Lighting & Composition

Gray Light – The Beauty of Restraint

Poor gray light. Few people seem to want it. It’s too ordinary, an all-too-predictable condition in mid-latitudes, often persisting day after day to the irritation of people who know that just above that low layer of shapeless cloud (low-level stratus is the culprit), a warm bright sun is shining. Not only does it give a featureless sky, but also it casts no distinct shadows that might at least give form to objects.

If there’s a horizon in the view, nothing above the line of hills or row of buildings is of any interest whatsoever. ­This is truly the orphan of photography’s lighting repertoire.

Well, hang on a minute. Is there really nothing to do with it? Are we just conditioned to find it boring? Maybe instead it’s worth wondering whether we’re overstimulated by impressive light. A glance at the majority of competent landscape images suggests this, as photographers go to great lengths to capture the simply gorgeous—fiery sunsets, shafts of light, rich magentas, and blazing reflections. It’s like the Hudson River School of painting all over again. Don’t worry, we’ll meet all these and more in this book, and high-octane lighting can indeed be spectacularly beautiful, and appropriate. But not all of the time. The word “mood” crops up frequently when photographers talk about light, and how it contributes. A full range of moods includes more than elation, the sublime, and surprise. There are many occasions for moods that are more reflective, quieter, even melancholy. I learned much about this in the few years I spent shooting in Japan, where restraint in many things conveys a kind of pleasure.

High Court Judge, St Paul’s Cathedral, 1982

Above all, this is sober light that does little to interfere with the subject. It demands, perhaps, a more rigorous approach to composition, especially with placing subjects against backgrounds that contrast because of their natural tones and colors. Colors, interestingly, can benefit from gray light, as we’ll see on the following pages. Both of the pictures here work beautifully in this shadowless light—to my mind, better than they would have in any kind of sunlight (a personal view, naturally). In one, a High Court judge descends the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in London; in the other, a yoga position on a rock in a still Chinese river. Contemplative light in both cases, you might say. The pair also illustrates an important choice when working with gray light: how light or dark to make the exposure. The contrast in this lighting is low, so there are no benchmarks for brightness. You can see the scene as darker gray or paler gray, and expose and process accordingly.

Yoga salutation, Beibei, Chongqing, China, 2012

Darker gray

If you treat the overall gray theme as medium-to-dark, the shadow areas tend to come across more forcefully. This is treating gray light as darker-than-normal sunlight.

Paler gray

With the lower overall contrast under gray light there is always a choice of brightness. Overexposing lifts the sense of the image to something lighter and more open.

Gray Light – The Japanese Garden

Ichijo-in temple garden, Koya-san, Japan, 1996

In case you weren’t convinced by above, let me take you through a shoot that might explain some more of gray light’s qualities. I was making a book about Japanese gardens, contemporary gardens in fact, but many of them nevertheless followed traditional principles, or developed on them. Th­ere have been a number of styles within the long history of Japanese garden design, but most of them eschewed overt colorfulness. Occasional color certainly exists, which explains cherry-blossom and maple-leaf viewing, both valued for their short seasonality. On the whole, however, bright colors from lots of flowers are considered a bit uncouth, and what is valued is a subtle interplay of greens.

Rich greens - Pillow-like Japanese topiary, also on Koya-san, looks well modeled and rich in color under the same light.

To capture these delicate differences, you have to avoid distractions, and one way of doing this is to avoid the contrast from direct sunlight. Another thing you may have noticed from these and the previous pictures is that I’ve been careful to frame the shots without any sky. Most skies on gray days have no features, and more than that, they are usually much brighter than the land. The result is that the sky raises the overall contrast, but to no purpose. More than this, however, is the effect of gray light on color saturation, and I learned the lesson quite quickly that Japanese gardens often look their best this way. At least, they tend to look the way that the gardener liked (and gardening in Japan is a fully formed art). The interesting thing there is that if you take a range of colors all from the same group—the same sector of the color circle— they appear at their best saturation when the lighting is even and gentle, not bright and contrast-y. This seems counter-intuitive, but it’s because flat light does away with bright highlights and sharp, dark shadows, neither of which have much color at all. Look at the two illustrations. The hues are the same, but the lighting is different. The sunlit version catches attention because of its contrast, but the saturation in the other one is actually stronger by a quarter.

Green variety - More gray light and a detail of another Japanese garden, this time featuring a deliberate variety of green hues, which extends to the specially selected pebbles.

The illusion of richer color:

In sunlight, the higher contrast gives a sense of colors being rich, but this is an illusion, albeit an effective one. In this illustration, the greens are actually 25% less saturated than those on the next illustration.

Deeper saturation in flat light:

In gray light, without shadows or edges, the same colors are better saturated, by 25%.

Excerpt from Capturing Light: The Heart of Photography by Michael Freeman © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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