Let there be light (and shadow)

By Geoff Harris

One of our most experienced photography tutors, Michael Freeman has a new book out called Michael Freeman on Light and Shadow.

One of the biggest things I have learned, both as a photographer and photography writer, is that light is one of the fundamental ingredients of a good photograph – or more accurately, a photograph that goes behind the average. A lot of people obsess about their camera or lens, spending money they don’t need, and then fall at the first hurdle as they don’t capture light in an interesting or sympathetic way. It’s the same with location. You can travel all over the world to get to an amazing location, but if the light has ‘gone’ your shots will be disappointing.

As well as showing the skilful use of light and shadow, Michael’s diagrams help you to apply the concepts yourself

This won’t be news to a lot of more experienced photographers, but Michael’s new book goes a step further by discussing the relationship between light and shadow – shadow being another strong element of many great images. Just look at how great street photographers, such as Henri Cartier Bresson or coming more up to date, Bryan Lloyd Duckett and Trent Parke, use it.

The book begins by reminding readers of the different kinds of light and how to be more aware of how light falls. If you’re a bit shaky on the difference between Marginal Light and Natural Cross Lighting, for example, it’s well worth spending time on this section. There are terms I certainly wasn’t that familiar with, such as Fugitive Light, for example – basically, this is light glancing against a limited surface area in the picture, not across the entire image. There’s also a useful discussion of how light can fall on faces and objects, and how to exploit this.

With so many terms to remember, it can seem a bit overwhelming, but as Michael explains, “the most practical way I know of for dealing with the seemingly infinite variety of light is to group them all into a manageable number of scenarios. If you do this, you’ll find that whether you’re dealing with a landscape, portrait, street or studio still life, the same issues and techniques come into play.” This is a very useful approach.

Understanding ‘high frontal’ light can make a big difference to your portraits

I also like the extensive discussion of how to use highlights, which is an area a lot of photographers either don’t give enough attention to, or then struggle to fix at the editing stage when highlights get ‘blown out’ (a common reason for images being rejected in camera club competitions or photographic society distinction applications).

Michael then brings a similarly comprehensive approach to discussing how to use shadows in photography. Again, I see a lot of images, particularly in the travel or street portrait genre, where otherwise great pictures are let down by shadows falling across somebody’s face, or another subject, in an unplanned and unattractive way.

Michael also refers to a lot of concepts from painting, such as Dutch North Light – a great technique for indoor portraits

A lot of readers will already be making creative use of shadows – think of silhouettes – but again, Michael introduces some lesser-known terms such as volumetric shadow. It’s the type, nearly always cast by side lighting, that falls across a rounded object and reveals its volume, so can be very useful when shooting interesting churches or temples, for example. Michael always provides concrete examples of how to apply the approaches he’s talking about, rather than a dry, academic discussion. If you get better at using and controlling shadows, it’s also a useful skill for product photography – handy when you are selling items on eBay for example or even want to earn a bit of extra money by helping out a local business.

A lot of readers will already be making use of silhouettes but Michael goes into a lot more depth on this and other key techniques for exploiting shadows

Last but not least Michael also pays a lot of attention to the editing stage. With many readers likely to be using a variety of image-editing tools, Michael discusses this in more general terms, using histogram diagrams rather than assuming everyone is editing in Lightroom, for example.

The techniques of highlight overlay are particularly useful with travel photography, even when shooting through glass or perspex

To conclude, Michael Freeman on Light and Shadow is a very useful guide to understanding and creatively exploiting these crucial subjects. There is a nice balance of fairly basic approaches combined with more advanced techniques, and it’s no exaggeration to say that sharpening your skills with light and shadow is one of the biggest things you can do to improve your photography, whatever your favoured genre. Unless you decided to invest in extra lighting gear, you don’t need to spend any more money either, as light and shadows are free!

Michael Freeman on Light and Shadow is published by Ilex Press and is available now from all good booksellers including Amazon.

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Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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