Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Keeping it Natural

Whenever possible, I use natural light in my photography. I much prefer it to artificial light which, if you think about it, hasn’t been around very long. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb in 1879 during the lifetime of my great-grandparents. We’re not sure how long humans like us have been around; recent discoveries in Morocco indicate about 300,000 years, so artificial light is very new in a relative sense. Before Edison, the only light we had to operate between sunset and sunrise was some sort of flame from candle, lamp, or lantern, all of which I would characterize as natural.

Moonset over Mount Washington
Artificial light improves our lives and we all use it every day, but it always feels unnatural to me and feeling is a big component of photography as I like to do it. Although I spent several hundred bucks on an artificial flash unit to photograph my loved ones indoors in the low light of our long, Maine winters, I only use it when I have to. As digital photography keeps improving, I use it less and less.

Lovell beech
People have asked me to photograph weddings and I’ve obliged a few times, but I don’t anymore. That’s work, and it diminishes the enjoyment of taking pictures for me. I only want to shoot what I want to shoot, so it’s been more than thirty years since I’ve done it for hire. Recently I’ve begun uploading a few images to Shutterstock, which is an online site for selling them. If others will pay to use pictures I’ve already shot that’s fine, but I’ll retain ownership and continue to shoot only what inspires me. I’ve donated images to non-profits and I’ve allowed National Review and other publications to use some, but I’ve never charged for them.

Perhaps the best natural light conditions I ever encountered were in Santorini, Greece. Our two days there had plenty of June sunshine and people are required to paint their houses and businesses white. Some cyan and light pink and blue are allowed now but all reflect light very nicely. Nearly every building perches on the steep rim of a volcanic crater high above the sea which reflects light upward. It’s photographer heaven and I shot hundreds of pics — of which about ten I’d consider high quality. Shutterstock already has over 82,000 pics of Santorini but I think mine will compete.
Santorini sunset
My northern European ancestors valued sunlight  highly for millennia to the point where it seems they worshipped it. Whoever built Stonehenge oriented it to the solstices. The builders of Ireland’s Newgrange structure did as well and it predates Stonehenge by 1000 years. Druid priests, or whoever presided over these ancient structures (historians aren’t sure), would have used candles or lamps to light the inner passages of Newgrange. Unless people lit massive bonfires, low light at night was the rule for everyone. Then in 1824, Augustin-Jean Fresnel invented the famous lens named for him through which light from a single lantern in a lighthouse could be projected 20 miles to warn ships of navigational obstacles. They’re still in use today.

Inside Newgrange
Those conducting solemn ceremonies and romantic encounters still favor natural light from candles even when all sorts of artificial light emission devices are available now. Just before I go to my bed each night I like to walk outside for a few minutes to smell the air. It’s never dark outside the South Portland house with street lights, porch lights on neighboring houses, and lights from Portland across the harbor. In Lovell, by contrast, there’s only light from the moon or stars with the exception in winter of a few twinkles from a distant hillside in Chatham, New Hampshire. I much prefer evenings outside there.
Kezar Lake sunset
It’s never completely quiet near the city either, whereas out in the country the only sounds are from wind, rain, or a wild animal, with only an occasional bark from a domestic dog. Some people find comfort in the lights and sounds of a city that never sleeps. I get that, but I believe I’ll always prefer natural sources for both.

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