photo prose: gary rabenko

Seeing shadows


Nothing is more mystifying to a person who wants to understand photography than light. Books, classrooms and websites on photographic lighting sometimes add to the confusion. Using light involves awareness of where the light is coming from, and it does not matter whether it is a natural, man-made or photographer’s light.

A light’s properties include intensity, but much more significant are its angle of direction and quality. Quality may not mean much to one who has not spent considerable time studying shadows, because actually when we consider quality, we are evaluating mostly the shadows created by that light.

In my experience not one in 100 photographers actually see, or desire to see, light. Most became photographers for other reasons — such as liking to take photos! It takes years to first technically understand; then develop the sensitivity to see, and finally be able to feel, light. Until that occurs, one’s impression of the light is only vague or even imaginary.

Photographers often want to make their pictures different. But being different does not mean being better and one who does not see and feel light cannot other than by accident have the light at a purposeful angle at the right time. The abundance of gear has many photographers lighting everything and everybody from every angle. These bright images, with highlights everywhere, are not examples of the skilled use of light nor are they better photography.

Recently a businessman-come-photographer of 15 years confessed how he is still puzzled but is always trying to learn lighting via classes and experimentation. It is important to realize that one can easily become mentally blind to light by failing to feel it early and often and thinking one can see it when one does not.

The best way to learn to see and feel light would be to study with someone who really understands and loves it, someone for whom it is as natural as breathing and who considers photography first and foremost to be drawing with light. Such a photographer may or may not have the latest gear, but one can learn lighting from a flashlight, a candle or a simple lamp. One can only begin to feel light by continued interest and fascination in reading light, not reading about light.

Light is all around. Walk around late in the afternoon and see how the same things look different from different angles — that is light at work making shadows. Consider this question: In a small black room a bare bulb is five feet from a subject. How would the character of the subject’s photograph change if that light was 200 watts instead of 40 watts?

Gary Rabenko is artistic and technical director of Rabenko Photography and Video Arts, 516-593-9760,