Light and Color: A Simple Recipe for a Great Photograph

Strinking sunset light provides a brilliant backdrop for these flowers in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia.

It’s a simple recipe, light and color. The two most important aspects underpinning a color photograph. Of course there are others: an interesting subject, composition, gesture, mood/emotional impact; but without light and color you don’t really have a color photograph.

Why is it then that so many color photographs we see are almost entirely void of these two most essential elements?

Here’s how an old dog photographer, like me, would go about making a photograph in the days of film.

Choice of Subject or Scene

The choice of subject or scene was largely irrelevant unless it was well lit, either due to the circumstances under which you found that subject or scene, or by some action you take. You could, for example, do the following:

  • Move the subject into better light
  • Move yourself so that, as a result, the subject or scene is now lit from a different direction
  • Add light (e.g., flash).

The School of Hard Knocks

One of the lessons I learned as a photographer in the days of film-based photography was that, if the subject or scene in question is not well lit, or if you don’t have the ability to light it, you simply wouldn’t photograph it. There was just no point in doing so. Disappointment taught me what could and what could not be photographed successfully.

The advantage of this approach was that, over time, I developed a keen awareness for what was and what was not going to photograph well. As a result I’d rarely achieve less than thirty three out of thirty six good images on a roll of transparency (e.g., slide) film. The only times when that average would be tested would be when my desire to photograph poorly lit subjects or scenes got the better of me.

And, unlike almost all the professional photographers, I almost never bracketed my exposures. I absorbed far less film and processing costs than many other pros or serious enthusiasts. In some cases those thirty three exposures would be of thirty three different subjects or scenes. Most serious enthusiasts using transparency film would use three to five times move film and processing costs to achieve the same results.

No doubt they would argue that, in doing so, they were confident of achieving a higher success rate than if they did not bracket their exposures. I would argue that, in fact, they didn’t understand how to achieve a correct exposure in the first place. Bam!

Restrictions Are Good For You

I believe the fact that my budget didn’t allow that approach is the main reason why my success rate and overall understanding of the light, dynamic range (e.g., contrast) and exposure trinity was so keenly understood. That, and a very good working understanding of the Zone System (adapted, in this case to transparency film).    

Naturally, I understand the power of applications such as Lightroom or Photoshop to re-make the world in our vision. And it’s true, though to a lesser extent, that a photograph could also be transformed in the darkroom. However, for most folks, the photograph is made in the camera rather than the on the desktop or in the darkroom and, for those folks, to produce great photos they need to approach their photography more like the successful film-based photographer of old. The simple need to get it right in camera. Which, may I say, is what they so desperately want to be able to do.

Without Light there is No Color

Having that immediately feedback on the back of your camera’s LCD screen is very useful. I use it all the time. Though I’m talking more about the histogram (i.e., the graphical representation of the various levels of brightness within the image) than the actual image of the subject or scene you’ve just photographed. But, more importantly, if you want to produce photographs that connect emotionally with your audience and communicate your own, personal response of the world around you it’s essential to be able to see and adapt to light. And without light, there is no color.

Light defines the world for photographers. It illuminates and brings to our attention all manner of subject matter, even that which we would otherwise deem unworthy of our attention or of a photograph. Even today, as a died in the wool digital photographer, when asked what it is I photograph I have the same answer I’ve had for many years.

What I Photograph

”Well, I mostly photograph people, landscapes and buildings and, as I do a lot of that while I travel, I call myself a travel photographer. Though, really, I just consider myself a generalist. That’s because I don’t really have a preference for one kind of photography or another. It’s light and color that, ultimately, determines where I look and what I photograph.”

But there’s an advantage to being a generalist, in a world full of specialists. I’m interested in most kinds of photography and have the knowledge and experience to be able to help folks produce the results they want quickly and efficiently. I would never try to push people to my own way of thinking. Rather, I take the time to understand what they want to achieve and provide them with a recipe for how to do so.

You’d be surprised at just how beneficial it is talking to the person next to you on that long train ride from Milan to Minsk, Rochelle Rochelle. It might just be me.

Photographing a Flower

The above photo was made in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. It’s a wild and dangerous place to be sure. But, with a sensible attitude to the potential warnings (e.g., crocs) provided by authorities, it’s a unique environment that’s full of opportunities for great photography.

I made this photo after a long day’s work as a stills photographer on a T.V. documentary film for Foxtel. Fish Out Of Water dealt with the environment and was hosted by world champion swimmer Ian Thorpe.

Despite the trials and tribulations associated with working as a stills photographer including, in this case, enormous amounts of standing around in hot and humid conditions, I jumped out of my seat to make this photo. It was one of the highlights of the day. Simple and pure and based upon light, color and, I believe, strong composition.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who could name the flower in question. But, from the point of view of an artist/photographer, that’s really not what the photo is about.

Be a Better Photographer

To learn more about your own camera and how to put it to use to make great photos consider enrolling in one of my private one-to-one photography courses. Specially tailored to your needs and the vagaries of your own camera you’ll jump years ahead in your understanding of the art of photography and how to achieve the results you most desire.

A single three hour session is all most folks need to put them on the road to success. And there’s thirty five years of practical experience, and a whole bunch of testimonials from happy customers, underpinning that claim. To discuss feel free to Contact Me directly. 

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru