Unlock the Secrets of Using Natural Light: Interview with Mitchell Kanashkevich
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been launching a new dPS eBook – Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool. The response has been fabulous and we’ve seen it selling faster than any other eBook we’ve produced so far.
With one week to go to save 25% on the price of Natural Light (and to go into the draw to win $1000 of lenses) I thought it’d be good to chat with author Mitchell Kanashkevich and explore a little more on the topic of Natural Light to give those of you still thinking about buying it a little more insight into the topics covered and Mitchell’s approach.
It also gives us a chance to show off a little more of Mitchell’s amazing photography.
Why did you choose to write an entire e-book on natural light?
The main reason is because, as the subtitle of the e-book says–natural light is “a photographer’s most powerful tool.” As much as I love off-camera artificial lighting setups, they don’t come close to natural light in terms of versatility. What’s also great, is that everyone has access to this tool, it’s free, and, in most cases we don’t need any special gear to harness it, only the camera that most of us already have.
I also wrote the e-book because I felt that there wasn’t enough information out there on how we can make the most of natural light photographically. When searching for material in books and online, I mostly found that the whole matter was either over-simplified or made unnecessarily difficult. I wanted to write a guide that struck the right balance between being comprehensive, yet very accessible.
You keep referring to light as a tool and more specifically as a tool for visual communication, please expand on that.
The idea that natural light or any light for that matter is a tool for visual communication comes from the fact that the core aim of every photograph is to communicate something visually. With a click of the shutter we aim to convey what something looked like, what it felt like to be in a certain place or with a certain person, or, we might want to do all of those things at once.
Composition is the primary way in which we communicate visually. The frame of the camera viewfinder is the tool to do that. We choose what to include into the frame, what to exclude, what to put emphasis on and so on. The way we work with light is the next most important factor in this process of visual communication. Light can radically change the way that the same scene looks. Particular types of light can heighten a sense of drama within the frame or, can evoke a very specific mood.
Look at the image above, it works precisely because of the lighting scenario in which it was shot. The colorful, lit-up, cloudy sky communicates just how beautiful and magical the moment, the nature is, the surfer is secondary, under other circumstances the same scene wouldn’t work. The point is that light can be largely responsible for what a photograph communicates and in that sense, it’s an important tool that can and should be used when communicating visually through photography.
You mention that there are different types of light and you dedicate a whole chapter in the ebook to different kinds / types of light or lighting scenarios. You divide something that is abstract and boundless into tangible segments. What is the reason behind this?
I feel that making natural light less abstract and more tangible makes it much easier to understand. There are certain common natural lighting scenarios, for example – light during the golden hour, twilight, or light produced on an overcast day. There are characteristics that are typical to these lighting scenarios and there are emotional associations that come with those characteristics. If we understand what they are, we can harness the light in the various scenarios much more effectively.
So, in short, I break down natural light into tangible segments to make it easier to understand it and hence, to help photographers use it more effectively in their visual communication.
What I found particularly interesting is that you mention there is no good or bad kind of light.
That is absolutely true and, I can’t stress this fact enough. I used to be obsessed with only photographing at sunrise and sunset. I wanted all my photographs to look beautiful, the image above is a typical example of a scene beautified by the golden light. As you can see, all the colors are looking particularly vivid and lively and this is great, when you want to communicate that something is beautiful and to give off an overall lively and positive mood with the photos you create.
At some stage however, I realized that photography is not only about communicating the beauty of a place or people. There are also stories of hardship, stories that evoke sombre or melancholic moods. If we photograph everything in the same, beautiful, golden light, those stories will not be communicated effectively.
The image above is of fishermen extracting fish from a drained artificial fish-pond. Their work is hard, dirty, wet and the weather is miserable, the overall mood is not a positive one–this is what I wanted to communicate. In large part because of the diffused, almost grayish light produced on a cloudy day, the story and the mood are communicated effectively. There’s no beautifying effect from the light, and that’s the way it should be.
There are countless examples where light, which makes everything look beautiful is not the ideal light for the story unfolding in front of your camera. So once again–there’s no good or bad light, just the right or wrong light for what we are trying to communicate.
In your last post and in the e-book you talk about working with natural light and “controlling” the way it impacts the scene; is this something that everyone can do?
The simple answer is “Of course, yes”, but the more complete answer is “it depends on the circumstances.” We can’t do anything about a clouds blocking the sun, but we can still “direct” whatever light we have, if we get indoors during that cloudy day. We can’t diffuse the harsh midday sun, but we can find a more diffused kind of light, if we move into a shaded area.
Ultimately, there’s a lot that we can do to the way that natural light impacts what we intend to photograph, but there are limits. If we are photographing a vast landscape for example, or if we are out in the open with no shade or buildings in sight, there is not much that can be done about the light that we’re dealt.
What do you do when you can’t “control” natural light?
I adapt to whatever light I have. By adapt I mean that I look to communicate visually whatever works best in the kind of light that I’ve been dealt. I generally have a few ideas on what to communicate floating around and when I can’t do anything about the light, I allow it to dictate which one of those ideas will come to life. Having more than one idea increases the chances that I’ll be able to effectively communicate through a photograph, no matter the lighting conditions. Below are a few examples and stories about how I adapted to certain lighting scenarios that I came across.
The diffused, flat light that I had for the entire day due to a cloudy sky didn’t in itself create any interest or drama. As a result, in this situation, before anything else, adapting to the light meant communicating a story that didn’t rely on the light to be interesting. This meant that I needed an interesting or a dramatic subject. Thankfully, I found this little guy. Having him in the photo already meant that I had a potentially strong image, but I also wanted to communicate some sense of mood, what it was like to be there. When the neutral, diffused light was combined with the cool and subdued colors at the scene (through the way I framed the image), it helped me communicate what I felt when making the photograph–a somewhat sad mood and the coolness of the air.
Here I had a very dramatic lighting scenario, the sun was in its last stages of descent and the scene was filled with a beautiful orange light. Adapting, or visually communicating what worked best, meant finding a subject or finding a way to show a subject where I could convey the beauty of this natural phenomena without taking much attention away from it. I found that if I photographed the fishermen and children pulling the boat ashore as silhouettes, I’d have the perfect visual compliment to the lighting scenario at hand. The subject was shown in a dramatic manner, yet it was rendered simple enough not to take away from the raw, natural beauty around.
Bright, bleaching midday light is great for communicating hardship and tough living or working conditions. Such a lighting scenario was perfect for visually communicating the daily hardships faced by the sulfur miners at the Ijen crater in Indonesia. I adapted to this light by photographing a moment of hardship against a backdrop and with elements which, when illuminated by the harsh, bleaching light allowed me to essentially say – this is not a nice place to work in.
There are also situations when the ideas I have about what to communicate must be abandoned because a certain lighting scenario inspires me to come up with something new. It might be because the light is so distinctly and surprisingly dramatic, or, it can just be because there’s something special in the way that it interacts with what it illuminates.
In the case of the above image, I initially wanted to convey the beauty of the monastery complex on the mountain in a pretty straight-forward manner, but, when I saw this interesting interplay of shadow and light, the way that the shadow cut through the mountain and made the buildings jump out of the scene, I was compelled to make a photograph that might not have been as beautiful as possible in the conventional sense, but certainly very dramatic.
One of the key things I took away from the e-book was that once you grasp how natural light works, you can make better images more consistently with virtually any camera. Do you have anything else to add to this?
That’s exactly right. It’s incredible how much we can do with the simplest of cameras, if we know what we’re doing, as far as light is concerned. I’d say that the only prerequisite is for the camera to have some sort of control over the exposure. Even the iPhone, with certain Apps will allow us that.
The above image is just one of the photographs that I recently took with my iPhone. There are a few more examples in the e-book as well. I really wanted to make the point that we don’t need the fanciest, most advanced gear to make great photographs, as long as we understand how natural light, our next most powerful tool after the camera works.
Do you have your copy of ‘Natural Light’ yet?
There is just 1 week to go to save 25% on this brand new eBook. If you pick up a copy in that time you’ll also go into the draw to win $1000 worth of lenses. Grab your copy here today.