Explorations of Light

By Edda Taylor Back to


First I studied fine art, and then I fell in love with photography. Ambient light has always been my preferred element of the medium. In my first photography class, my professor, Gerhard Bakker, influenced my defining style when he said, “You are going to become a photographer. A painter of light.” He explained the origin of the word “photography” from the Greek words “photo” meaning “light” and “grapho” meaning “write.” I knew I would be a painter of light using a camera instead of a brush, and I began my explorations of light.

As a painter learns the properties of paint to give life to a canvas, the photographer learns the characteristics of light to create an artistic photograph. The amount of light influences quantity and quality. The sun is the primary light source and we instinctively create with it.

We may suppose that a ray of light is a row of bundles of energy we call quanta. When light reflects on an object, our senses and instincts capture the moment. I have discovered that not all light is the same.When photographing in ambient light, we often have limited control over the quality of light, though it can be altered with filters and reflectors. Light quality can be a condition of cloud coverage. On an overcast day, sunlight is filtered through clouds and diffusion can result in a soft quality.

Another important contributor to light quality is time of day. In the early morning and late afternoon, sunlight acquires a warm soft quality, while sunlight can be harsh at noon. Some photographers are hesitant in taking photographs in high sun because of the problem of high contrast. However, it is one of my favorite times to shoot when I can create photographs with shadows and drama in their composition.

Joanne 2009

As the quality of light changes, we find opportunities to create moods and styles. Light then becomes an effective compositional tool in its own right. Through exploration we learn to use its basic elements: direction, quantity and quality. I continue to observe light and take advantage of its countless possibilities in creating beautiful photographs.

Photographing outside at different times of the day and in different seasons, one can observe how light works on objects. It provides a surprisingly fresh perspective on the way we see composition. We can create soft images in the morning, dramatic and lengthy shadows at noon, cool images in the afternoon and warm compositions at sundown. Using rake lighting (light striking the subject at a slant giving form and depth), we can create interesting and artistic compositions. When the sun sends angled shafts of light, it’s the perfect time to collect or rake light across a subject’s face or the scene as a whole to create drama and mystery in composition. I find that golden light appears warm and very flattering to my subjects when the illumination comes as side lighting.

Cara 2009

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “You do not paint features, you paint what is in your mind.” Today’s photographers face a challenge. The tools of the craft have become sophisticated to the point that technique can overpower what is in the mind. Learning how light works has kept my photography as simple as possible and allows the subject to define the moment I previsualize.

There is an old building in our town. The vitality of its past has waned and its vibrant history is no more. The years have turned the paint on the walls into a Degas-like canvas. The light filtering through the broken glass forms designs and interesting patterns on the walls. It is for me an enchanting place. I can close my eyes and envision ballerinas dancing to soft music as their shadows form on the walls. My love for the ballet is captured in this wonderful place. I can explore the variations of existing light with the dancers as my subject. I began a ballerina series two years ago and continue to work on this project which I find exciting. Work on the series will end only when the building is restored and the magic disappears.

Besides good lighting, I rely on several other elements in a scene that help me create what I envisioned in my mind’s eye. One of them is the lens. My favorite lens is the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L because I like a lens with coverage from wide angle to standard to a medium telephoto. My goal is always to portray my subjects as I see them as closely as possible. The advantages of that lens is that it helps you to express exactly what you see when you look at your subject.

Red Peppers 2010
Grandpa and Me 2008

I start by taking in the whole scene with the zoom set to wide angle, then view the perspectives at each focal length. Zooming back and forth helps me see different angles of cropping until I see the image that I had created in my mind. I attempt to duplicate what I see and feel, in other words, make the camera an extension of me. Almost all of my location images were taken with that lens. In one instance, I took a photo of a musician with guitar and his grandson. As I was zooming, I noticed the little boy grasping grandpa’s hand on the guitar; I zoomed closer, cropped grandpa’s head, and there was my image. The zoom lens becomes an exploratory tool for the final composition.

I photographed a ballerina standing in the corner of a green-walled room. In her black tutu she appeared like a graceful spider going up the wall. Working on another image of ballerinas in a group, as I was zooming I noticed the little ballerina peeking from a door. I told her to stand still, and I got my image. Working in New Mexico, I created an image inspired by the weathered face of a man who was sitting peeling red peppers against a grey wall, drying just like the red peppers in the hot sun. Taking the time to closely observe people and explore the possibilities of light and location, I’m inspired to create the images that capture for me an important moment in time.

Product Resources: Cameras: Canon EOS-1D; Lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8; Lighting: Photoflex Lifedisc reflectors Tripod: Manfrotto; Other: Digital Target Calibration-photovisionvideo.com.

About the Author

Edda Taylor
Edda Taylor has earned a reputation as one of the most recognized names in photographic portraiture. Taylor holds the degree of Master Photographer, Photographic Craftsman from the Professional Photographers of America, and is a certified color analyst. Recipient of both the Gerhard Bakker Memorial Award and the Kirt Lieber Gold Award, she is an international guest lecturer and instructor; leading workshops at Purdue University, Indiana University and the Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, NM. www.eddataylor.com.