Basic Approaches to Photography: Looking, Lighting, and Photographic Media

December 14, 2019 0 By Peter Engel

This slide show
will introduce you to basic approaches
in photography. The first two sections,
“looking” and “lighting” are primarily for making
photographic imagery. The third section,
“photographic media”, looks at various
examples of how artists have worked
photographically. Here, “looking”
involves considering the full frame of the
viewfinder or image, and the degree of
clarity within an image. In photography’s
early history, practitioners were
often so excited to capture an image
that they didn’t pay complete attention to
what was in the frame. In his book, The
Pencil of Nature, one of the inventors
of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot,
describes looking at his photographs and being
amazed by details and objects that he hadn’t noticed
when making the exposure. In those images, details
competed with one another, rather than supporting
a directed focus. Over time, as he continued
to make images, Talbot begins to
pay more attention to the scene before
making the exposure. Images such as The Open
Door, shown here, reveal how he used
strong contrast between lit and shadowed
areas and strong lines such as the diagonal
line of the broom to direct the
image’s focus. In composing these images,
Talbot was influenced by compositional conventions
he’d noted in paintings. Gestalt theory, the study of
how people perceive elements within a frame, suggests
that viewers take in all elements of a
scene at once. Tom Grill describes this image
as having a “weak frame” in that it is “composed of
two disjointed elements”. His observation of the
“weak frame” is based on Gestalt theory’s principle of
proximity in which elements that are further apart are less
likely to be seen as a group. Understanding Gestalt theory
can help you to make informed choices when
framing your subject. But remember that a “weak frame”
may make for a successful or problematic image
depending upon your goals. For example, Garry
Winogrand aspired to make images that
seemed disjointed. Rather than showing
the politician here as a commanding presence,
Winogrand tilted the horizontal base
of the frame so that the speaker seems unstable
and the surrounding people are preoccupied individuals
rather than a united crowd. Artist John Baldessari
intentionally disobeys rules of photographic
composition. Here, he’s bravely defied the
rule that says you should never photograph someone when
standing in front of a tree or it will look as though the pole
is coming out of their head. Many of the ways we inherently
compose images comes from cues we’ve learned
from our environment. For example, here, I’ve framed
the two boys on either side of the image to direct you to
the center of the scene. This compositional
device comes from early landscape
photography. Here, Carleton Watkins has
created order in this landscape by enframing the scene
with trees on either side. The trees direct us
on to the mountains. Watkins’ vision was influenced
by landscape painting, such as Thomas Cole’s The
Hunter’s Return, shown here. And Cole was influenced by
landscape architecture where gardeners used trees and shrubs
to enframe views of the land. These landscaping principals
exist today, and because we’re used to encountering a
home that’s framed by bushes or entering a park framed by trees,
we tend to intentionally and unconsciously continue these
ways of looking at the world when composing
our own images. Another photographic device that
originated in landscape design is the idea of the
middle distance garden, which is a small garden
that serves as a kind of visual pause in the
midst of a larger space. Photographers can use the
middle distance strategy to give an intermediate
focus to the image. Here, Rineke
Dijkstra has placed the camera slightly
lower than eye level. It’s a vantage point that puts
the emphasis on the subject. We think about the new
mother or her baby and forget about the photographer
taking the picture. Even though this seems like
an image taken objectively, or without viewpoint,
the straight-on vantage is as opinionated
as any other. Photographing in the early 20th
century, Alexander Rodchenko, urged image-makers to take
photographs from more radical angles to disrupt viewers from
complacently looking at images. These worm’s eye and
bird’s eye viewpoints were meant to inspire
political change. If citizens began to see the
world anew, they might also begin to question social
and political agencies. Over time, however,
photographers who did not have ambitions
for political change adopted these
radical vantage points. Here, a close-up,
worm’s eye perspective is used to
sell glasses. Though the image is not
meant provoke change, the photographer is still
relying on the vantage point to suggest that the
product is modern and stylistically
progressive. Depth of field is the
amount of focus in the image from foreground
to background. The image on the left
has wide depth of field. Most of the
image is in focus. The image on the right
has shallow depth of field. The middle tower
is in focus, but everything before
and after is blurry. Depth of field is controlled
by many factors, including the
lens’s aperture. The smaller the aperture,
the greater the depth of field. Depth of field can be used to
direct our attention in a scene. In the image on the left,
the entire image is in focus, so we pay equal attention to the
body, the stairs and the door. In the image on the right,
depth of field is more shallow, with the body being the most
focused part of the scene. Therefore, we pay more
attention to the body, and the stairs and the door
become secondary characters. Point-and-shoot digital cameras
tend to produce images with wide depth
of field. Everything will
be focused. You can alter the image’s
clarity in Photoshop using the gradient
tool and a Blur Filter. Instructions for
this process are in our Reframing
Photography book. This is another example of
how to use focus and blur to direct our attention to
particular parts of the scene. And here, an example of how
complete clarity may be used when all parts of the
image are equally important. Several photographers
have questioned the need for
any focus at all. For his No-Focus series,
Ralph Eugene Meatyard would throw the lens out of focus
before he took the picture. He only printed images that
had no recognizable subject. For this series, Uta Barth
focused on a person, and then asked them
to leave the scene. The resulting image shows the
out-of-focus background that would have been ignored had
there been a distinct subject. For Barth, photography
allows us to do what our eyes are incapable of,
to see without focus. In this next part of
the presentation, we’ll look at light
and shadow as tools that you can use to
emphasize or hide parts of the scene, and to
convey particular psychological or cultural qualities, for
example to designate objects or scenes as mystical,
forbidding, or calming. The casting of shadows
is a way of producing an image
from a subject. In that sense, cast shadows
are unfixed photographs. Here, Christian Boltanski uses
shadows to write with light, to create
ephemeral portraits. Working in the late 19th
century, Henry Peach Robinson also associated shadows
with death and loss. The image reveals a Victorian
fascination with death and a young child’s
premature loss of life. Robinson clothed the girl
in white to suggest she is an innocent figure,
while death, clothed in black, hovers at the window and
forecasts what is to come. Our contemporary sense of the
drama of light and shadow comes from old German fairy tales
where wickedness lurked in the dark forest and
blackness personified evil. The symbolism of light and dark
was made visible in woodcuts by German Expressionist artists
such as Kathe Kollwitz who used high contrast between black and
white to dramatize their images. German Expressionist
film directors translated the chiaroscuro of
the woodcuts to film. For Dr. Caligari, heavy shadows
were painted onto the sets. American film noir continued the
use of heavy shadowing to create chaotic worlds that reflected
the sense of hopelessness after World War II and
during the early Cold War. Characters often seem to be
overwhelmed by pools of shadow and unruly environments that
are cut in ribbons of light. German artist Hans Bellmer
photographed his doll, a life-size puppet with
interchangeable parts, in haunting situations with
German Expressionist lighting. Here, there is only enough
light to reveal the figure and the
half-consumed meal. While Hans Bellmer created
his images to describe personal traumas,
documentarian Esther Bubley photographed on assignment
for the United State’s Farm Security Administration
in the 1930s. Yet here she uses a similar
light and composition as Hans Bellmer when
she documented the loneliness of life
in this boarding house. In the 1980s, Andres Serrano
submerged this crucifix in urine and flooded the scene
with light to suggest the divine combination
of the body of Christ with the bodily
fluid of a human. Though this image,
Piss Christ, is often interpreted as critical
of Christianity, Serrano intended to
use light and urine to suggest that divine light
is part of physical reality. The control of light was
very important to a group of photographers
known as Group f/64, which included Ansel
Adams and Edward Weston. They used the Zone system to
ensure that every photographic image had 10 zones of value,
from pure white to pure black. This understanding of tonal
range was very different than photographer Roy DeCarava’s, who
used a subtler, darker range of tones when photographing
everyday activities of African Americans in
Harlem in the 1950s. You can see his
work at this link. Rineke Dijkstra
also uses more diffuse lighting to
photograph subjects. The drama comes from
subtleties of body language rather than
from the lighting. Adrienne Salinger set up
studio lights when making her series of portraits of
teenagers in their bedrooms. Rather than wanting the light
to seem natural or discrete, she wanted there to be
evidence of her presence. Shadows from her lights reveal
that she was there in the room, potentially
influencing each teen. O. Winston Link
used nighttime as a dark backdrop to
photograph steam engines. He chose to photograph steam
engines at night so that their steam would show up
white, rather than sooty gray. Link’s images seem like
documentary photographs but they’re
carefully directed. To make this image, Link
lined the track with lights — you can see some of them; they
look like little black dots. The convertible is
Link’s but he directed the couple to
cuddle inside. The image on the movie screen
was from the movie playing, but it didn’t show up
when the train went by. Link cut-and-pasted it later. Link took his photographs at a
time when steam engines were about to be phased out
and replaced by diesels. His images show a nostalgia
for the steam engine and for small
town American life. He emphasizes the
plane and train to note how transportation
is about to change. Quality of light refers to the
hardness or softness of light. Sources of hard light include
sunlight on a cloudless day. Hard light produces
strong contrast between shadowed
and lit areas. Another source of hard
light – a photoflood. And another – a flash. You can soften the
hard light of flash by covering the flash with
a semi-transparent material. Here, the flash was used to
take the picture on the left. For the photo
on the right, the flash was wrapped
in white tights, which diffused or
softened the light to reduce the glare
and strong reflections. Sources of soft or diffuse
light include sunlight that’s passing
through clouds. A softbox. And a homemade diffuser. This one is made by
wrapping a foamcore frame with semi-transparent
material. We have instructions for making
this diffuser and some of the tools to come in our book
and in our web video tutorials. You can add light into a scene
by redirecting fall-off light, extra light that’s
moving past the subject. This is a homemade
aluminum foil reflector, made by crinkling foil
and then gluing it to a scored and bent
piece of foam board. Instructions for
making this reflector are in the book
and on the website. Here, the foil reflector
is being used to bounce back light onto the
shadowed side of the figure. Although light looks white
to our eyes, our brain has corrected the light so that
the color cast isn’t apparent. Light is actually capable
of being a great range of temperatures and these are
measured using the Kelvin scale. You can see here the range,
from the reddish-yellow of candlelight at 1,900 Kelvin
to the blue light of daylight, which ranges from 5,500 to
11,000 Kelvin depending on time of day, time of year
and atmospheric conditions. Because no film or digital
sensor can respond to all of these color temperatures,
the photography industry has established two
points along the scale. 3,200 Kelvin for
yellowish tungsten light, this is the kind of light
from household lightbulbs, and 5,500 Kelvin
for daylight. When photographing,
make sure you’re aware of the color
temperature of light. Although we say
daylight is 5,500 Kelvin, it can vary depending
on time of day and year. In the top-left, the
house is photographed in the bluish light of
an overcast morning. In the top-right, the house
is in the warmer light of early afternoon
direct sun. Bottom-left shows light
at dusk and bottom-right shows artificial light
from a car’s lamps. Flashlight is the same
color temperature as daylight. Studio flash is also
daylight-balanced. A slide projector
uses a tungsten bulb. If you need a
strong beam of light, a projector is
a great source. Just insert a blank
slide frame and it will cast a
rectangular beam. Flashlights and other
handheld lights can be good sources
of light. They’re usually tungsten. This is a photoflood
with a tungsten bulb. You can see that the
bulb is yellowish-white. And here, a photoflood
with a blue daylight bulb. I bought this housing for
the lightbulb at a farm store. They sell these as chicken
hatching lights and they’re inexpensive and easy
to clip in place and to direct. You can find inexpensive
lighting equipment on eBay. It’s useful to have two
lights with stands or tripods. Make sure to set your camera to
the correct light temperature or you may get a
color cast in the image. This set of images shows
the variation in color cast, depending on how you do or
don’t correct color temperature. All the images were
photographed in tungsten light. The three images on the
top were taken with film. On the top-left, this extremely
yellow image shows what happens when you photograph with
daylight film in tungsten light. It’s almost impossible to remove
such an extreme color cast when printing
in the darkroom. On the top-middle, the
photographer has corrected the cast DURING
the exposure by placing an 80A blue
filter on the lens. In the top-right, the
photographer has used the correct film (tungsten
film) in the tungsten light. The bottom three images were
taken with a digital camera. To make the exposure
on the bottom-left, the photographer set the camera
to automatic white balance. In the bottom-middle, he
corrected that automatic white balance image using
Photoshop’s Photo Filters, and in the
bottom-right image, he set the camera’s color
temperature to tungsten. In instances where the color
cast does not muddy the entire image, the choice of color
is at the artist’s discretion. You may want an
image of space travel to have the cold blue
futuristic color of the bottom-middle
image, or to have the slightly yellow 1960s
color of the bottom-right. When photographing, you can
use color as a character in the scene, or color objects and
surfaces to suggest particular moods, and to differentiate
between parts of a scene. In this image, the overall
bluish light subdues the scene. The white spot-lit ballerina
costume stands out as though appearing
on stage. And the red glow coming
from under the door suggests that something odd is
happening backstage. That scene was colored mainly
with homemade colored gels such as this one, in which several layers
of colored cellophane or clear gift-wrap is wrapped
around a wire frame. This is a yellow
colored gel. When using gels made
from cellophane, don’t expose them to lights
for too long and don’t put the gel too close to
the light or it may burn. You can find instructions
for making these gels in our book and on
our website tutorials. On top is the artist’s
plan for lighting the scene. The main light is an
unfiltered tungsten light. She used an unfiltered
flashlight to create the strong beam on the ballerina
costume, a blue filtered light on the back wall and a purple
filtered light in the closet. Another property of
light to consider is the direction of light, which
will affect what is visible, the direction of shadows and
how textured surfaces appear. In this series, which
appears in our book, the artist experimented with
back lighting, front lighting, side lighting positioned at
various angles, top lighting, and lighting
from underneath. The focus of each
image shifts radically, depending on whether
the face is illuminated, what parts of the mask
are illuminated, and how flat or three-dimensional
the surfaces appear. In this third section, we’ll look at a range of
photographic processes. In the first work, artist
Garth Amundson creates his own lenses by sewing
plastic soda bottles into elaborate,
exaggerated shapes. This is a portrait
of the artist, captured through
one of his lenses. Franz John copied an
entire gallery using a hand-held photo-copier
that spit out a paper recording of
everything it scanned. He placed these strips
of photographs over the original surfaces to
create the copied gallery. Here Franz sat on the roof of
the museum and scanned the sky for 24-hours with
a flat bed scanner. Tim Hawkinson used
photography to see what he is incapable
of seeing, all the parts of his body that
aren’t visible to his eyes. He put the images
together to form this skin. The black disk to the
side of the bicycle is a reverse
camera obscura. Inside, is a
miniature landscape. Pedaling the bike creates
power that turns on lights inside the
camera obscura. The lights project
the interior landscape through holes
in the camera. The cyclist creates her own
environment as she rides. Adam Fuss creates images
using light and chemistry. For the series titled Love, Fuss
placed disemboweled rabbits on a large sheet of
Cibachrome paper, then exposed the
still-life to light. The colors of the image come
from light passing through areas of lesser translucency and from
the rabbits’ intestinal acids. For his movie images,
Hiroshi Sugimoto documented palatial theaters built in
the golden age of cinema using only the light
from the movie. The camera’s shutter stayed
opened during the entire duration of the film so that
what you see is the theater’s architecture and, on the screen,
the entire length of the movie. Traditional still-life,
landscape and nude painting often showed idealized scenes,
such as bouquets of flowers that would never have bloomed
at one time, and landscapes that appear natural but
were highly constructed. Kate Buxey combines these
traditions in one self-portrait. In the image,
she’s clothed with a feast of traditional
British foods. Pierre Gour uses a historic
process, gum bichromate to print photographic
images of masculinity and wholesome icons of
consumption onto canvas. He softens or clarifies
images by painting and distressing
the canvas. Screenprinting is a
great way to print photographic imagery
on fabric. This pillowcase provides all
the information you need if you’re abducted
by aliens in the night. Images can be reproduced
through a variety of materials. Here, the yarns of
latch-hood rug become the pixels of Whitney
Lee’s image, Soft Porn. Collage can be used to
join images together. Anne Roecklein cut and
reassembled found postcards to create an
exaggerated main street. Here, I’ve wrapped
photographic prints around a three-dimensional,
bendable form, to create a figure that acts
out my physical memories. A book can be a great
way to present photographs. This is the layout
available at, which offers high-quality,
inexpensive printing. Keetra Dixon constructed
her own photo booth where she may
secretly analyze sitters. The strips of photographs
appear with mysterious graphic marks,
symbols and messages. You can find commercial
photobooths in theaters, arcades, museums
and other spots, and use them to
create multiple images. This is a series of
stamps produced for Nick Tobier’s
revolution. Check out the Reframing
Photography book for more photographic projects,
ideas, and processes.