As the leaves fell off our trees earlier than usual this year, the gray November days caught up to me. I chatted with some photographer friends about feeling uninspired. This is alarming since it isn’t really even winter yet. While I often shoot macro throughout the winter, I’ve been feeling restless with it lately, and wanting to tackle something more. My kids are teens and not available to be in front of the camera often, and I’m not a flat lay or traditional still life kind of person. A friend suggested a light study. That thought had crossed my mind before complaining to everyone, and when she suggested it, I initially dismissed it. But after a second (or perhaps third) consideration, I thought maybe it was the right challenge after all.
I am fortunate to live in a very lovely house, but unfortunately for the girl who grew up in the country, we live in suburbia, surrounded by tall trees. My very lovely house also has an open floor plan with a lot of windows; even on cloudy days we get a fair amount of light, but rarely do I find that magical “photographer light” with the sunbeam pocket that abruptly transitions to darkness. Still, I was determined to find something more than flat light.
I worked at this for seven consecutive days. I limited myself to places inside my house, and I avoided my kids’ rooms. I used the early fall to my advantage, both the lack of leaves and the sun lower on the horizon gave me more interesting angles of light than I get in the summer. I was pleasantly surprised by the way I was able to document the movement of light throughout the house on different days and different weather patterns. Sometimes the difference of a half hour completely changed the scene, and some days nothing seemed to be dynamic anywhere.
My main goal for this was to have the light be the main subject of each photo. This is easier on sunny days; simply expose for the highlights, and the dynamic range of the room will turn much of the scene to shadows. The contrast of highlights and shadows immediately brings your eye to the brighter areas and allows you to see patterns and texture. On overcast days, the light quality is much quieter and it’s harder to draw attention to one specific area without some creativity.
The first day I managed to find a dazzling sunburst in our master bedroom. This is not an image that I can recreate in the summer, and even in about a month I suspect the sun will be too low and be blocked by the roofline behind this room.
In a spare bedroom upstairs, the movement of the sun caused a single sunbeam hitting the dresser change into a triangle spotlight that illuminated a much larger area. (It also highlighted the dust which I removed before taking a new image.)
On day two I fell in love with the soft light casting shadows through the kitchen window and how it caught the steam of my freshly brewed coffee. I moved around a few times and took several versions until I was happy with the plume of steam.
Day three was very overcast and I struggled a bit. As I stood in the kitchen in the mid afternoon I noticed the light coming in through the pantry window. It’s these little surprises that make this kind of project worth it; finding light illuminating the unexpected and turning it into something extraordinary. The single window in the small room concentrated the light in a way that the larger window bank in the main kitchen area could not.
On day four my son and husband were out early for a lacrosse tournament; my daughter was still asleep, and by 8am I’d pretty much finished my coffee. I headed to the mudroom to feed the dog and saw the most lovely sunbeams coming through the dining area windows. I took care to meter for the highlights on the far side of the room where the muntins to the kids’ office reflected most of the light; I did not want that area to blow out from over exposure. Although the mudroom in the darker area does have two windowed doors, the sun hadn’t reached quite that far back to the house yet, and it faded to darkness with no direct light coming in.
I headed back upstairs a bit later and looked in the master bedroom again, to compare it from day one. That room has windows on three sides, so the light is typically quite bright throughout the day, but the angle where it comes in changes as the hours pass. In the early morning, it was still to the left side of the room (as opposed to the back in the sunburst photo), and I took a photo of the one lone sunbeam on the blanket.
Day five was overcast again, and I struggled to find a new viewpoint. I walked around and decided to photograph the guest and master bedrooms side by side, diptych style, and accentuate the windowless hallway back to the main bedroom.
On day six I wanted to focus on the mudroom; it also has windows on two sides, and light coming from the dining room to spill in, as well as a windowed staircase to my studio at the back of the room. It gets very little actual direct light however, so the image is darker overall to reflect the feeling of the room normally.
I then decided to head up to the studio, which is where I do most of my indoor photography. I know how the light works in that room, and it sort of felt like I was cheating by using that area for this project, but I couldn’t resist the dramatic light coming in. It’s important to note, that this room appears really dark simply due to the limited dynamic range of a camera. I could have edited this brighter or chosen different settings which would have caused the room to appear bright and airy, which is how it felt that day walking up. But by choosing to meter for the direct light falling on the white table, I created a more dramatic image.
Day seven really made me work for this project. It was a true dreary November day, complete with rain. Even with all our windows, turning on a couple of lights was necessary by mid afternoon. Although the “rules” say not to mix natural and room lighting, I threw caution to the wind and let the lamp be the star of one of my images this day. I also found my dog nestled in her crate, sleeping to the sound of the raindrops. For my final image, I decided to focus on the soft light coming in and hitting the red chair and noticed the soft shadow under it (as well as some more dust. shhhhhh….).
In the end I was really happy with what I found; we have lived here for ten years and as much as I absolutely love our house, I’ve always been just a bit envious of people who have smaller rooms and get those little pockets of light. I didn’t really find any new areas where I would set up for a portrait, but I did manage to capture many more interesting images than I initially anticipated.
This was a really fun project, and I encourage you to do your own light study. You can do it all in one day, focusing on a single room; you can do it over the course of a few weeks or months to see how the different seasons affect your room. You might find a new spot to place your children to play or find an area you hadn’t thought of for still lifes. Some people even do a study like this over an entire year; it’s up to you how to complete it.
You are free to set your own parameters for your study. I used one camera and one zoom lens that does not have a lot of range, so my images were largely on the wide angle side to capture the entire room. You might find it more beneficial to use a slightly longer lens if you wish to find a portrait area where you can blur out the background. Use a lens that you are familiar with so you aren’t concerned with the angle of view as well as finding light.
When you meter, take care to note the brightest area and meter for that part of the image (ideally with spot metering) to ensure that the highlights in your final image preserve the necessary details. If you inadvertently blow out some details, just go back again and reshoot with the exposure dropped a bit.
If you have an overcast day, you can still make interesting images. If you are a portrait photographer, place your subject close to a window to get a dramatic light fall off. If you are not a portrait photographer, as I am not, you can still make pieces of furniture or a coffee mug become your subject and have the light shape the object. “Good” light doesn’t need to be overly dramatic or showy. You can always use the window as sidelight to bring dimension to whatever your intended subject is.
If you find direct light coming in and can capture a sunburst, then stop your aperture down and increase your ISO. By stopping down you’ll get more beams come from the sun; if you aren’t looking to capture beams per se, but just a hazy flare then you can use a wider aperture.
By all means, use this as a time to experiment with angles and exposure settings. Even on the days that I only ended up with a single image to share, I took multiple other versions that didn’t work. This is part of the learning experience, and sometimes figuring out what doesn’t work is as important as what does.
I’d love to know if you embark upon this challenge and see your results.
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