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Light: The Body Language Of Photography

The ability to communicate with each other, on many levels, is one of the reasons why humans have come to dominate our planet. Our skill in articulating ideas, concepts, love, hate and emotions has transported us from the Rift Valley in Africa, to the four corners of the world - from the highest peaks of the Himalayas to the deepest oceans. Forty years ago we even broke away from the confines of our comfy sphere and stepped upon a different world, albeit briefly, and we have yet to return, but we will, one day.

Our in-built skill to learn how to talk can be translated into how we learn almost everything in our lives. When we first ride a bike, we are learning how to communicate with the machine, our sense of balance, the feel of the road, and feel of the wind in our hair.

When we first start to use PC's (and the Internet) we're learning how to talk with the computer. We learn how to make it understand us, through use of the keyboard and the mouse, and we, in turn, learn how to translate and understand the computers feedback - through the screen, the sounds, the error messages and the syntax. As we learn the "language" of computers we are able to express ourselves better - perhaps through email, writing documents, web-sites or taking part in forums.

Photography is the same. When we first pick up a camera, we don't know what to do. Maybe we'll read the manual, to learn the grammar of this little machine. We'll muddle through with trial and error, perhaps with a little practice. Gradually we learn to express ourselves through the camera and post processing. We're learning to talk through our images. We're trying to communicate through our photography.

According to the experts, verbal communication is made up of three main parts, and you'll be surprised at the relative importance of each one. When we're having a conversation with someone, how they're comprehending with us, is made up through the words we're saying, the tone or way we're saying them, and finally our body language - how we're physically expressing ourselves while we talk.

So which of the three is most important? Funnily enough, the least important factor in one-to-one conversations is the words we're using. Next up is the tone, or way we're saying the words. By far the most important (perhaps over 50%) factor in any conversation, is our body language - facial expressions, gestures and movements. So when you're trying to get an idea across, it's how you're expressing yourself non-verbally, with your face and body, and how you say it, that's more important than the words you actually use.

I believe in there's a parallel with photography here. Think of the subject of our photograph as the words we are using. The subject is the idea. The composition we use is like the tone of how we speak. The most important aspect is the body language of our photography, and I believe this is the light.

This happens to me all the time. I'll see something that catches my eye - usually a shape in a scene. That'll be my subject, the words of my visual conversation. Then I'll decide on the composition - the tone, or how I'm going to say those words. Finally it's the light, or how I'm expressing myself visually in the photograph.

On many occasions I'll see something interesting, compose it, shoot it, but then I'll be disappointed when I get home and look at the photo on my PC because the light was flat. The conversation is boring. The idea is there, but it just hasn't come alive - there's no passion or emotion. The photo simply doesn't engage me when I'm looking at it, like listening to a monotone voice - an announcer at a railway station.

Other times I'll take a photo of what may be a mundane view or subject, but because the light was great, the scene comes alive and the photo sings. Maybe it's the shadows, perhaps the colours, the use of flash, hard sun light or soft. Have a look at my flickr photostream - which photo's do you like, and what was the light like in those images?

Light is the key - whether it be the Sun, Flash or hot-lights. I understand that if the light is poor (as it often is in the UK), I need to work harder to get my ideas across - with more interesting subjects or more dynamic composition, or perhaps use artificial light. I need to learn how to use flash to better effect. I need to take more photographs early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

I want to express my photographic ideas more clearly and passionately through my use of, control of, manipulation of, but most importantly understanding of light.

Light, it's the body-language of photography, and I want to be fluent.

Cheers, Rob.

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