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The Power Of Light

Piper1_BV2U2017-Version-2I recently posted the above image on FB and it became one of my top 20 images posted. Let’s be serious, it is a portrait of a buffalo. There are so many images that have required huge amounts of effort, uncomfortable accommodations, beans and rice, long drives, sand storms, harsh rains, impossible muddy roads, and yet it was a photo of a Buffalo that the crowd went wild over? This is the perfect proof that the reaction was not about the subject, but instead to the light and the emotion it created.

When we first pick up the camera, we are told there is good light and bad light. We go on thinking this for years as we click away. However, there are all different types of light, all day long, that can be a creative tool for the photographer who understands how to use it. While we cannot control the natural light source, we can learn how to manipulate the light through creative camera settings and simple tools. Light on a subject is one of the most powerful tools we have to convey drama, mystique, and emotion. The use of light in a photograph can be the deciding factor between an amazing image and boring or terrible one.

Learning to use natural light should be a prerequisite for all photographers before spending a lot of money purchasing expensive flash and lighting gear. When I first picked up the camera, workshops teaching dramatic natural light either did not exist or there were so few, I did not know of them. This is what inspired me to create Spirit-N-Light workshops. It was through my tribal photography that I started to study how other photographers in other genres such as fashion photographers and commercial photographers used light. Slowly, I taught myself how to use flash and off-camera flash, which was thrilling. This is what ultimately elevated my wildlife photography, as I was no longer satisfied with “over the shoulder light”, and I was constantly seeking out dramatic light.

Pushing to use available natural light to create drama, mystique, and emotion in my wildlife photography subsequently made using natural light the most powerful tool in all my photography. I became increasingly frustrated with lighting equipment failures and the slower set up process. I found using natural light to be much more powerful and freeing. It also creates more engaging photographs with my subjects than when you have flashes going off. In hindsight, it would have been much easier to learn how, when, and why to use an artificial light source if I had had a solid grasp on how to use natural light first.

The concept that I like to get across during the Spirit-N-light workshops is that it is a given that your subject is exotic. If you have picked up the camera and are ready to click, I am assuming you are excited about your subject and it is exotic to you, whether it is a rock or a lion. So, forget about your subject and ask yourself, “what is the light and how does it impact my subject?” Even a rather plain subject in dramatic lighting, such as a buffalo, will always make for a more dynamic image than a great subject in bad or flat light. Once you understand the power of light you will notice it everywhere in your everyday life and it will broaden your creative horizons.


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Piper Mackay is a world, wildlife and cultural photographer, based in Long Beach, California. She believes compelling visual images help to protect what is right in the world. Her work takes her to very remote locations, living cross culturally in the villages and environments that she is documenting.

Her work is heavily concentrated on the African continent, a land she fell in love with when she first touched foot on it’s rich red soil. Her passion for the natural world has grown into a lifelong commitment to inspire others to explore, respect and preserve the beauty of our fragile planet.

She believes compelling work comes when you invest time, living the stories you are trying to tell. It is important to interact and gain the trust of those whose stories you are telling, especially when sensitive and complicated. The world has enough images of poverty, pain and disaster, much more needful is imagery that reveals the beauty and dignity of the communities that are, except by their geography and circumstances, very similar to our own. Powerful images help shape the view of the world and play an important role in disseminating how cultures and wildlife are coping with the rapid changes happening in the developing world.

Piper’s images have been displayed at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, The Museum of History and industry, and The Art Wolfe gallery, as well as local galleries. Her work has been featured in Nature and travel publication through representation of several photo agencies, including Rangefinder, Nature’s Best, Birders, and the World Wildlife Fund. She is an independent photographer and available for assignment work.

Her prior career in the fashion industry, where she was deeply involved with combing color and texture, has greatly enhanced her approach to the unique look and feel of each culture and photographic subject. This also gave her a strong background in business and marketing. Please visit Piper’s website at www.pipermackayphotography.com.

Posted in: General, Nature Photography

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