One of the most common dilemmas in photography, professional or not, is the difficulty of finding the right subject. When shooting on the street a photographer is often overwhelmed with the large number of elements, actions, sounds, colours or even smells. Similarly, while travelling we may be in a visually appealing location but somehow we find it difficult to start the seeing process.

Some people call it lack of inspiration, others a failure to see. Those with fragile photographic confidence could even interpret such a crisis as “I will never be good at it.”

One of the most powerful ways to start seeing while shooting on the street or when travelling is to focus on light! What I mean by that is to start your seeing process making the light your only subject! How do you do that?

An ideal day would be partially sunny or just plain sunny. Those of you who shoot in the big cities or small towns may have the entire day for this exploration. Those who travel and focus more on landscape/travel photography may have to stick to early morning and late evening hours.

When venturing out with your camera, the objective should be to look for the light only! Forget about people, street or other elements –just observe light. Look for some spots on the street with unusual lighting conditions, pockets of light or even bounced light.

If you are walking on the shady side of the street, cross over to the other side and try to find unusual pockets of light. Remember you are ignoring everything else for now!!!

Let me show you a simple example.

Example #1

X100F, 1/400, F4

When walking around Vancouver, I noticed this pocket of light at one street corner. It immediately grabbed my attention. At this point, all I cared about was the light. I didn’t think about the subject or other elements. I decided to take this pocket of light and make it my subject. On a technical note, when dealing with pockets of light you need to underexpose the image by 1 or even 3 stops (in simple terms, darken the image). Normally, any camera’s metering system would deal with such an extreme discrepancy in light (extreme dark – extreme bright) by averaging the exposure and leaving you with an unexciting image.

We have identified the pocket of light and underexposed the image to create a large black space around it. What’s next?

Try to compose your frame using this pocket of light! I decided to frame this pocket of light to lead the viewer’s eye from the left corner or right starting point. Please note that the entire shape resembles a triangle – always a strong tool in a composition.

I identified the pocket of light, framed it and then … I move from viewing this pocket of light as my subject to finding a real subject. Cheating? Maybe, but it often works! In this case, I took this image when there was little traffic so I decided not to wait for a subject to appear.

Example #2

X100F, 1/800, F6.4

Here is another case when just light was a starting point of my photograph. I was walking around a Vancouver neighbourhood and noticed incredible pocket of light at the entrance to a restaurant. A material of which the door was made off bounced the light coming from the other side of the sidewalk. I immediately knew that this pocket of light will be the starting point of my image.

My first decision was to frame my image the way that would eliminate all distracting elements in the windows and place the pocket of light in the middle of my frame. I also had to underexpose the image by about 2-stops to make this very shape stand out from a negative space (from surroundings).

At this point the visuals that I had already would make a good image. This was the time to switch from viewing the pocket of light as my subject to finding a new subject that would complete and enhance the image.

One way to do that was to watch restaurant’s door and look for people in the window or doors. Indeed, at one point one of the cooks walked by the door and I captured this very image.


The other option was to wait for someone to walk by and fill the lower right part of the frame. Over the course of a roughly 10 minutes about 3 people walked by but they didn’t add much to the image. Finally, I noticed someone walking with a black dog who had white spots. I immediately liked this idea as his black and white pallet would complement the image. I knew I wanted only a dog to add some mystery to the image. Here is the final image I captured.


Example #3.

X100F, 1/350, F2.2

The image above is one of my favourite. This is another example when light triggered my seeing and let to a final image. I was shooting downtown Vancouver in the area that receives light only when the sun is quite high (otherwise the sun is blocked by multiple structures). While walking near the big glass window I noticed an unusual beam of light coming inside the underground parking of local Costco store.

I pointed my camera through the window and tried to place the beam of light within the frame. As usual, I had to underexpose the image to accentuate the light and simplify the negative space (background). In this case I had a very limited movement ability (window) so I framed the light from top, roughly one-third of the frame toward the right corner.

I also noticed that a pocket of light on the other side of the street behind me that was reflecting in the window. I immediately knew I wanted to incorporate this vertical space into my image. I looked around and noticed that a man is walking toward this pocket of light so I faced the window, made sure my colourful beam of light is positioned well in my frame leaving a space on the left for a man to walk in. Then I captured the image.

Notice that my starting point was light (my initial subject). Once I identified the light, put it within my frame I look for a new subject to complement my frame.

Example #4.

X100F, 1/320, F2

This one is a little bit more playful. A few weeks ago I was photographing a street from inside a pub (there will be an entire post about this inside-out technique) through the window. As I was leaving the pub and started opening the door I noticed a ray of light. Since the place was quite old and had fascinating texture all over, I immediately pre-visualized the image. As in other examples, I framed the door’s opening (1/3 of the frame) and allowed the ray of light facing my direction. However, something was missing in this image! Then I took one step toward the door and included my shoes in the frame. My shoes/legs became my subject.

To summarize:

Look for pockets of light, ideally creating some paths, beams, patterns.

View this light as your subject.

Make sure your exposure is adjusted (most of the time you need to underexpose 1-3 stops creating dark negative space)

Arrange your frame with the light being your subject.

Once you find a satisfactory composition, look for a new subject that would complement the image.

It is much easier to use this approach during sunny days. I also use this method during cloudy days, however, finding pockets of light is much, much more difficult and challenging.

The same concept applies to Travel and Landscape Photography. We will share a similar examples shortly.



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