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Outback Photo Handbook: Image Composition

Seeing the Light

by Varina Patel (all images copyright Varina Patel)


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Editor's note: We would like to welcome Varina Patel as a new contributor to Digital Outback Photo. Check out Varina's work.

A photograph is an image that has been created by light falling onto a surface sensitive to it. A successful photographer, therefore, must have an extraordinary awareness of light. Many photographers learn to “see” light in a way others do not. We observe the subtly different shades of color that occur as the sun nears the horizon, and we are acutely aware of the softening light as humidity increases. We are conscious of a glow or a reflection that others might never notice. It is often our goal to help others see light the way we do.

I started noticing light when I was a child. My eyesight began to deteriorate noticeably sometime in fifth grade, but I didn’t start wearing glasses until 2 years later. During those years - and in the years that followed - I gained a deep awareness of light and color. I couldn't see the details that other people could see unless I put my face within inches of an object. I didn’t see the millions of blades of grass that make up a lawn or the tiny grains of sand on a beach. Instead, I saw light and color.

My world was one of shadow and highlight – color and form. I didn’t know I was so different from everyone else. Of course, I understood that there was detail which I couldn’t see… bringing my face close to an object revealed that it was there. But I couldn’t focus on it at a distance beyond a few centimeters, and I couldn’t always get close enough to make out details. As is always the case when one sense can not adequately perform, I relied more heavily on my other senses to make up for the lack. Rather than reading the expression on a face, I could interpret emotion by listening to the sound of a voice or by noting the turn of a head or the flick of a wrist. I compensated without any awareness that I was doing so.

When I started wearing glasses, my perspective changed abruptly. Suddenly, I could discern details that I hadn't been able to see for years. I became aware of texture and detail in my visual world - and I was able to experience them as though they were detached from the light and color that were so familiar to me.

I remember sitting in class years ago - bored by some lesson I should have been paying attention to. I was looking out the window on a beautiful sunny day, and absently pushing my glasses up and down... alternately looking through them and over them. Without the help of the lenses, my world looked like an impressionistic painting. Splashes of color and light without detail - form suggested by shadow and highlight. I have always loved impressionism - perhaps because it seems so familiar to me.

Through the lenses, though - the view returned to normal. I could see textured bark on the tree and tiny flowers almost hidden in the grass. Those newly discernable features were as interesting to me as the light and color - but somehow, being able to separate the light from the detail made an impression. I was aware of each – but entirely separately from the other. It was a long time before I could look through my glasses without being distracted by the fascinating detail I hadn’t realized was there.

I was impressed by the fact that a piece of glass could change the way I see so completely. I gained an appreciation for my own vision - and I began to understand just how much difference a carefully ground lens could make. This new understanding placed me on the path towards photography – though I did not know it then. Two years later, I took my first photography class, and I knew I had found my passion. It took years to develop technical skills (indeed I will never be finished learning), and it was even longer before I fully understood how much impact my failing eyesight had on my work. I am still awed by intricate detail, and I can still effortlessly separate light and color from detail and texture.


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