Light can change the perception of a subject. A desolate and uninteresting location can come to life and be made beautiful by the right kind of lighting. A flat and otherwise boring portrait can be given depth and interest with some well placed strobes. Finding a subject at the right time of day will yield character that is not on exhibit at other times of the day. Light is an important and beautiful aspect of what we do. It would not serve us well to ignore it. We should celebrate it for it’s transforming powers, and we should learn how to take advantage of it. Thanks to photographer Steve Ives, I have the perfect example: Chestnut Glow, shown here.
Steve shoots in my home town of Philadelphia, and so I often know his subjects intimately. I’ll admit that photographs of familiar subjects are always appealing to me, but I remain unbiased or even over-critical. What I look for is how differently a photographer shoots a subject I know. I ask myself if I would have thought to shoot the subject the same way. Sometimes the answer is ‘No’ and I am of course inspired. But sometimes, the answer is “I wouldn’t have shot that subject,” and then I’m blown away. Please realize that I don’t make such a statement because I find the subject to be a failure. I say that out of sheer admiration for the photographer’s – for Steve’s – eye. I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have thought to capture this scene with my camera. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the area, this shot was taken just west of the Schuylkill River (that’s pronounced “School-kill”) in the University City area. There are a lot of schools around, including University of Pennylvania and Drexel University, and it is traditionally an area that is packed full of students. But with the campuses nearby, and just a stones throw from Center City (which is quite beautiful), the area is often overlooked – especially by photographers (myself included). I would have never thought to bring my camera out at this location, nor would I expect to find such a beautiful scene in an otherwise uninteresting location. And we can thank Steve and the sun for the shot, as there’s nothing more beautiful than well placed light.
Personally, I feel that Light is often under appreciated aspects of photography. Sure, there’s a lot on the subject when it comes to photography, but I feel that it should be listed as one of the Building Blocks, right up there with line and pattern. Unofficially, I always consider it as such. In Chestnut Glow, the bollards, in and of themselves, create their own pattern in their repetition down the street. Their relative size helps to accentuate the vanishing point that it somewhere down the road, but that’s not interesting enough. But as the light shines under the overpass and through the bollards casting shadows onto the light-licked surface, it’s at that point that we see the beauty of the pattern. But here’s an interesting point – Steve tilts the camera to further confuse the horizon. All the lines in the sidewalk, the bollards and even the road itself is all converging on a traditional vanishing point somewhere out there on the horizon, much closer to the left edge than we’d expect. But in reality, there is never a single vanishing point, and Steve’s camera tilt shows us a vanishing point we hadn’t considered. All of the shadows converge on the sun, a contradiction to the lines of the hard elements which favor their own vanishing point. What Steve has done is forces us to focus on that single, secondary vanishing point just below the sun. And if you look closely, the shadows actually radiate out from that point ever so slightly, another behavior we would not expect if we hadn’t seen it for ourselves.
But lets venture back to the world of choosing a subject. I’ve already admitted that I wouldn’t have thought to visit this location with an intent to capture it with my camera. I’ve realized today that I have not been taking every aspect of a scene into consideration when it comes to choosing a subject. I of course think about the subject and I think about how to frame a shot and from what angle. But I haven’t considered the time element, the fourth dimension, which absolutely should come into play. Framed exactly the same way, Steve’s Chestnut Glow would have very little impact at noon. The result would be a shot ultimately filed away in the trash can. So the key takeaway is that light can truly change a scene for the better, and that should be considered always when considering such a location. One should also make sure to consider what such a location might look like at different times of the day.
Steve Ives captures a lot of the city life and architecture in Philadelphia where he resides. His portfolio is a well balanced mix of architectural photography and street photography. In addition to his photostream on Flickr, Steves work can also be found on his personal website and portfolio.