I am restless. Unsettling so. I am finding myself wondering aloud what the point is of the image in front of me. Is it to delight? Is it to show my how sharp the lens is? Is it to make me see something I may not have usually seen? Is it to show me how many lights the photographer has? Some of those reasons are interesting to me and some are not.

I am not interested in image sharpness… never have been. I don’t care how a shot was lit. Never have. I only care about the image. And what it says to me. If anything. Some images are just pretty pictures, or pictures of pretty subjects… and that is all fine and good. I have been happy to do that. It has made a pretty good living for me and my family as a commercial photographer. So much commercial work is simply about a pretty picture of a pretty subject.

And yet, I find myself being more and more less interested in that work. Images that reach out to me are grittier, more natural, lit emotionally. Yes… emotional light. The kind of light that illuminates beyond the subject and reaches the viewer with a feeling – even an emotional proxy.

Front light ‘feels’ different than back light. Side light adds a sense of drama and ‘etches’ the subject. Ambient light ‘bathes’ the subject in soft, wrapping light, and if it is mixed with some direct light, there can be even more drama. None of these are better than the other. There is no right way to do it. There is only your way to do it.

I have seen so many images in the past year that my brain is spinning. I love looking at photographs. I am constantly amazed at some of the fresh and incredible vision that is part of a fabric of today’s commercial photography. As a designer and former art director, I would love to work with some of these new shooters.

But I am also seeing so much banal work that it is saddening to me. Not talking about amateur work, I am talking about the gazillions of images that aren’t doing anything but ‘representing’ some photographer’s gear purchase. Some sites are damn full of the most current ‘fad’ or post processing flavor of the day. All of that is interesting for a flavor, but seems to get a little stale as a steady diet.

I am struggling and restless with what I am feeling is a turning point for my own photography, as well as some symptomatic changes I am seeing in the market place. Lots more shooters making Art (big A) and moving in directions that add more dimension to their work. And in so many ways, the lighting is the thing that makes the images speak to the viewer. Light that is rich and deep, or soft and embracing or light that is so crisp that it makes the subject seem almost three dimensional… that is light that crosses over to emotion.

Jen Bekman’s terrific Hey Hot Shot project knocks me out. So many wonderful shooters out there. Leah Tepper uses a soft and contextual light to bring us in to the images as a participant, Justin James King uses light as a defining tool for his work, and this great set of images by Canadian shooter Jaimie Hogge shows a comfortable and natural feeling to his light. And the images draw us in. The lighting is part of the image that we may – or may not – see immediately. But it is so important and well crafted that even if we don’t instantly ‘see’ it as part of the composition of the image, we are certainly aware. In that emotional place.

There are a lot of fads out there these days… lots of strobes, HDR, added texture, hi-key, lo-key, 3 point lighting, but in the end, they rarely involve the viewer, or bring us into the image. At least I am not drawn in by it. Of course these are tools in an arsenal, and I encourage every shooter to be more than proficient with them, but in the end let the heart lead the photo, not the gear. I know for me the point of the image is the connection, and that only works on an emotional level.

Some more shooters that I think use emotional light to invite the viewer in: Clyde Butcher, Nadav Kander, Mark Seliger, Geoff Kern, and Keith Carter.

Take a few minutes to view these photographers and see if you can see what I mean by “Emotional Light”. Let me know what you think, and we will discuss. Comments Here.


Spend a Day Shooting Portraits
“Why Did You Light It That Way?”
Natural Light for Natural, Subtle Beauty
Thinking About Portraits: 6 Studies in Beauty
And don’t forget the Going Pro Series for emerging photographers.

See you next time. Follow me on Twitter, or visit my Learn to Light site for information on our lighting workshops.

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