One of the first things you'll hear from Moose Peterson at his Digital Landscape Workshop is a statement that you'll consider pretty obvious: photography is all about light. But then Moose will take it further, into unexpected territory, when he adds that no matter what you might think the subject of your photo is, the subject, really, is light. "What we're actually recording is how light plays on the things we call our subjects," he says by way of explanation.
It's a crucial point: light will determine the quality and impact of your photograph.
"We're walking along a city street or a forest trail," Moose says, "and something grabs our attention. Typically it's a unique play of light that we're instantly drawn to. That's how it is with photographers, no matter what our interest or passion—it's that spark of light that grabs us."
Then comes the challenge: to take that initial reaction and turn it into an image that grabs the attention of others. How we deal with light will determine whether, and how well, we can do that.
"Our lighting choices are so important to the way we communicate through our photographs," Moose says. "In the workshops people will often say, for example, that they never shoot backlit subjects, or they don't like to shoot anything that's backlit. I ask them, 'So you never shoot a sunset or a sunrise? Most of the time those are backlit situations—you're shooting toward the sun.' And then they get it: backlighting is nothing to be feared or avoided."
Moose believes that when people really begin to think about light and how to use it in their images, their photography changes, and the emotional reaction people have to their photography changes, too.
Even the way they expose their images will change. Many people base their exposures on the histogram—the graph of the tones in a photograph—but to Moose's way of thinking there's something more important than the histogram's judgment of a "correct" exposure. "People primarily have an emotional reaction to a photograph," he says, "and to me exposure equals emotion. I expose based on the emotional response I'm feeling as I take the photograph; it's that emotion I want to deliver to the viewer."
And light is the means of delivering that emotion.
"Let's say you go into someone's living room, and they have four or five lamps with incandescent lights," Moose says. "it's a very warm, soothing lighting situation. Now, change all the lights to fluorescent. Now the emotional response isn't warm and soothing anymore, it's professional—the room has become an office, maybe a doctor's office. The whole mood changes, our response changes—and we made it change simply with light. We're talking about color psychology and the way humans respond to light; the warmer the light, the warmer the feeling."
For those of us more likely shooting outdoors, there's this example: "I'm photographing a bison in the snow. If I want him to look as cold as he was when I took the photo, I'll change the camera's white balance to the colder side—B1 or B2 [B for a blue tone to the light]. If I want him to look all warm and fuzzy, I'll set the white balance to A3 or even A4 [A for an amber tone to the light].
"I also underexpose everything by at least half a stop. The default on my Nikon D-SLRs for exposure compensation is in one-third stop increments, but the cameras allow you to change that default to one-half stop increments, and that's what I do: minus one-half is my custom exposure compensation setting. Shooting almost everything at one-half stop, or more, gives me two things: it increases color saturation, and it makes the almost-black sections of the photo appear completely black, especially at the edges of things. So for things that are near black at the edges—a tree, a house, an animal—it makes the edges even darker, and that seems to make the edges sharper than they are."
Exposure compensation is one way Moose controls what he calls "the language of light" in his photographs. The accompanying images provide examples of some of the other ways. Be sure to check 'em out.
For information about Moose Peterson's workshops, including his Digital Landscape Workshop series, and for Moose's latest photo tips and blog posts, visit his website at www.moosepeterson.com.