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“The best way out is always through.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Don't Fight the Light

It's only natural when you walk up to a subject, whether it's a person, a building, a dog--or in this case a statue--and attempt to compose it from the front. The front view is, after all, often the view you see first and there is an instinctive human reaction that the front view must be the best view. After all, why does any object have a front if that's not the correct way to view it?

And in terms of casual observation, deciding that the correct way to view things is from the front is a pretty good assumption. But photography is not about casual observation; it's about exploring and discovering and finding the best angle for your purposes. More importantly, there are a lot of times when the lighting will dictate what is or isn't the best angle to photograph a subject and (unless you're shooting in a studio where you can change the lighting direction), there's no point in fighting the lighting just so that you can capture the conventional viewpoint.

Take, for example, this very moving Korean War memorial that I came across in Jersey City, New Jersey. The memorial is at the end of a long avenue and when you're driving up the street and see it approaching, it's facing you and it's very dramatic. There's no way that anyone could be driving up this street and not take a few minutes to park their car and pay their respects for a few moments. The problem the day that I visited, however, was that the light was coming from directly behind and the front of the sculpture was deep in shadow.

I really wanted to take at least a cursory photo of the monument though and there were a few different options. Because I was on my way somewhere else, waiting for the light to change wasn't one of them. So instead, I shot a few frames with exposure compensation to see if that would open up the front of the sculpture, but all it did was wash out the background and it did nothing for me artistically. I also tried flash (it looked artificial and was worse) and I tried shooting a few silhouettes by exposing for the bright sky behind but the shapes really weren't defined enough to handle a silhouette.

Rather than fight the light, I decided to circle around the sculpture and see if there were any good angles from the rear, where the lighting was far better. As I circled around it, I could see that the light was falling beautifully on the backs of the two soldiers and I really liked the view of the city street beyond them. I also really like the gesture of the mens' arms around each other--it was a very significant aspect of the sculpture that was hidden from the front, of course, and one that the sculptor captured beautifully. Even though the sculptor knew that most people's first view of his work would be from the front, it was the view from behind that really told the story of these two soldiers and of the camaraderie of war.

You can't change the direction of the sun's light, but you certainly can (and should) change your position relative to it--and you never know what better shots might be waiting for you when you do.

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