked out because I know how important light is to the bulk of what I do as a photographer.

Patented “Rainbow Dream Life” filter from my “Too Good to Be True” filter set available for $29.99 at selective sites and roadside park dispensaries.

And when you are in the right place, at the right time, in the right light, there is no better feeling.

Light makes everything AFTER the photograph easier, like making prints. When the light is great, and you expose that piece of paper, it just comes up in the developer like it was meant to be. It seems that most of my best prints, and somewhat easiest prints, were done in great light.

Look, we all know that sometimes we can’t control the light. When you can’t you just do what you can do and live with the results. But many times we CAN control when we work, and that, for me, is critical.

And let’s not think we need vacation sunsets to have great light. Great light can be flat, diffused, dark, etc, It is the quality of light we are looking for.

Early and late light give us what?

Come on? What?

Color and direction. But flat light can also give us great things.

What it takes is practice seeing and being able to recognize what light we need or want to make the pictures we want.

So, the next time you are thinking upgrading your Zupperflex 5000 Doppler SLR, and the software that goes with it, just remember in one year you will probably have to upgrade again. But neither basic photography knowledge, nor light, needs an upgrade. Learn it once, use it forever.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. suzannerevy permalink
    March 24, 2010 5:31 pm

    Oh sh*t… I don’t know the Danny reference. But I love the light in these pictures.

    • March 24, 2010 5:35 pm

      OH you are in the dog house now. It’s a reference from Caddyshack, probably the greatest movie ever. Chevy Chase playing golf. “Be the ball Danny.”

  2. March 24, 2010 6:48 pm

    Daniel –

    I love how you’re all about drilling down on the basics! Too many people think that the latest and greatest will make them good images. Keep on it, man – I’m listening.

  3. March 24, 2010 7:51 pm

    Light and gesture. Those are the two things I try to focus on and when it comes together, as you said, you know it works. Add color if you are not shooting black and white.
    Good post.

  4. Jim permalink
    March 24, 2010 7:56 pm

    Ever since I purchased a hand held light meter one of my daily routines is to guess the exposure for where ever I am and then compare it to what the light meter says. I’m sure its a common exercise – but I have a blast doing it. About a month ago I moved from Rhode Island to Arizona and the first thing I noticed was the differences in the quality of light. Arizona’s light is awful and usually pretty harsh. We have had like two cloudy days since I got here. Back east the magic light for me is tri-x 1/250 f/8. That light seems to give that magical radiant tonality to everything it touches. Every time those numbers pop up on my light meter I smile.

  5. David Wissinger permalink
    March 25, 2010 8:59 pm

    You thought you had me busted on that Zupperflex 5000 reference, didn’t you? But no, smart one, I’ve been holding out for the Zupperflex 5500 which is going to be WAY better than the 5000 ever hoped to be. Ha!

    The third image in your post, the one you got up at 3 am for…looks like he’s praying. One of the best photos I’ve ever seen. Poetry on paper. I’m scratching my head because I don’t see the grain that I expected. Could you tell us the technicals…film used, etc? You know, just to ruin the mood.

    • March 27, 2010 4:36 pm


      That shot was actually shot on 100 speed color slide film. Then converted to black and white. That entire story, Muslim in America was done in black and white, all but that one day in color.

  6. March 25, 2010 10:55 pm

    Amen brother…let there be light!

    • March 27, 2010 4:36 pm

      In some really harsh light right now. But, just working differently.

  7. Marcia permalink
    March 26, 2010 4:25 am

    YES – it’s all about the light. the same applies for painters too.

    • March 27, 2010 4:37 pm


      I agree. I pull a lot of ideas from painters, some I can somewhat do well, others, beyond my reach.

  8. mary schilpp permalink
    April 23, 2010 11:36 pm

    WAIT ! Are you telling me you ONLY shoot film? Or, did you only shoot film on this trip? Either way, that is amazing. I like it. You may have just changed my life !

    • April 25, 2010 7:33 pm

      Only film. Not just in Peru, but in 99% of my commercial work. No reason not to.

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