What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Light

Apologies to Raymond Carver. Reposted from the early days of

Leica M9, 35mm f/1.4 SUMMILUX-M ASPH FLE

I think of the best stuff when I’m half asleep. It’s called hypnagogia and I’ve got a bad case of it. I’m not alone, apparently, as a New York Times article pointed out late last year and as Wikipedia establishes as encyclopedic fact.

Many other artists, writers, scientists and inventors — including Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dalí, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and Isaac Newton — have credited hypnagogia and related states with enhancing their creativity.

I’m intending to capture some of these fantastic creative thought processes that trot through my mind when I’m half asleep for the purpose of bringing them back alive and showing them to the world here on It won’t be easy. Not many things are when you’re half asleep. Nature of the beast. More on all this later. But let’s start off with an example from today.

There’s nothing more annoying than some snobby-sounding photographer going on about Light. I chase after the Light. I live for the Light! I’m always out looking for the Light. I’m a Light chasing stalker of the Light.

Light, that fickle temptress, has taken out a restraining order on me!

You know the type. Butterflies and rainbows all around them. They shoot Leica but, of course, they could do just as well, maybe better, with a piece of cardboard and a tiny hole punched in it for a lens.

Never mind too the 14-year old future supermodels that seem to prance through lush meadows all around them, stopping only for the occasional extreme closeup on the sun-speckled perfection surrounding bee-stung lips.

What does any of that matter?, the light snob would say. It’s all about the Light!

Okay, let’s go there. Because as annoying as these people are, they just might be on to something. Pictures might lie, but not that much when it comes to the role of light making a great picture.

First let me say that my goal here, because I want to help myself to be a better photographer, is to learn along with anyone who happens to be reading this blog. So that some day, some glorious sunshiny day, we might all be just as annoying to others as these people are now to us.

It is important to have goals. Let’s get to work on achieving them.

Leica M9, 40mm 1.4 Voigtlander Nokton

Think of the world not as a place made up of things or solid objects to be photographed, but instead as a place where light exists.

You see what I’m talking about when I’m talking about half-asleep thoughts? Thank you and good night, ladies and gentlemen. Let me repeat it.

Think of the world not as a place made up of things or solid objects to be photographed, but instead as a place where light exists.

Because light in an infinite number of variations certainly does exist in this world. It shines down upon, through, wraps around, bounces off, backlights, highlights, dapples, washes over, peeks through, reflects off of, illuminates, obscures, virtually everything in this world and all of that enters into our consciousness, or DOESN’T, which is what we’re trying to correct here, through our eyes and through our lenses onto the plane of film or sensor we’re using to capture it all for posterity.

Light has so many different colors and shapes and effects upon whatever it touches or is near that it’s far beyond the scope of this blog post to even go into any of that. And it’s not important for the ideas that I’m trying to solidify in my own creative mind to try to address any of it at this time.

This post here on is more about what we all can maybe derive or benefit from in the form of an internal tweaking of our perspectives on light as it exists all around us and in our photography.

The important thing to keep in mind about light is that it can be as easily photographed, and as easily sought out as a subject to be photographed as a flower, a snow-capped mountain, a beautiful woman, or anything else that people almost instinctively point their cameras at before hitting the shutter release.

As you probably remember, like me, from reading it somewhere, whenever you take a picture, you really are only photographing reflected light anyway. Why not make a concerted effort on light’s behalf?

So now try it! Go out and, instead of looking to photograph mere things, solid or liquid objects of the Earth, as an ongoing exercise for your photographic eye and mind look past all that stuff and look only for light, wherever and in whatever form that you find it. Take pictures of that light. Make pictures from it.

Leica M9, 50mm f2 Summicron-M

If you’ve ever asked yourself or anyone else what’s the best way to radically change how you see as a photographer, then this is what I would suggest. Stop looking for and at everything around you as subject-objects, and instead allow yourself to look for and see only light.

Forever?, you might be asking. No. And then again, YES! Absolutely. Because we are talking about change here and hopefully permanent change. Some of us are always looking to change or open up our vision as photographers.

For now I suggest maybe working without your camera and going through your day looking past objects and people that you would normally focus your attention on and trying to see only the light and thinking about what you’re seeing wherever you do find light.

One of the first things you will discover is how incredibly easy this all is. You’ll be surprised. The change will be immediate. Your nose, as a photographer, will start to rise up into the uppity upper air involuntarily as you yourself become yet another annoying light snob. Phrases like I seek light wherever I can find it will roll off your tongue with the same highbrow snobbery of Grace Kelly in a 1950s Hitchcock film.

Go for the light and don’t come back empty handed!

Leica M9, 40mm 1.4 Voigtlander Nokton

Pictures: Do you take them or make them?

Leica M9, Voigtlander 40mm f1.4 Nokton


Honestly, I’m not sure there’s two opposing camps out there. I think the way it usually goes is some poor unsuspecting chap says he likes to take pictures… and then, invariably, someone wearing a much more expensive watch says he doesn’t take pictures, he makes them.


Then the first guy smiles and shrugs and says yes, of course, and then looks at his feet. The party’s over for him. He doesn’t even know what the other guy is talking about.

Make pictures? What does that even mean? What’s the difference between taking a picture and making one? Are they really two different things? How come I don’t know this?

The reason he might not know it is because there are so many instances in life where others hang onto information as if it’s a proprietary asset. Or, just as likely a theory, as long as I’m casting aspersions, they can’t really explain it themselves even if they wanted to because they themselves don’t know.

Ansel said it. That should be good enough for everyone. Right?

The truth is, making and taking a picture are really two different things. What the annoying snobby person (a recurring character on this blog) may not know is that, believe it or not, both are important approaches to photographing and it’s important to know the difference and to be able to execute on either at your discretion as a fairly decent photographer.

Simply put, you MAKE a picture when your eye selects a subject or scene and you can envision how you want that picture to appear in a photographic image and then you set about the business of positioning yourself and your camera, deciding areas under your control such as the aperture and how it will effect depth of field, for instance, as well as principles of composition or how you might use exposure, the balance of light and shadow, and an almost infinite number of other variables that will allow you to achieve the image that you’re envisioning as an end result.

Almost everything is riding on you. Your desired outcome will come about to your satisfaction only if you can execute and control the many decisions and results that represent your own vision for the image.

It’s an important basic concept to be aware of as a photographer and you can cement the processes involved in making images as opposed to taking them into your mind by repeated practice or application. After you’ve ‘made’ a half dozen great images of things as banal as the folds and polka dots on your shower curtain you’ll understand the concept of making an image as opposed to taking one.

But as you have probably already figured out, this is just one approach or thought process of photography and there certainly are countless instances where great photographers producing iconic images were not and are not engaging in anything approaching such a carefully thought-out creative process in the capturing of their images.

In fact, and apologies to Ansel Adams, I would suggest the vast majority of photography’s most famous, memorable, or iconic images were not made in the sense that they were envisioned, preconceived, thought about, prepared or set up for, or any of the many actions that a creative photographer might go through in an effort to make an image.

This is probably best explained with a picture, which is, the last time I bothered to check, still not really worth a thousand words.

Sao Paulo, Brazil. 2006. Women’s World Championship of Basketball.

Team USA has just lost a game in international competition for the first time in 14 years. Since international amateur athletic bodies that govern things like world championships and the Olympics changed the rules that prohibited professional athletes from participating, allowing for the creation of ‘dream teams’ made up of the best professional players in a given sport, the United States had dominated the world in women’s basketball.

But the scrappy (and photogenic) team from Russia found a way to do what no one believed even possible; literally beat the Americans at their own game.

So a bunch of baseline photographers are under the far basket after the historic loss. Some of us, the Americans I’m guessing, are shocked and more than a little bit angry. We all came a long way to shoot the United States winning a world championship.

We’re all looking around in confusion and as the Russian post-game celebration extends beyond a polite 30 seconds or so, it seemed that most of us had gotten all the shots we needed of this sacrilegious demonstration and we’d gone back to mostly arguing about who screwed the pooch harder, the US players or coaches.

After a while, in any group or pool of photographers covering an event, there’s this group-think that seems to occur. We all know what we’re there to get, and I think some of us can get a little self conscious if we’re the last photographer still grinding away at our shutter’s life expectancy at eight frames per second shooting at essentially the same scene. You don’t really want to be that guy. What is that clown doing? You mean you haven’t gotten one in focus YET?

But then I saw something. Something was added to the scene. Instinctively I raised my Nikon D3 with the 70-200mm f2.8 Nikkor VR mounted and took this shot.

Nikon D3, 70-200mm f2.8 Nikkor VR

I will tell you without question that it is my firm opinion that if women’s basketball and the exploits of our US national team in international ball were a big deal in this country, as big of a deal as say, NBA basketball is in America, then this image would have been an iconic capture.

It’s Diana Taurasi, then and probably now the best women’s player in the world, dejectedly walking by as the ecstatic Russians carry on the celebration of their incredible upset of a team made up of the best professional and amateur women ballers our country could produce. Something that hadn’t happened, as I pointed out earlier, in 14 years.

I know you could argue that I somehow made that image, and that’s fine. My mind recognized the opportunity and blah, blah, blah. Yes, I was prepared to shoot that moment. But we’re all as photographers in a constant state of preparation.

The truth is, I took that shot. And the further truth is, I seek to take shots a lot more than I set out to make shots.

I wrote this article because I think I understand the difference between the two and can explain it. I also wrote it because I’d like to change as a photographer. I can take shots. I’m very good at it and I want to continue taking them whenever the opportunity arises.

But I want to spend a lot more time in the future of my photography making images. This blog entry will be, I hope, a major step forward for me to focus my attention onto an approach to photography that I’ve often neglected.

You don’t really know something, it is said, unless you can explain it to others. And I sincerely hope this piece is as helpful to me as it might be to anyone reading it.


P.S Here’s another women’s basketball shot that this time I apparently, in spite of myself, somehow managed to make.

P.P.S. This article was originally published here on June 10th, 2012. I could (and probably should) just reblog these old articles, but they don’t display quite the way I would like them to so I don’t. I guess I don’t quite see the harm in doing it this way.

Nikon D3, 24-70mm f2.8 Nikkor