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Photography Tip: Working In Bright Sunlight

shelton20101216.jpg site contributor:

Shelton Muller / Website


How Was That Photo Taken?
Simple Yet Effective


(Click image for larger preview)

Sometimes it is the simplicity of an image that grabs our attention, just like this one. At first glance it is a simple portrait of an African man with a blue baseball cap leaning on a white wall.  But for some reason, it got your attention. Such are the benefits of disassembling an image to see why they work. Usually, it is all in the details, the nuances, the small things. So, let’s have a look at this image. Let’s take it apart to see why it succeeds.

First of all, a little background might be necessary. This image was taken in Durban, South Africa. I was there with three other photographers who, like me, were in South Africa by invitation of Kodak. This shot was taken on a free morning when the four of us decided it was time to once again take our lives into our hands and risk walking through the roughest part of town, each carrying thousands of dollars of photographic equipment across our shoulders. Well, ok, it might not sound sane but it was a memorable morning that resulted in some wonderful images, interactions and experiences. We even lived to tell the tale.

Walking past this white wall a conversation arose between myself and the young lady from Kodak who had not long taken up photography as a more serious and creative interest. She remarked that the light was too harsh for photographs and that a white wall like that would be very hard to work with. However, my take on light is that it is never bad. There is only the bad use of it. Learning to love its moods and emotions is just like a marriage. If there is one thing a photographer is married to undivorceably - it is light.

I remarked that it could be used very powerfully if only I had some people to put against it. Then, almost as if we had been heard by a benevolent force, a group of young men walked by. Naturally we stopped them and asked if they would pose for some photographs. They weren’t in any rush and it all seemed like fun. That’s exactly what we wanted them to believe….Moohahahaha….

Metering for this photograph was my first concern. I was faced with a dark skinned man in white t-shirt leaning on a white wall. Hmmm. What to meter for? I told myself that the wall is primarily white and the camera’s tendency to go for grey would require some disagreement with the camera’s idea of proper exposure. I prefer to work in manual mode and so I disagreed with my Nikon D700’s meter by almost one stop. It worked. Now that the technicalities were done, I could concentrate on the other side of my brain. You see, being male so I can only think of one thing at any given time. The technical part done I could now concentrate on the creative.

Composition came naturally. Without strong composition an image rarely succeeds. It has to rely on other things for its strength. Without a strong emotional, journalistic or social comment element, the image requires the photographer to make ordinary things extraordinary or interesting. This was definitely necessary here. Noticing the fall of the young man’s shadow as he leaned against the wall I saw an immediate opportunity for a leading line from the bottom left corner and a geometric addition to the image. Placing his head in the intersecting thirds position on the top right seemed a logical follow on. Done. The next thing was to work with the human element. What would I have him do?

To me, the best thing to have him do was very little at all. I noticed that when he looked at me the image lost its strength. It suddenly became a portrait I had not intended or previsualised with this kind of light, background and composition. The photograph could not actually be about him as an individual. It required some absence on his part. Looking down the lens made him very present indeed. The young man’s English was limited, and so I had to keep my directions simple and hands on. Walking forward, I smiled and reached for the brim of his cap. Pulling it down over his eyes I gave him the idea of the image I wanted. Thankfully, he laughed and co-operated fully. With his eyes out of the picture, the strength actually returned to the image, giving it less personal identity and making it more about the shapes, colours and textures that he brought so dynamically to the frame. Stepping back, I composed and pressed the shutter. Done.

A simple image of a young man leaning against a white wall might not appear to be any real challenge at all. Its very description is a call to simplicity and it is the simplicity that makes it work. But when you remove complexity it all comes down to the need for nuance. In this case it is the small things that can take the ordinary and make them interesting.

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