Friday, January 14, 2011

Right Light Makes the Photo, Wrong Light Breaks It

Over the holidays I was fortunate to visit San Francisco and Northern California. The days leading up to my departure from Cowtown were met with much anticipation, as this was to be my first trip to the Golden State as a learning DSLR photographer. While I've found many wonderful shooting opportunities in Fort Worth since embarking on my DSLR journey early last year, it's always nice to get a change of scenery, which naturally provides shooting challenges I may not have previously encountered in my home state and town.

Anyone with even a superficial knowledge of San Francisco can fathom that it is a very photogenic place. Simultaneously, many of these same photogenic spots have been shot countless times, and may appear to some as cliche' upon initial viewing. To me, what makes the difference between mere cliche' and an interesting photo is not only composition, but how the scene is lit.

Upon arriving in Frisco, I was greeted by slate gray, cloudy skies, with the threat of a Pacific storm due in by evening. Not exactly the deep blue skies and crisp sunshine I was perhaps secretly hoping for. What to do...keep the camera sheathed in its bag and wish the clouds away? Nope...just look for good light where it can be had. And at times that means you need to wait for it, I've found.

Here's an example. Outside my Lombard Street motel window, across the street, was this shot:




Technically, it's a decent shot. The even lighting from overcast skies doesn't make it easy to blow the exposure. But, as lit, it strikes me more as a snapshot than a photo that has some measure of attention grab.

Here's the same scene, shot just a few hours later:





This scene interests me a lot more than the previous shot. The red glow from the neon not only bathing the curving bay window of the apartment building, but also how it accentuates the cornice over the window. The curtains of the upstairs apartment being open and the interior lit, gives the viewer a glimpse of San Francisco residential life without appearing vouyeristic. The clutter on the roof muted by the night sky. The illuminated snowman and icicles on the balcony give away what time of year the picture was taken. Overall, while the composition of this shot differs little from the first, it holds my interest far more, all because of how it is lit.

What I like about this shot is that it has sort of an Edward Hopper painting ambiance to it. If you're unfamiliar with Edward Hopper's work, go to Google images and check it out.

The first night and following morning provided me another lesson regarding lighting, and from the same motel window:








This isn't really a good snap; mainly a grab shot as I was testing how it would look without a neutral density filter over the lens. At the time I did not know I'd be using this shot as part of a blog entry. You just never know. As is, the shot has some visual interest, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Frisco urban streetscapes, but it is nothing compelling.

So how about a different time of day?





Early morning (predawn) is a great time to shoot. Same goes for evening after sunset. I've had fun with other shots in the past where I've attempted to balance the deep blue of dusk with artificial lighting. Cameras do cool things with both. No less at dawn, either.
This still is no fantastic scene, but if I had only this or the one above to show to someone, or be judged by in a contest, this latter one would be a no-brainer entry.

Take-away lessons? Within the same 24 hour period, I managed to get all of the photos above. While my first day in Frisco was cloudy followed by rain, the next day dawned clear. The clouds and rain kept me and my D90 indoors, but night and the following morning turned otherwise pedestrian shots into keepers. It appears patience and timing are integral aspects of becoming a better photographer.

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