Color of Light

All three of these photos suck but I’m using them not for their content but for other reasons. First, most of the images I make pretty much suck, so these are a good “case in point.” The top one I thought was going to be gangbusters, but the sky just wasn’t working for me. The middle image was about motion but I just didn’t get enough, and the final image was made in an attempt to time someone out on the rock, someone who was using a strobe. I was trying to time it with a long exposure to get their flash going off, which I did in other frames but missed entirely on this one. Oh well, life is evil and we all turn to dust. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s keep moving.

These images are here because of the color of the light.

But before we talk color of light I want you forget a few things.
Your education, your photography studies, your camera, your lens, your laptop, your software, your filter sets, your camera bag, your gadgets and gizmos, your pixel depth, your megapixels, your fluoride elements, your aperture, your shutter speed, your tripod, your camera tape, your hard drive, your calibration device, your thunderbolt plug, your monitor, your iPad, your iPhone, your blog, your Facebook page, your agent, your rep, your website, your career and for sh%$ sake please forget about “being a photographer” and “doing what you are supposed to do.” Okay, I’ll give you a few minutes to prepare.


You need to forget all those things because they just don’t matter unless you are in the right light.
Light. Let me say it again, “light.”

People ask me all kinds of strange photography questions, which is one reason why I love having a blog. Photography, at least to me, is a somewhat strange pursuit. You point a light tight box at something in an effort to preserve it or share it or put some HDR thing on it to make it look like something you puked up after eating too much fried food at the fair. We make photography seem complicated but it really isn’t, not at all. We’ve built an industry around it for some reason, and this further increases the complexity, but the actual photography part stays painfully simple. For me it can all be summed up in three things. Light, timing and composition, and those are in a very specific order. LIGHT, timing and composition.

These images were all made in basically the same spot. Yes, I was moving around and they are from different angles and distances but it is the same slab of rock and the same enormous hole. These images were also made, I’m guessing, within roughly the same hour. Yes light changes that fast and so does the COLOR OF THE LIGHT and here lies the point of this post. I get a lot of questions about gear, which in the long run really doesn’t mean much. Gear is romantic. The top forty photography sites, in terms of traffic, are all gear and technology related. A significant portion of the workshops I see being offered today are all gear related. I think the idea of things like light and timing and composition are REALLY getting overlooked these days. But, again, the reality is if you are not using the right light then you really aren’t being the photographer you could be, and it surely doesn’t matter what device you have in your hand. The vast majority of the time, when I’m in the field working, my entire agenda is dictated by the light. Seriously, I can’t stress it any more than that. The light dictates where I go, when I go and how long I’m there. I don’t work in high noon light unless something has gone wrong or I have no choice or unless something truly dramatic is happening and I HAVE to make pictures right then and there. I’ll sit in my car for eight hours in 110 degree heat….waiting for the light to get right. There is no other way. My shooting is like a cage fight, months of training, months of hype and then three rounds of all out effort. Sometimes I get knocked out and other times I do some damage. I’m a 50/50 fighter at best, even with the light working for me.

Near my house in California is a protected waterway that birds really dig. Where there are birds there are birding photographers, and this place is no exception. They have camouflage trucks. They wear camouflage clothes. They all have Canon 600mm lenses….wrapped in camouflage. They have tripods…wrapped in camouflage. And….they all go out to shoot at HIGH NOON. I’ve never understood this. Standing in the blazing sun and cooking down the buffer on their 1DS Mark III’s. Don’t they look at good birding photography? Don’t they know that early morning and early evening give you not only direction of light but also COLOR OF LIGHT? These guys are like quantum physics, yes I know they exist but I have no understanding of them.

These Grand Canyon images illustrate color of light. Going in reverse order, the bottom image was shot first and just LOOK at how blue that light is. The middle image is moments before sunrise and the light is shifting, a middle ground of warm edges, white center light and a soul that is still blue. And the third image, the top one, is shortly after sunrise and yellow/red is now the statement being made. Within minutes in the desert environment the light will be gone, and when I say gone I mean virtually unusable. When I worked in Arizona it was the 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM rule of might as well go take a nap during these hours.

I see a fair number of portfolios and the photographer will begin showing me work made in horrible light. They will begin telling me about the equipment used, their philosophy and their desire to get a show or book. All I see is imagery made by someone with zero understand of light.

So, next time you venture out on a photo expedition take one last look at that clock. Go earlier, go later, look for clouds, look for rain or anything else that will add color or drama to the light. Good luck.


Does tone convey mood or feel or location? Who cares really but I thought I would ask. I think it does. These were all shot within about an hour of one another, yet another example of my photo-brilliance. They are all magical.

But, the all contain the same feel to me, and tone and mood. I can sense a location, not just by the content but the tone as well. The palette. Poof I take a picture. Now what? The random thoughts of someone with little to do and little on his mind.

There are times when a splash of color is all you need. All you need to feel or think about a certain idea or place. It reminds us, or point us in a direction. I tend to focus on minute aspects of the color. Shades. And then like a good book, I can visualize the rest on my own.

What Mood Am I In?

Like most people I experience a range of emotion and mood while plowing through a typical day as a “modern” photographer. I love street shooting, talking with folks who say, “Oh wow, your a photographer, you have the best job in the world, you just walk around all day taking pictures.” Ah, if they only knew. So, from time time my emotions get the best of me and are reflected in my work.

Orange County, which as we all know is the CENTER of the universe, a near perfect land of harmony, culture and class. It’s colorful, hence the name, and filled with a vibrant and fulfilling surf culture. Things are manicured, controlled, but laced with an expressionism that rivals anything that Tulsa or Tallahassee has to offer. I don’t love to shoot in Orange County, but because I live here I do get out and make snappy from time to time.

I don’t like to drive to shoot, unless I have to, so most of the time I hop on the trusty “Belafonte” and ride to where I want to shoot. My mood has a dramatic impact on what I shoot and how I make it look. I’m not sure this is good or bad, but it sure is real. As a former “photojournalist” I was highly trained in the black arts of staying “impartial” but after attending a single meeting of upper journalism management, I knew right away that being impartial wasn’t really on anyone’s mind. Getting a story? Sure. Selling papers? Sure. Getting even? Sure.

Your mood, the ingredients you choose, etc, can have a dramatic impact on what you come back with. These color images for example are from an ongoing project about living in the OC. It’s a color story, obviously, it’s about the silly aspects of the culture, the odd tidbits of daily life and the general aspects of the region that make LA residents go, “Oh my God, Orange County sucks.”
Footnote One: If you haven’t been to The OC don’t believe all the LA hype. SoCal is solid concrete from Malibu to San Clemente. It all looks the same and if you didn’t have a map you would never be able to tell where you are from city to city. And just so you know OC residents think that LA sucks.

Most of the time when I work on this story I’m in a good mood. I’m on my bike. The light is fair to okay to mostly not crappy, and the mounting daily pressure of being a photographer flows past my shoulders like an ocean breeze.

And then sometimes I’m not in a great mood?
Sometimes I look around at The OC and I just can’t sit by and watch as another strip housing development springs up overnight, or another massive freeway drops pilings through a nature preserve. I see the choking cloud of mocha colored smog descend on our beloved land and spill out over the ocean and into the pristine peaks of Santa Catalina Island. I look around and ask myself, “How can I live here?”

It’s during these times that I also hop on “The Belafonte” and ride into different parts of my area(or drive to add to the smog). I see the land scraped clean then replanted.(Never understood this). I see the streets and houses springing up, the same cheap construction, the same design that makes it impossible to NOT be bound to your car for even the most simple of errands, and I shake my head at what our culture considers “progress.”

It is during this time I choose a different photographic tool. I choose a different photographic look. I allow myself to dive deep into the seedy world of my emotions and then I turn around and unleash it through the pupil of my eye, seeing the exact same places in a very dark and different way. All those places that I wizz by in the car, are suddenly like the modern gulag, impossible for me to ignore. Impossible for me not to question.

I can feel it as I work. Watching the population as they exist in this wonderland. I feel like a complete outsider, sent from another planet to investigate what the humans are doing to each other. I work slowly, one “ping” at a time as the Fuji 6×9 forever cements this experience on the precious emulsion.

I can feel myself slip closer to the edge as my job as observer takes me to places feared by the average civilian. But I’m there for a reason. I’m there to preserve, regardless of mood or conviction. I”m there to take my emotions and translate them into light and silver and dye. When I feel the comforting bulk of exposed film in my pocket I know I’m doing something good, something right and just, something that someday might have a place in this world. John J. Rambo was right on the money, “There are no friendly civilians.” There is just us and what we do, sometimes alive in light and color, other times like the edge of the abyss.

Panama Noir

So I talk a lot about finding our vision or our style, and sometimes I get the feeling there are lots of blank stares out there when I mention this stuff. I see dark rooms, dimly lit with green, glowing screens and people asking, “What is this guy talking about?”
Well, I thought it a good time to show a few pictures that might shed more light on what I’m talking about. As many of you know, I recently spent some time in Panama. My primary goal in Panama was not photographic, but being a photographer I still wanted to make as many good images as possible. Pictures would be a compliment to what I was doing. I actually looked forward to this, thinking I could make a different kind of picture than I normally do. I reserved the new style picture for my color, which I’ll show a little of in the coming days. But being primarily a documentary photographer, a black and white documentary photographer, I’m most accustomed to just walking with my camera. Walking and looking. Looking and walking. All the while THINKING in black and white. This is key folks. I’m not shooting color and thinking black and white.

Now Panama is a colorful place, and I didn’t find it a particularly dark or depressing place either, but my VISION of Panama was different. I immediately recognized that, like many other places, Panama has many personalities. I knew I would develop a theme, in black and white, that reflected one reality and the color would be another. I think the key here is that these dark images, what I’m calling the noir, could be viewed in many different ways, but what I was doing was trying to visualize this place, from this perspective BEFORE I made the images.

A few years ago I was able to view some of Ansel Adam’s straight work prints. I was also then able to compare them to the final prints, and I have to say, I was blown away. Ansel could visualize that final image, and print, as you stood there in the field. And with no chimping and trying again and again. He just saw the scene and saw what we wanted from the scene. In essence I was trying to do the same thing. I had a vision of the place around me and the my translation was a dark one, so I looked and built a series of images that reflected this specific vision. Now here is the important part. I don’t think this is something you do AFTER you return. And I REALLY don’t think this is something you do on the computer or in the darkroom. Sure, that is part of it, but I think you have to learn to see, and make as close to that vision as possible while you are in the field. I see so many people shooting willy nilly, just blasting away from every angle in every light with no apparent vision in mind. Personally, I think this is why we see so much work that looks the same. So when I ask things like, “Do you know who you are with a camera in your hand?” this is what I’m talking about. I don’t believe anyone learns or becomes a better photographer by standing and shooting willy nilly then standing and reviewing the images in camera. I see people doing this all the time and I think it is total BS. Figure out what you want, how you want it and then go get it. Are you going to order something off the visual menu or stuff your face at the visual buffet?

These things don’t happen by chance really. They can but not that often, at least not for me. The idea of being able to enter a new place, visually sum in it up and then produce a specific body of work takes time and practice. And it doesn’t always work. Believe me, I’ve done this and missed, flailed, fallen, ruined or botched more than my share of images. In fact my ratio is WAY in the negative range. I’ve made far more terrible images than good ones.
So in a one week trip, I’m not looking to break records, make a definitive statement or even come close to really understanding a place, a people, etc. If you are thinking that way, let me be the first to tell you, “It doesn’t work that way.” It terms of what I shot, how much. I shot 20 rolls of 35, a total of 720 presses of the beloved shutter. I would imagine the film shooters out there saying, “Nice.” And I would imagine the digital shooters saying, “That’s it?” Yep, that’s it. Again, I’ve done this long enough to know what I want and what I’m looking for. When I’m shooting a certain theme I need a certain set of ingredients. Sure I’m looking for moments along the way, accidents along the way, I’m experimenting, taking chances, wasting film, etc, but my focus is on that theme and searching for sets of ingredients that materialize and then vaporize in a VERY short amount of time.

So whether you are shooting a wedding, a portrait, a commercial job, etc, I think knowing your style, or vision is one of the fundamental aspects of being a photographer. Oddly enough, in the age of the “instant” photographer, I think this is one of the key things getting LOST in the shuffle to sell, promote, get work, etc. I spent YEARS learning photography before I really began to assess what direction I wanted to go. That means years studying light and composition. Sure, I was working at a paper while doing this, but my images were, for the most part, not worth looking at. But all these years later, after many trials and tribulations, when I go out with my camera I find it very rewarding to feel like I know what I’m doing and I feel like I know what I’m looking for.
So next time you are out working try making a theme of like minded images. Then do it again. And again. Ask yourself what is it about this place? What am I trying to say?