Light in All its Glory


Light is probably the most important thing when taking an image. You obviously need an image taking device of some sort, but this can be as simple as a piece of photosensitive paper or a pinhole camera, but light is essential. Complete darkness, although almost never present, makes it impossible to see or obtain an image. My father was a professional photographer, taking colour film images for sale for books and magazines long before the days of stock photography. He always used to say that the light you needed depended on what the photo was for. He would often avoid midday sun – too harsh, but might also avoid the evening light as the golden colour cast, while very attractive, was not what he was looking for. This was well before the days of being able to remove a colour cast by digital manipulation.

Sally Mann in an interview with Chinese Photography Magazine said ‘the light in the South is so different from the North, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the Northern light. You have to live in the South to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos…….and also the refulgence or the reflection when light and water interact. There is no coating on the lens of my old camera, which permits a much softer and more luminous light. I am less interested in the facts of a picture than in the feelings. The facts don’t have to be absolutely sharp. I can get information across by appealing to viewer’s emotions’ (American Suburb X, 2013). Her images in the Southern Landscape series reflect this philosophy. They are not clear, sharp and flat but you feel you are looking into the images rather than at them. Sometimes only part of the image is visible, the remainder clouded in mist. The focus is variable – leaving you peering though the murk, wondering and imagining what might be there. I find myself blinking in a hope to see more clearly, to try and see what Mann saw on that day, at that particular time, at that moment. My favourite, much desired image, (simply identified by the year 1998) is very simple. A patch of light, surrounded by trees over grass, or possibly water. I keep changing my mind.

A completely different use of light is shown in the images of Schmidt. He said ‘I prefer black and white photography because it guarantees the viewer a maximum amount of neutrality within the limits of the medium. It reduces and neutralizes the coloured world to a finely nuanced range of greys, thus precluding an individual way of seeing (personal colour tastes) by the viewer. This means that the viewer is able to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint independent of his subjective colour perception. He is thus not emotionally distracted. In order to achieve a maximum of objectivity and thus create a photograph which possesses credibility and authenticity as a document (factual information), I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects. In this context, it is essential that the viewer should be able to recognize the depicted objects clearly and in relation to each other.’ (American Suburb X, 2010). Schmidt’s images are very different from those of Mann. They are clear, without obvious emotional content, explicitly showing the subject. As he said – you can recognise the subject easily and therefore make your own judgements on the content, rather than trying to interpret Schmidt’s thoughts and feelings. The images are relatively emotion free, (I do not think that any image can ever be completely devoid of emotional reading) and therefore what you see can become very personal. In his obituary for the Guardian, Delahaye said’ His language is a language of precision and his tool is the most simple one: a small, 35mm camera, and a few rolls of films. His pictures look simple at first glance, and their anti-sentimentality, their refusal of all the tricks of the usual seduction, their concision and their clarity, give them great efficiency. They show what they show but they manage to retain an opacity, a mystery, and they become a support for our imagination’ (O’Hagan, 2014).

Atget, much earlier on in the development of photography, was very aware of the effects of light and varied his technique over time, initially using the relatively neutral light at midday to produce images that give information about the ‘facts’ while images from later in his career are very different ‘Atget’s late photographs, however, are frequently marked by subjective light and deep shadows. Often made early in the morning, these pictures—such as Parc de Sceaux—use light and shadow to create a mood rather than to describe a place; they mark the apex of Atget’s formal and expressive investigations of the medium.’ (,2017).

All these examples are of photographers who usually took monochrome images where it is often easier to see changes in light intensity, together with the effect of the direction of the light. A further layer of complexity is added in when using colour as the temperature of the light varies as well as it’s apparent quality. Light in the morning and evening is warmer, and may be very red at sunrise and sunset, while it is a more neutral colour at midday. The following table from Cambridge in Colour (,2017) helpfully summarises the effects of light throughout the day.

Time of Day   Contrast Colors Direction of Sun
1. Midday Highest Neutral White Near Vertical
2. Evening & Morning High Slightly Warm Mid to Low
3. Golden Hour & Sunrise/Sunset Medium Warm to Fiery Near Horizontal
4. Twilight, Dawn & Dusk Low Cool Pastel Below Horizon


AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2010). MICHAEL SCHMIDT: “Thoughts About My Way of Working” (1979) | #ASX. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2013). INTERVIEW: Sally Mann – “The Touch of an Angel” (2010) – ASX | Photography & Culture. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017]. (2017). Making the Most of Natural Light in Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017]. (2017). Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

O’Hagan, S. (2014). Michael Schmidt obituary. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017].


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