Backlighting as metaphor

leavesOn a late Fall day, backlit light from the sun poured through a few of the leaves, while others fell into shade. The resulting brilliance and saturation of color contrasted against the dreary background, giving this photograph its visual interest. Taken on Kodak Ektar 120 film with my vintage Wardflex twin lens reflex camera.

Backlighting, or light coming into the camera from behind an object, is usually done badly. When I taught photography at a trade school, the students thought it was the coolest thing to turn off the lights in front of a portrait subject and blast out light from behind. The result was dark and muddy faces and an explosion of light around the face. This was taken as an “edgy” break from the rules, which was the students’ goal in the first place. Only as the year wore on did the students realize that backlighting, per se, was not a shortcut to a beautiful (or edgy) image.

Why mention this? Because the story demonstrates how lighting is what allows a photograph to have the same impact as seeing something with our own eyes in real time. Lighting corrects for the difference between a photograph and actual perception. Or put another way, for the difference between photons falling on a sensor, in two dimensions, and photons falling on two eyes and then processed by a human brain.

Photographers learn this over decades of practice and hard-earned experience. It is part science and part art and part learning to see; the latter what Kodak called “visual literacy”. It is these three components of a good photograph that take so long to master, and for which there are no shortcuts, no list of ten tips, no tricky lens or camera that can help you. I’ll have more to say about all of this in future postings.

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