Comparing how Landscape and Portrait photographers use light to create their images
Light is the main element in all photography, it would not exist without it, whether it is natural or created. This essay is going to focus on how landscape and portrait photographers use light in different ways to create their images. I will highlight the techniques each use and how the finished light created is similar or different in each field. Landscape photographers sometimes use natural light for their images but they also use created light. This can also come from darkroom techniques like in Ansel Adams’ work. This is not that different from what portrait photographers use. They may have studios with artificial lights but many go for a natural feel and also use the darkroom and post production to achieve better lighting. I am going to compare the two fields of photography and how they use light to create their final images.
The key to landscape photography is capturing light on a scene, and how the photographer visualises the image to look as a final product. They often wait for days at a time for the light to be at the best intensity for capturing an image. This requires pre-visualisation, one of the photographers best known for doing this is Ansel Adams who often drove around looking for places to photograph. One of his photographs famous for being a spur of the moment image is his Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico photograph. This photograph looks nothing like the final product in its raw form, but Adams visualised a dark sky and shining moon and achieved this in the darkroom. This manipulation of light can be compared to portrait photographers manipulating images in post production to achieve what they visualised. Richard Avedon is one such portrait photographer who visualised his final images before taking the shot. He used light and simple white backdrops to capture his subject’s personality. The image of Audrey Hepburn used for the 1957 musical Funny Face was taken by Avedon and purposely overexposed to achieve the image of just her eyes mouth and eyebrows.
To talk of light in Landscape photography conjures up an image of Ansel Adams’ work. He was one of the experts on how to use available light to achieve the image he wants. As I have mentioned his image Moonlight over Hernandez before I will look into more depth at how he managed to create it and what his visions were about the image. Adams had set off to photograph in the Chama Valley which is north of Santa Fe but hadn’t had a very successful trip so he decided to give up. On his way back to Santa Fe he came across a graveyard and church and he visualised the perfect lighting for the shot. He saw the moonlight glinting off the crosses in the foreground and the moon in the background and jumped out of his car to take the picture. Not being able to find his Weston Exposure meter was not as problematic as he has thought. Using his zone system and knowing the luminosity of the moon, he was able to take the image. Using his master techniques in the darkroom he managed to achieve the image he had visualised. He wanted the crosses to stand out from the picture and the early moon to be bright in a dark sky over the wispy clouds. This shows that landscape photography is just as much about how you visualise the image and the places you find to photograph as it is what available light you use. To compare Adams’ work to that of Avedon’s may seem like I am stabbing at the dark but once I understood the images and how they were taken I started to notice similarities and of course differences in how the two practitioners work.
Richards Avedon’s American West series of images really captured my attention, the way he used light to show every crevice on the people’s skin, and how he managed to capture their personality and their determination to survive in such a place like the American West. From 1979 to 1984, Avedon traveled through 13 states and 189 towns from Texas to Idaho, exposing 17,000 sheets of film through his 8-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera. He focused on the rural west visiting ranches rodeos and many other places to find the faces of the west. At each place he would set up a mini studio with a plain white backdrop, this was to remove any hint of a place and move all the focus onto the person in the image, keeping our attention while we look at it.
The image that captivates me the most from his series is the image of twelve year old Sandra Bennett. The bright light Avedon used in the image really brings her personality and feelings out. Her strong stare into the camera suggests strong humility and purpose. Her freckled skin hints at years spent working in the hot sun and her determination to be happy in the west. Her open stance allows us in to see her personality, and I find myself wanting to look closer to find out more about her. There is nothing fake about this girl, she didn’t get made-up for the photo shoot, she is shown how she looked. I love the honesty of the image; the lighting has been used in such a way that she looks beautiful without even trying. This lighting technique is similar to landscape photography in the way it wants to expose the subject and show its beauty not create beauty.
Adams’ use of natural light to create his images can also be compared to David Hockney’s photomontages, in the way that they both go out and search for the perfect shot using available light. I can easily imagine one of Adams’ prints as a photomontage because of the detail in them and perspective shown. Ansel Adams’ image Monolith; the Face of Half Dome has similar qualities to Hockney’s Yosemite Valley photomontage. They may be of different things but the use of light in them both has created beautifully descriptive photographs. How the light in the sky changes in Hockney’s image shows that he was photographing for a long time whereas Adams’ would have taken the one image once he had light metered everything and worked out the right exposure for the image he wanted. Hockney wanted to show a perspective with his image, how your eyes scan around the landscape when you look at it, this is why he started creating photomontages, as they show more of the area he was photographing. Adams may not have photographed the entire mountain, but how he positioned himself at the bottom looking up at the image creates perspective using depth, this makes the image look like it is showing a wide expanse of the landscape, just like Hockney’s work.
Hockney likes to show perspective and shadows in his work, using this he can show the passage of time in an image and give it detail. Pearblossom highway is a perfect example of this. As you first look at the image, you may think there are no shadows, but the sign at the front has a dark pronounced shadow so does the tree to the left. This creates a slight confusion, as the sun cannot cast two shadows going opposite directions at the same time. But then you realise that Hockney must have taken some time to photograph the area and so the sun has moved. The bright use of light in this image brings me back to Richard Avedon’s work how he would use a front light and white backdrop to capture the personality of a person. You could say Hockney has captured the personality of the places he photographs; I say that is true because his images really pull me in and I feel when I am looking at his photographs that I know the place. This is true with Avedon’s work also, because when I look at his portraits I feel like I know the people and what they are feeling. Adams’ work also pulls me in; I want to look closer to see every detail in them. This is all down to the use of light; each photographer has carefully decided what the image is going to look like after it is taken. Each has looked at the available light and taken the image to suit it. It’s easy to tell that the images have been thought about before the shutter has been pressed and the light captured in each image is an inspiration to me.
Light is the one and only thing needed to capture an image. The word photography means to write with light in Greek, with photos meaning light and graphein meaning write. Even with a lack of light, it is still present in the final image unless you have a black photograph. From the beginnings of photography light has been used to capture landscapes and portraits. Light creates the negative in film photography and it also enlarges the image in a darkroom. In 1839, Louis Daguerre invented the Daguerreotype, the first type of photography but the Daguerreotype was required exposure times as long as thirty minutes to create a portrait. Sergei Lvovich Levitsky created a lens with better focusing power bringing the aperture down to f/5.6, this was especially good for portrait work but could also be used for landscape work.
This was the invention that sparked photography becoming popular in the mid 19th century with a large demand for portraits of the upper-middle classes. The shorter exposure times meant subjects no longer had to stand for a while to have their photograph taken. This is all down to the use of light in photography, making the exposure time shorter meant less movement from the sitter and made it more comfortable for them. These early portraits were brightly lit to create even shorter exposure times. But comparing those images to that of Avedon you notice how early portraits were hugely set up to show a subjects wealth or prosperity. You do not see much of their personality they could almost be dead in the images.
Light has been a component of photography since the start, and it is how we harness it that creates images that can tell a story, give a message or show something we have never seen before. The use of light can be experimental; this is seen in images of light graffiti, cities at night and stars. But it can also be traditional such as the portraits Avedon created, he is using light to capture a person but he also captures their personality something that the first portrait photographers couldn’t do. Light can document a place, such as Adams’ work or even Hockney’ panoramic views of an area, it can show us places we may never see in detail. Without light photography wouldn’t exist, the chemicals used react to light which captures the image. This is similar to our eyes, we need light to see and the camera needs light to capture what we see, it is a wonderful symmetry that is shown in every type of photography and the images that photographer produce around the world.