Master light in your photography with Michael Freeman
November 10, 2020
Your guide; Michael Freeman
One of the most widely published photographers worldwide, Michael Freeman has worked for most major international magazine and book publishers in a long career. A leading photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine for three decades (more than 40 assignment stories), Freeman has also published 147 books on a range of subjects. Based in London, Pre-pandemic, Freeman travelled for half of each year on shooting assignments, principally in Asia. See his website here.
In this new age of computational photography, when tone, colour, and content can be altered almost at will, few constants remain. One thing remains resistant to digital manipulation, however, and that is the quality of light. Light is not only the basic commodity of photography; it’s also very often the quality that brings excellence or even magic to a picture.
Never mind that it may seem unpredictable and uncontrollable, being able to handle light well is a major skill for every photographer. What’s important is to be able to understand it, to know what kind of light will bring out the best of the subject in front of your camera, and especially to know how to get the most out of any kind of light. That’s why I’ve organised my book (Light & How to Photograph It by Michael Freeman) in a non-standard way – a practical approach that works for us as photographers. As I see it, there are three major groupings: light that you can plan for, light that changes so quickly that you have to chase it, and light that you can help along.
All of the lighting in this book is of the kind you could call ‘found’ lighting over which you have no real control, most of it is natural daylight, some of it the artificial lighting that illuminates our environments.
Waiting for the light
Sitting around waiting doesn’t sound like much of a management technique, let alone a light-management technique, but done properly it delivers the results. It depends, though, on knowing what you’re waiting for, and this understanding takes things to a different level. Natural light, which is mainly what we’re dealing with here, comes from a combination of climate, weather, and time of day.
Climate means location, and you can plan for that by organising a trip. Weather and time of day continue without any possibility of influence from you, and this is where intelligent waiting comes in. ‘Intelligent’ because waiting involves planning, and it’s a very deliberate approach to photography. Most of all, it’s about knowing what light is possible from all the combinations, what each kind of light is good for in shooting, and how to extract the most from it in timing, framing, composition, viewpoint, and a sense of colour (or black & white).
Practically, as a photographer, I divide light into the kinds I can expect, and the kinds that take me by surprise. This makes perfect sense for shooting, because they each prompt a different way of working. Naturally, there are borderline cases, such as a shaft of sunlight that spotlights a small part of a scene. If you’re just passing through a new place and the weather is uncertain, this will probably come as a surprise. But in a location you know well, and in a bout of predictable sunny weather, that spotlight will be repeated, with a slight difference, the following day.
One thing I’m going to warn about is falling into line too easily with the accepted norms of attractive light for photography. Not every scene has to be gorgeous and lyrical. Imagery means variety, and hunting for the perfect – and therefore the same – golden light across a pretty landscape actually means giving up on your imagination and following the herd. I’ve done it myself, and it’s often hard to resist. It’s especially common in contemporary published landscape photography. The problem is that taking this approach means heading in the same direction as others – a sort of photographic gold rush.
Shooting into the light
Shooting directly into the sun carries its share of technical problems, simply because of the huge range between the sun’s disc and foreground shadows. The term for this is dynamic range (what photographers pre-digitally used mainly to call the contrast range), which technically speaking is the ratio between the maximum and minimum light intensity in a scene.
There is also the dynamic range that the camera is capable of, and the dynamic range of how you show the final image, whether on a screen or as a print, but for the time being let’s discuss the scene dynamic range. Shooting straight into the sun gives about the highest dynamic range that you can face in photography, and in fact, truly high dynamic range (HDR) means any view in which the light source itself is visible. Oddly enough, dynamic range was less of a problem with film than with digital, according to my point of view (not everyone’s).
This might sound strange, given that digital images have such amazing potential for being processed any way you like, but one of the differences between film and a sensor is clipping. The way film responds to having the sun in-frame is to grade smoothly from highlights to the out-of-range white of the sun.
A sensor just loses it sharply, because once each photosite on the sensor is full of photons, it delivers pure white to the processor. This is known as clipping, because there is a sharp cut-off in what the sensor can record of highlights. It also varies by channel between red, blue and green. One effect of this, when the colours go beyond the gamut of the color profile, is banding, which looks
terrible, (see Banding and Processing, below).
Chasing the light
Yes, chasing light is a real expression used by photographers. Magnum photographer Trent Parke, for example, defines his work this way (‘I am forever chasing light’), and it means the search for special lighting conditions falling on a subject that deserves it and responds to it. Or, as Parke continues, ‘Light turns the ordinary into the magical.’
This is the flip side of waiting for the type of lighting that you can fairly confidently plan for, and it carries with it a different attitude and a different way of working. The lighting conditions I refer to in my book are more short-lived and liable to appear at short notice. They include, for example, storm light, the light through ground fog, edge light and light shafts. The varieties of storm light, for example, are elusive and momentary, because storms by definition are fast-changing and unpredictable events.
And the thing about unpredictability and rarity is that it tends to carry a premium. When sunlight bursts through heavy storm clouds, perhaps illuminating a sheet of falling rain, even the least light-sensitive person feels the sudden difference, the vision made all the more valuable because we know it is not going to last for long.
This is the king of fleeting light that breaks through during a storm – or at least, during particularly heavy and cloudy weather. Storm systems and thunderclouds being what they are, this kind of break (in both senses, in the clouds and in luck) is virtually impossible to predict, and it remains one of the classic chasing-the-light scenarios. It transforms a scene from one with almost zero possibilities into the opposite, an image that has focus, drama, and contrast.
Banding and processing
None of the above is any reason to avoid shooting into the sun, but be aware that the processing will take longer. This banding reduces if you reduce the exposure with the raw converter’s slider; also, the raw converter’s highlight-recovery slider will help. It may even be necessary to make two versions from the raw converter and blend them later.
Finally, using Replace Color in Photoshop after raw conversion allows you to target ‘bands’ and change their hue (yellow tending to green is common), saturation and lightness. An alternative if you have the camera locked down is to shoot a range of exposures and make an HDR image file.
Blocking the sun
You can shoot into the sun without having to see its disc, and avoid the dynamic range problems. One useful way around this is to position yourself so that something blocks the sun’s image. The dynamic range is still high, but more manageable. Depending on what is doing the blocking, and on whether there is space beneath it, there are two possible side effects, and they can be turned to advantage in making the shot more interesting. One is a cast shadow, the other a reflection of the sun on the ground or whatever other flat surface you see.
The second uses the reflection effect. I had spent the afternoon having the Blackbird (below) towed around the airfield at Beale AFB, and this was to be the last shot before sunset. Of course, gauging the exact point of sunset and having the aircraft positioned exactly on the axis between sun and camera meant a lot of messing around, but it was worth it. I did not want a silhouette in this case. Instead, I needed to show detail, hence blocking the sun to pull down the dynamic range, and with the camera low on the runway pick up the red glow of the sun’s reflection. If the sun had been in shot, incidentally, it would have overwhelmed this kind of reflection.
Capturing the spotlight
When it happens, it’s similar to a light being switched on suddenly. Thick, heavy storm clouds like those in this picture are unlikely to leave any but the smallest gaps, hence the spotlight effect illuminating just a small part of the scene. Overexposing is a real and disastrous danger, and even though shooting continuous is a sloppy way of dealing with a landscape, if there are any doubts about the exposure, it’s better to bracket heavily than lose the shot. Brief time to work within is the other problem with storm light.
The clouds are almost always too thick and moving too fast to allow anything but a short gap in their cover, sometimes seconds, rarely more than a very few minutes. That often means moving quickly to find a clear viewpoint: for the Tibetan shot this meant first driving fast and then running to get an empty foreground.
A break on the horizon
Similar to the kind of storm light we saw, but located right on the horizon, this kind of lighting often works best by shooting toward the light. The reason is that it is rarely powerful enough to light things up intensely, for much the same reasons that spotlighting variety of storm light is usually so small and brief. Cloud thickness and fast movement due to storm activity tend to keep the gap small and brief, and there is an even greater thickness of cloud stretching horizontally than upwards. As with all these kinds of storm light, it works because of the contrast between dark and light. This is light that seems as if it doesn’t belong in the overall scene.
These two examples were taken at different ends of the day: sunset for the Indian bathers in Kerala, and sunrise in Cornwall. In both cases, it was simple perseverance without much expectation of things working out. The sudden break on the horizon is rare, but the only way of capturing it is to be there on the off-chance. What you don’t see here are all the occasions where nothing happened and the clouds stayed solid.
The Kerala shot was taken during the monsoon, so certainly not expected, but I had to shoot the story anyway. It was a little unusual in that people were happy to go bathing under thick cloud and occasional rain. It wasn’t that they saw the sun and rushed into the sea.
Dozmary Pool is the site where, in Arthurian legend, the sword Excalibur first appeared, and where it was returned. Again, this shot was taken for a story, on Camelot, but due to bad weather the day before I was tempted to give up and return some other time. The problem was that it looked pathetic and unimpressive in rain and cloud, whereas the story demanded that it have some presence. I returned for dawn the next day, fully prepared to wait for a while and then leave. Then the light broke for about ten minutes, and all changed. Luck, of course, but you have to give luck a chance.