“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”Anton Chekov
Now the clocks have gone back, and sunlight seems rationed for the foreseeable future, it’s easy to be disheartened by the lack of light in our lives. This goes double for photographers, who crave light like I crave sugary treats. But, just like my favourite Haribo*, when light is in short supply the smallest amount can sometimes provide the biggest impact.
Much of the image content we see every day is flooded with light. Studio shots used in media campaigns jump from your screen or billboard, and the latest generation of smartphones automatically generate High Dynamic Range (HDR) pictures maximising light and colour to incredible effect.
That said, too much of a good thing is still too much. In an oversaturated visual landscape, sometimes it’s the subtle image that’s actually most powerful. This is where the limited light of these autumn and winter months provides some fantastic opportunities for strong but subtle shots that stand out from the crowd.
Most of the time when light is in short supply and we want to capture an image or scene, the temptation is to add it artificially, most often with a flash. But, whilst introducing new light is absolutely the right thing to do in many scenarios, in others it can ruin the shot.
As an example, let’s look at a timeless painting that makes dramatic use of limited light – Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which is on display at the National Gallery. The key thing in this image is that every person is lit from a single source, a candle obscured by a glass bowl in the painting’s foreground. It’s this single candle that casts such a fantastic array of light and shade across the faces of all the subjects and lends the painting its beautifully moody atmosphere.
Just imagine we have been magically transported back in time (with a camera or smartphone) to the scene of this image. If we let the camera follow its automatic settings it’ll add flash, and in so doing, ruin the atmosphere. The smartphone camera algorithms that calculate light levels are incredibly advanced but lacking in, for want of a better way to describe it, soul.
Rather, if we make the camera work with only the available light, by turning off the flash, adjusting the exposure, taking the time to capture the subtleties and nuances, we might end up with something that reflects the magic of the moment. After all, in this case it’s the light that’s already in the scene that makes the faces look so interesting.
The shots below help to illustrate this. The performer’s face is lit almost entirely by the flames, as the ambient light is so low it can’t make a difference. If we had added flash, not only would we have lost the glow from the flames and the accompanying shadows, but the flames themselves would also be completely washed out. We would have a more evenly lit image, but also a much more boring one.
Of course, low light photography is a little more complicated without a flash, and there will nearly always be some compromise in terms of image grain and sharpness, but when it comes to capturing the essence of this darker, moodier season it can really pay dividends.
*It’s Tangfastics, of course.