Tag Archives: traveling in Burma

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

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The man at the window, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

The Man at the Window

The man at the window, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina.

He was at the old wooden temple with his family, but they were somewhere else in the building, in another room. He sat by the window, deep in thought.

It was my first trip to Burma, and I had a D200 with the Nikkor 17-55 mm 2.8f lens.  From inside, I saw him sitting by that circular window. All wrinkles and warm colors, seemingly the same textures as the wood.

I ran downstairs to get this shot.

To get the shot: I zoomed the lens as wide as it could get and angled the shot so that the wood would distort.  I saw the planks at the bottom of the shot, leading to his hand. I abstracted the window by cropping it above and on the right, so his face would float in the dark background. To get the colors to pop, I used Aperture priority and compensated for exposure by underexposing three quarters of a stop.

In post processing, my goal was to enhance the underexposure and separate the man from the shadows around his face. I also wanted the textures accentuated.

Most often my exposures are subjective, so I did not do a levels adjustment with Photoshop CS2 as I was quite happy with the underexposure. The more dramatic the contrast, the better, for me. Instead I wanted the skin tones to remain the chocolate color of the man’s real skin. So I used Channels, using the blue channel for the wood to give it more grain or noise, and the green channel for the man. I blended the two channels using the Multiply mode, which effectively darkens the whole image. Then using a layer mask, I brushed back the color, using a very soft brush and around 30 percent opacity. Later, on a separate layer, I used the dodge and burn tools to achieve more pronounced textures in the wall. Lastly, I sharpened the whole photo using Unsharp Mask and Fade Unsharp Mask combinations, with the aim of increasing the already dramatic contrast.

And that was how this image was created.

This photo is special to me, one of my favorites, and the reason why I fell in love with the stories of Burma.

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NOTE: This post was written for LightStalking, who asked me this question on Twitter. Thanks for inspiring this blog post!

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Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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