I was watching a video on the “laws of light” this week and this quote came out that really struck me. “Your camera isn’t your tool, Light is your tool. Your camera merely captures that light.” Although you can point out some flaws with this point, there is certainly an element of truth to it. It’s also a really interesting way to change your perspective when you stop thinking of your camera as your tool but light being your tool instead. So perhaps we should treat light more as our tool.
Painting with Light
Photography literally means “painting with light”. From that perspective, it’s easy to see how light is your tool, it is the thing you paint with. The original photographers didn’t have any cameras at all, they instead put objects on light sensitive paper and then developed that paper. It was only later we adopted crude boxes, then eventually 35mm SLRs and finally the modern smartphone cameras. These modern tools are so frictionless that it is easy to forget the importance of light (especially with ISO abilities that make pitch black seem like day time.) but in truth, the fundamentals still apply and light is the most important element in your image.
The video in question was from a portrait photographer who works in a studio. In a setting like this, you have lights around you of different styles that will change your image dramatically. But it’s still true of all styles including shooting in natural light with no artificial lighting or reflectors. Shooting in the “golden hours” gives you a different feel to the “blue hours” or during the harsh midday sun. The natural light can set your photos mood as much as the composition and subject.
Even when you are taking street pictures, you can control the light to some degree. Finding a great big white wall can act as your reflector on passerby. Then you can also look at using an on/off camera flash to get a harsh gritty look in your images. Looking out for street lights can help you provide backlighting or harsh overhead lighting too. When you start looking around, you’ll find lots of different ways to light your subject that aren’t limited to just pockets of sun light during the summer.
Do Automatic cameras make us devalue light?
You might think that having a more automatic camera would make people focus on the light more than the tool as the camera should “get out of the way” but I actually believe the reverse is true. Because our cameras can get a “good exposure” (whether it really is) without us having to think about how we should balance the light or what aspect of the image we want to expose for. We instead praise the all mighty camera and focus on what it can do. We also think that we’ll get an okay image no matter what the conditions. When you add in the amazingly high ISO values some cameras can go up to, it can turn night into day.
I’m not saying that is a bad thing, the ability to shoot sharp and freeze the action even at night is amazing and it still relies on light. However, with smartphones that are usually pretty good at guessing how a picture should be taken, we don’t intentionally consider the light as much.
The light is your tool, not your camera
When I go out with a film camera, I know that I have to be really aware of the light around me. Shooting in black and white and exposing by eye (I still haven’t got a battery for my film cameras light meter) Means you need to notice pockets of light, work out how easy it will be to see certain aspects of a person and adjust from there.
Those limitations can really help and it makes me wonder if shooting in Auto mode all the time distracts from that. At the same time shooting with Auto ISO lets me focus more on the action going on around me.
5 ways to treat light as your tool in street photography
Here are a few ideas how you can use the light as your tool more (and not your camera) in street photography .
- Shoot in manual mode, really understand the light
- Find pockets of light and use them!
- Look for natural reflectors in the street
- Consider the direction of the light and what mood it will create (e.g. uplight = spooky)
- Carry a flash to wrestle control of the light
What do you think?
Do you view light as your tool or do you think of something else as your tool? How do you use light as your tool on the street.
Also published on Medium.