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The Death Of A Great Editor Made Me Feel The Light

The Impact Of A Photo And Some Great Words

Custodian photo by Barclay Burrow

Photo taken of a custodian by my journalism instructor, Barclay Burrows. This photo was captured in 1974 at what was once called Southwest Texas State University.

Back during my sophomore year in high school, my photojournalism instructor, Barclay Burrow, pointed out to me that great photographers not only see the light, but they feel the light too. The conversation started with him showing me a photo, from the school’s 1976 yearbook, of Victoria High School photographer, Paul Adams. Yes, that was the year I entered high school, but more important, it was also the year where the current school newspaper and yearbook staff realized it was time to focus on their talents after the death of their editor, John Godfrey.

Perhaps we remember things more when a death is involved, I’m not sure, but I do know I’ll never forget Barclay showing me that photo as he felt I could see the light like Paul, but I still needed to learn to feel it too.

Barclay was my first photojournalism instructor who pushed me hard to improve my photography and I can honestly say, this was the birth of my photojournalistic style I incorporate today in my photography.

Seeing the light and feeling the light are two different things when it comes to photographers, so I’ll start by explaining what seeing the light is about. The ability for a photographer to see the light is not just observation of the light around us, but identifying a “swath” or “sliver” of light striking an area distinctly. There are often shadows or other less intensely lit areas around these more distinct paths of light. Think about light filtering through a window in a house, the ambient light in the house is the big picture, but the beam of light filtering through the window or a window with blinds, tends to stand out over all the other areas—this is the area of choice for great photographers to place their subject or to capture that uniqueness of that path of light.

Photo of Paul Adams

Photo of Paul Adams from the 1976 Victoria High School yearbook.

In architectural or landscape photography, a photographer simply captures that light at its best angle and aligns it with the composition of the photo for greater impact. In photographing people, the photographer will use that patch of light to strike the subject with impact, and as the late, great portraiture photographer and friend Monty Zucker often said, “The best photos are those with the main light striking from the side or back, not necessarily the front.” This is what it’s about, utilizing that distinct path of light in your photos—hence why studio photographers try to recreate the effect in the form of a “hair light” in their photos—not just to separate the hair from the background. Still other great photographers look for, or add, accent lights, realizing the importance of “back light” in a photograph. It’s almost as that light becomes the “diamond” area of the photo.

In that same scenario of a subject standing near a window, an experienced photographer will “drag the shutter” slow enough to capture the window light’s intensity striking the subject from the side or back, even though the subject may still be illuminated with artificial light from the front. The duration of the flash is the shutter speed for the subject, whereas the shutter speed of the camera captures the vibrancy of the light entering the window and the photographer can select a slower shutter speed that suits their tastes for their photographic style. Some photographers will drag the shutter speed very slow to create an “over-lit” background while others will barely drag it and even others will increase their shutter speed to have a properly exposed outdoor background. Each choice of shutter speed will impact the quality of that light overall in the image. Regardless, in all three photographer’s shutter speed choice scenarios, the photographer’s have seen the light and their selection is probably impacted on how they feel the light quality they want to achieve.

Photographers from Victoria High School 1980

That's me during my senior year in high school, I always carried a camera with me everywhere I went.

In my first book, Garage Glamour: Digital Nude and Beauty Photography Made Simple, I discuss a technique called Quick Reaction Timing, or QRT, where the photographer goes to the local zoo early in the morning when it first opens, preferably on a cold or cool morning, so the animals can teach that photographer to see the light. Basically, as the cold and hungry animals are released from their cages, they head directly to “patches of light” to “warm up” in the sun. These patches are created by the sunlight entering the Earth’s atmosphere at an oblique angle, thus the light cuts through trees, buildings and such, and the animals find those slivers and swaths. They teach us how to see light by just studying their habitual search for warm light. Keyword, habitual, great photographers develop habits to hone their skills and the habit of constantly looking for light is tantamount to the animals, consciously and subconsciously. This is an other step toward developing photographic style.

Now once we’ve learned, or in the case of QRT, taught to see the light, we must learn to feel it—or understand the qualities of light and how it impacts everything in the photo, including it’s softness or hardness and it’s intensity for correct exposure. As an example, if we use a small, specular light source, we can almost feel the hardness of the shadows on our subject’s face vs. if we used a rather large octabox, like a Chimera Octa57, were we can feel it’s beauty and softness strike our subject—it’s evident in just observing the softness of the shadow areas it creates when used properly.

Great photographers also understand that the qualities of light differ during the day, such as the early morning light at the zoo vs. the Moab Golden Hour light. Sunset and sunrise are a great way to learn how to feel light—just study how the harshness of light changes during the day as it goes from soft to hard and back to soft on a normal sunny day. Light is always softer, lower in contrast and produces softer shadows on a cloudy or overcast day. Light is always harder on a bright, clear, sunny day.

Another characteristic of being able to feel the light is to know your equipment well enough, through experience, practice, consistency, and how shutter speeds correlate with apertures, that we can actually predict the camera exposure settings without relying on a light or exposure meter.  Of importance here, almost a by-product of learning to feel the light, is that this consistency helps develop our photographic style—one of the hardest things for a photographer to gain, almost like the branding of one’s work.

Photographers from Victoria High School, 1976

Photographers Russell Janecka, Paul Adams and James Sherman from the 1976 Victoria High School yearbook. Photo caption for Paul's photo reads, "Head photographer Paul Adams 'feels the light' for the perfect F/stop." His editor was John Godfrey.

Feeling the light also comes with understanding fundamentals, concepts and rules of photography, specifically lighting, like the “Sunny 16 Rule,” which simply states that on a bright sunny day, if the photographer sets their camera shutter speed equivalent to the ISO, the aperture, or F/stop, is F/16. If the clouds roll in, we simply adjust to F/11 or F/8, depending on the density of the cloud cover itself. There are other lighting laws, such as “The Angle of Incidence is Equal to the Angle of Reflection,” and “The Inverse Square Law.”

While there are many rules, laws, principles, etc., we know great photographers break them too, and I’m sure Paul Adams broke a few of them during his tenure as a school photographer at Victoria High School. Though I never met John Godfrey personally, I felt Barclay’s passion in his voice that the world had lost a great editor. Barclay was also passionate in my potential talent so he did something that never had been done before in the history of Victoria High School photographers at that time, he pulled me out Journalism 1 early, after the first trimester, and made me a school photographer immediately. I owe him for that passionate move in my photographic career, early on.

Barclay made photographers back then as I’m sure the realism of John’s death had impact on his lesson plans. I might add, my boost in photography was also encouraged by the selfless support of Russell Janecka, another school photographer who took me under his wing that also could see and feel the light at an early age. Russell was a senior then and reminded me that when he and the other senior photographers moved on, it was up to me to continue in their steps.

Normally school photographers were juniors and had to complete an entire year of Journalism 1, but apparently Barclay believed I had the ability to learn to feel the light so he decided to accelerate me forward. I’m thankful to him for that and for embedding in my mind early on that seeing and feeling the light was an essential fundamental in creating photographs, not pictures. Hopefully this article will inspire you like what the photo did to me.  With that, I say, please don’t forget our men and women service members, especially during the holiday season as many will be separated from their families—freedom isn’t free—so say a prayer, thank them for their service and keep them in your mind—God bless them all! Rolando!

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2 Comments

  1. you were very lucky to have great instructors early on. I too was one of the guys in High School with a camera, doing the yearbook and newspaper – but my school didn’t have a photography program (it was also 4 years earlier) so I spent most of my time away from school. I got a job on the local newspaper in the circulation dept and since I was everywhere I was always the first guy with a camera at the scene of local news. My only regret is not having shot a portrait of every girl I went to school with; which is the advice I’d give myself if I could go back in time.

    • Yes I was very lucky to have someone like Barclay and I’m thankful to him and others too! I have a few photos of a few classmates, but not every girl ;) Thanks!

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