Trying to capture the light

Started Apr 30, 2013 | Discussions thread
jbf Veteran Member • Posts: 3,532
Re: Trying to capture the light

One of my favorite photography quotes is from a not very famous, but very good street photographer.  Unfortunately I can't remember his name at the moment and I can't find my bookmark to his website.  I'll post the link later if I can find it, but it's the quote that's important.  He was questioned by a police officer while he was taking photos of a bridge.  The police officer asked him what he was doing and he replied, "Hunting for light."  Maybe that wasn't the wisest response for that particular situation, but when I read it, it changed the way I see things when I take photographs.  That's why the subject of your post, "Trying to capture the light", caught my interest.

I don't have any great tips on how to see the light in a scene while taking photos.  It's something I struggle with.  It's definitely not easy, but the better you get at seeing how the light will affect your photos, the better your photos will be.  It's debatable as to whether anything is more important when it comes to photography.  If anyone has tips that they use to help see the light, please share.

I do have a great tip for seeing and editing light in post processing.  I read it on the Retouching forum many years ago.  The key is to temporarily remove the color from your photo because color distorts your perception of light.  If you're not very good at editing, don't worry.  The process involves 3 simple steps once you open the photo in Photoshop or similar software:

1. Add a blank layer above the image layer.  You can do that by either clicking the small icon labeled New Layer on the Layer's palette, or just go to the Layers menu and select New Layer.

2. In the Edit menu, select the Fill command and fill the blank layer with Black.  Your image should display as completely black at this point.

3. In the Layers palette, there's a dropdown box for Blend Mode that will be set to Normal.  Change the setting (with the Black Fill layer selected, which it should be assuming you haven't clicked on the image layer) to Color.

That's it.  Now your image should display as black and white. There are two reasons to remove the color this way.  First, this conversion gives an accurate greyscale representation of your original without any added adjustments.  Secondly, this conversion allows you to easily bring back the color at any point in the editing process simply by deleting the Black Fill layer or toggling its visibility off.

The process above is not meant to be a complete B&W conversion.  It simply removes the color.  At this point you can decide what adjusments, if any, need to be made to the light in the image and then make your edits using whatever tools you like- Levels, Curves, Brightness/Contrast, etc.  When you're done editing the light, simply delete the Black Fill layer to see the edited image in color.

Try this out.  Temporarily removing the color helps you see the light much more than you'd think.  You'll also quickly realize, if you haven't already, how important the light is to the image and your photography will improve.  I do this as a first step for most of my editing.  Once you get the hang of it, it only takes a few seconds to add the Black Fill layer.

One important note for advanced editing, i.e. anyone using Adjustment Layers to edit the light after removing the color.  If you don't change the Blend Mode of any adjustment layers you create from Normal to Luminosity, the colors will be affected along with the light even if you are only modifying the brightness or contrast.  You won't see the color change until you delete or turn off the visibility of the Black Fill layer.

Here's an example.  Note: This is a quick edit and I exaggerated the modification to illustrate the process.

The original image:

It's a dull image, but the viewer's eye is drawn to the yellow leaves.  I chose this image because it illustrates how color can at least partially obscure poor lighting.

Here's the same image converted to B&W using the Black Fill Layer technique described above:

With the colors gone, the colorful leaves basically disappear.  It's very easy to see how the dull light hurts the scene in the B&W version.  You can clearly see which direction the contrast in the scene pulls the eye.  The bottom half, which is where the attention is meant to go, is a jumbled mess, whereas the top half featuring dark branches against the sky which are meant to provide framing is where all of the attention goes because the contrast creates a strong graphic element.

I edited the image looking only at the B&W version trying to bring out the important elements like the trees, mountains and tall grass by adjusting the brightness and contrast (original | edited):

Then I deleted the Black Fill layer to bring back the color (original | edited):

I did not touch the Hue or Saturation, and I did not even look at the color while editing.  As I mentioned previously, adjusting the light can impact the colors as a side effect.  However, most of the "pop" in the edited version is due to changing the brightness and contrast which you can also see in the B&W version.

This is not just an editing example.  The same effect can be obtained, generally with better quality, by "hunting for light" with your camera.

Hope this helps,


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