Saturday, 1 December 2012

Thoughts on natural lighting – classic and current

With many thanks to Mitchell Kanashkevic for kind permission to use three of his images.

I’ve been somewhat taken with the possibilities around the control of light, and the RPS portrait lighting course has had a major impact on how I have been thinking about this.  Obviously this is one of the key elements of art and photography as far as portraying the human form is concerned, so I have done a little research into the great practitioners of lighting in art through the ages as well as those in the photographic medium.  However, rather than artificial lighting, I have been considering the use of natural light and the great exponents of this.  I certainly don’t intend to produce a lengthy review of all those who have been claimed by commentators to be the greatest, and there are many, but have singled out two for discussion.
Having recently watched through all eighteen available episodes of Tim Marlow’s excellent Great Artists television series, I focussed on Johannes Vermeer as someone whose use of natural light to capture human form and emotion shows, at least to me, a superbly lifelike quality.  On the photography front a friend suggested to me that I might look at the works of Mitchell Kanashkevic for someone who’s photojournalistic and travel work makes wonderful use of available light to portray people.  I wrote to Kanashkevic and was delighted to get a reply almost by return granting permission to use a couple of his images to illustrate my ramblings.  His website is well worth a look if you like travel photography and stunning use of natural light.

Starting with Vermeer, I think there is an almost ethereal quality to his paintings, and although frequently portraying light from a window to the left of the subject and attracting criticism from some writers for this, the qualities that the light draws from the faces and fabrics is simply stunning.  I have selected three to show here, and firstly chose Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted in 1665, as it is set against an almost black background and the use of the light on the mouth and the earring itself has remarkable vibrance and vitality.  If this was a photograph it would probably have been shot with a light facing the front of the model and a black backdrop to avoid reflecting light onto her back, and a reflector and flags used to selectively light the head scarf.  This has always been one of my favourite paintings simply because of the light, an expression that somehow seems very knowing, and to me shows a connection with the artist that is almost photographic in its quality, remarkable given that it is obviously not a fleeting moment in time as a photograph would be.
Girl with a pearl earring. 1665.  Vermeer

The Geographer shows light on a complete scene, yet the details on the face and clothing is again remarkably picked out by Vermeer as the sun apparently streams through the window; even the up lighting from sun hitting the open map or book can be seen to lift the shadows in the painting of the face.  It shows a remarkable understanding of the how light behaves and it would be fascinating to know the extent to which this was posed in the conditions portrayed and how much was Vermeer’s interpretation and licence.  Photographically the window is being used as large softbox to cast soft, diffuse shadows and the map is utilised in the same way as the large reflectors were used in the model shoot that I posted about earlier.  The Kitchen Maid, painted in 1660, was selected as there was appeal in the way that the light is graduated from the bottom left to the top right of the image as the natural light comes in through the window, picking out both the food items on the table and facial features of the maid herself.  Not unusually for Vermeer, there is a significant empty space lit to the right hand side of the painting against which the primary subject is framed.

The Geographer. 1668. Vermeer

The Kitchen Maid. 1660.  Vermeer

Moving on to Kanashkevic and his naturally lit travel photographs, my first image is Sulfur miner, Ijen Crater, East Java, Indonesia.  2008 and was actually the image that started me thinking in the direction that led to my candle light shot in the Light assignment.  There is a lot on  his website about the setting up of this image and how long it took to get the lighting right with the guttering torch and the departing figure in the background, but it captures the wind by the direction of the flame and the light falling perfectly on the face, clothes and baskets;  the cigarette burning in his hand in my view adds to the image and the early morning light has also just picked out the miner heading down the slope, separated from the primary subject by the mountain silhouette in the background.
Old orthodox Russian priest and his wife, Braslav region, Belarus, 2009 was a photograph that captured a face with a history and the lighting from the window on the left hitting the face and arm was similar to the lighting in some of the Vermeer paintings in its intensity and quality.  I appreciate that this is a well worked lighting device employed by a million photographers and artists but me for there are strong parallels here.  I like the way that the light just catches the face of the priest’s wife in the background, although she is clearly a peripheral figure in the photograph, and may well have also been in reality.  Lastly, Tea maker’s son, Rajasthan, India, 2007 struck me because of the strong and harsh directional lighting and shadow depth as the sun streams through the entrance to the area in which the child is sitting.  The powerful natural light overpowers the light that must be coming from the fire and restricts it to just the orange glow from the inside of the oven, which along with the steam rising from the pot, makes it a warm image in spite of the harsh and almost cold and bluish lighting from the right .  The catch lights in the eyes make this picture for me as without these the child’s face would seem lifeless and dull.

Sulfur miner, Ijen Crater, East Java, Indonesia.  2008 
Copyright Mitchell Kanashkevic.  Used with kind permission.

Old orthodox Russian priest and his wife, Braslav region, Belarus. 2009
Copyright Mitchell Kanashkevic. Used with kind permission

Tea maker's son, Rajasthan, India. 2007
Copyright Mitchell Kanashkevic. Used with kind permission

Although I could write reams on natural light in painting and photography, and indeed there are many thousands of comparisons available to read, coupled with millions of images, I felt it was a worthwhile endeavour to highlight a couple of examples which had particular personal appeal as I think that both have relevance to the Light module and expand a little on what I learnt on the RPS workshop.


  1. I enjoyed reading this and you've chosen some wonderful examples. I prefer natural light as well. Sometimes I've wondered whether this is mainly because I found artificial light hard to get to grips with and control, whereas I know that some photographers prefer to be in control of the light. Having thought around this more though I actually do prefer to 'follow' the light.

  2. Here's the piece that I wrote about Tom Hunter who explicitly uses the work of Vermeer, and others to inform his work, . Mind you Hunter makes use of artificial light as part of his practice.