“Urban Light” by Kevin Thornhill (Or Pushing Your Camera’s Limits)
Sometimes, the best photos are the ones shot beyond our comfort zones or beyond the assumed limits of our cameras. The mesmerizing and often abstract beauty that comes from the use of a camera in such an atypical way is often unparalleled in the world of photography. It’s not that such practices are all that uncommon, nor is it that the end result is all that complicated. It’s that a photograph taken in a way that is perhaps not our first thought – both as a photographer and as a viewer – it gets the mind thinking a bit more, and that is never a bad thing.
This week, I’d like to share with you a photo that has long been on my list, a photo taken back in January. The photo, Urban Light, comes from the talented Kevin Thornhill. Urban Light is a simple little photograph of an urban plaza taken at night. The long exposure treats us to a visual desert of dancing lights, warm glows and a mottled, cloudy sky. It is not unlike any other long-exposure photo, except the subject is the light itself and the bustle of a somewhat busy community after nightfall. There are a few elements here that serve to anchor our eye: The vertical lines of the bollards, street lights and the buildings themselves, as well as the score lines in the pavement which are emphasized in part by the wet reflections off their edges. Thanks to the long exposure, the traffic – both vehicular and pedestrian – is virtually non-existent. We are left with the hard elements as a backdrop, but the light is what takes the stage.
Clearly these are conditions that most of us would avoid with our cameras. We cherish and protect our loved ones, even if it is a piece of digital equipment that doesn’t really have feelings (or does it?). But like our human children, there comes a time where we must realize that they are capable of much more than we might have initially thought. And, as I opined a few weeks back, your gear is tougher than you’d imagine. But lets focus on the technical aspects of this photo.
Long exposures are so obvious and obscure at the same time. Happening upon such an intersection in the dark hours, it could possibly be the only option. But I don’t think that making the light the subject is the first thought that comes to mind. Especially in such an architecturally rich environment. Keep in mind that your camera can’t truly see as well as you with your superior human eye. The camera cannot capture a scene like this in exactly the way you see it – its an impossibility. Accordingly, such a shot requires a bit of planning. A tripod is a must, unless you’re one of the fortunate blessed with a steel skeleton, as we are rarely able to hold the camera steady long or well enough to get a photo with such a tack-sharp clarity on the motionless elements. You must also be prepared to give up some detail. Try as you might (even with HDR), you will never pick up all of the detail in the darkest shadows or the brightest of light – there is just too much contrast. Also note that your camera will try to fill a limited spectrum with the data provided. The brightest spots won’t look that much different than the areas that are pushing the edge of the dynamic range. As evidence to support, take note of the tallest light fixtures at the right side of the photo. The star shape and complete loss of detail (we have no idea what those fixtures really look like) looks to be only slightly brighter than the lantern style fixture at the middle of the shot. Truth is that the fixtures to the right are far brighter, but the camera doesn’t distinguish this fact so well. The only clue is that the detail is completely lost on the brighter fixture. This type of thing is a direct result of the limitations of the camera (nearly any camera). But as Kevin’s photograph demonstrates, that’s a boundary that can be pushed and used artistically.
In the real world, such a sight is not possible. Though our eye is plainly more strong optically, it has its own disadvantages. Time, the fourth dimension, cannot be seen by our eyes alone. But using a camera and it’s so-called optical deficiencies allows us to see the light over a period of time. Single, motionless light sources build on top of itself to form star-like patterns while moving sources paint a picture like a paintbrush across the canvas. A shot like Urban Light is thought of by many regulars (non-photographers) as unlikely or at least improbable, the result of some tricks in photoshop, perhaps. Even some rigid photographers who are used to working in well-lit environments might find this shot difficult to comprehend. But again, it’s not that such a shot is impossible (obviously). It’s just that such a person hasn’t opened their minds to think outside the realm of what is clearly possible. So we need to think outside of what we’re told our camera can do, and practice and experiment at pushing the limitations we believe our cameras have. It is for this reason that a friend once quipped: “That’s why I don’t read instruction manuals.”
Here on Shutter Photo, we have twice featured photos from Kevin Thornhill: Skate Blur and Chaotic Sky. His photographic works are often a blend of experimental techniques paired with street photography. He also shoots some fantastic architectural shots and documents his journeys through travel photography. In addition to his photostream on Flickr, Kevin is also found contributing to 500px. Finally, you should also be following Kevin and his work at his personal website.