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© Wolf Avni Aug 2008
Not only let there be light, but let there be light of the right kind.

Light is Funny Stuff. Along with a great deal else, it is the measure of absolute speed. Travelling through the vacuum of Universal space without dissipating, deflecting or decelerating, at 297,000 kilometres per second, it barrels along at a mere 106.92 million kilometres per hour. Unimpeded,the distance a photon travels in a year is just a little over nine hundred-thousand, million km, (936,619,200,000 km to be exact). Get your brain around that if you can.

The nature of your comprehension of what light is, its chemistry and its
physical properties, underpin and ultimately defines what kind of photographer
you might be. Yes. I said chemistry! All light takes its colour from the chemical composition of its fuel. You may not realise it, but light is both a catalyst, a result and a reagent. It is the ultimate physical expression of energy. Without heat there can be no light, just as without light there can be no heat. So-called ‘‘cold light’’ is only relatively so. All of light originates from one or other distant star and all of life on earth depends on the fact of light, even for those creatures that may live in deep benthic oceans, or in caves, or in fissures so far underground that they have neither eyes nor any photo-sensitivity, yet still, without the burning of stars they could not exist. Everything animate; from the most primitive of diatoms to the most majestic living continuum, they all depend on it utterly. Yet who really spends much time paying attention to the light they bathe in, or, more importantly, comprehending it? Luminance is all around and without it there would be nothing. Of all the senses, vision takes up the greatest part of the working of our brain and in turn provides as much as eighty percent of all sensory input. Indeed we are washed by Starlight.

This could so easily turn into an eclectic ramble on astro physics and particle-science, but we don’t need that - and so I shall restrain, if not entirely curb my fondness for the adjectival. I’ll keep this short and to the point.

As for photography; light truly is everything. If I have any kind of aspiration to define myself on any but the most superficial of photographic levels, I must sooner or later come face to face with the facts of light. The cameras, the films, the lenses (and the quality in their glass), the number of pixels per point and points-per-pixel, your sensor-size and all the vast array of techno-gizmos, are just impellents, tools, devices, and they come far down in the hierarchy of what photography truly is.

It’s all really just about light and our creative interpretations of it.
The travelling of photons over millions of light-years is fascinating stuff, but unless your photography is done heavenward, via the Hubble space-telescope, it is of little import. What is of concern is how light behaves once it enters our atmosphere... and this is where the making or breaking of you, the photographer, begins and ends. Here, the pure light of space behaves quite remarkably. It deflects, refracts, reflects, transmits, bends, bounces, scatters and is absorbed, more or less, by everything it comes in contact with. Every single object has its own index, a fingerprint if you like, of how it interacts with the light that falls upon it. And this is the reality inhabited by the photographer, be you a mere cell-phone tit-
pusher to the most exalted of crafts-persons.

But enough about me... Our eyes and our sightedness, remarkable though they
be, do not begin to reveal the full story. We in fact only see a narrow band of
the full spectrum. So called ‘‘visible’’ light, is a small portion of the bejillion photons whizzing past and through us as we make our way through the traffic, or up the river. At both ends of that visible spectrum there are vast realms of infra-red and ultra-violet extending way beyond the capability and the physiology of our conscious optical reality.

A beam of light, though moving in waves, travels in a straight line. When it
collides with anything, individual photons deflect. Because the full spectrum is made up of different colours, each with a different wave length, light does not react (or behave) in a uniform way across the full spectrum. It deflects,
refracts, reflects, bends, bounces, scatters and is absorbed more or less, by
everything it comes in contact with, sure enough, BUT NOT UNIFORMLY. Every
time light transmits through one medium into another (as for instance from air
to water, or glass, the beam bends, not only with particularity specific to each colour in the spectrum, and to the refractive index of the medium material , but also relative to the angle that it travels proportional to the perpendicular. Yeah, get your head round that too!

Given that our atmosphere, outer and inner layers, is a froth of particles
extending about 25o k’s into space, every beam of light, every photon, must
make it through a veritable maze, a mulligatawny that muddies the water (so to
speak). When you (the photographer) get all of this, you begin to understand that to record by photographic means the true intensity of what is there before your eyes; colour, shape or contour, long before you worry your brain with contingents of composition, of textures, balance, depth-of-field, focus,
sharpness etc, in fact all the elements of construction, you first need to ‘see’ through the flare, haze, glare and comensurate blurring that affects the images you see. It’s the start, and so the first thing a serious photographer does is to fit a UV, and/or anti-haze filter to the front of every piece of glass he uses. Right there you begin to cut out some of the background light-noise that will make your pics seem washed out and atonal. Next, you address yourself to use anything you can that will help limit light scatter. This scatter is so much that it provides the square of 4 more illumination that the light travelling at right angles to the eye,
or lens. It starts with high-end optics and lens shields, or hoods and ends with every last bit of advantage you can wring from filters. The reason good lenses are so expensive (and regarded as non-negotiable by serious photographers) is the unbelievably high precision of their glass elements, the flawless quality of the materials and their error-free light transmission properties. Every bit of their unspeakable cost makes a tiny contribution to uncompromising light transmission and every bit helps. Another obvious tool, especially when working in harsh and high-contrast light conditions, as in say, the great-outdoors, is the polarising filter. This works to cut out, or at least limit, the vast amount of light scatter that overlays all we see. It does this by filtering out light that is not travelling at a perfect right
angle to the lens apex.

Of corse, polarising comes at a stiff price. Given that the non-perpendicular
light provides so much of the illumination , it’’s going to cost you about 4 stops to filter it out. So your f8 at 1/125th will require 1/8th suddenly, and if your are anything but rock-steady (and shooting wide-angle) your pic will be blurred to hell, no matter how vibrant the colour.

Is there a lesson in all this? There sure is. Turn your camera onto MANUAL.
Shut down the Korean brain that does all your photographic thinking for you.
Take back the view and your vision of it.

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