#115 The myth of perfect light

By philberphoto | News

Aug 15

Oh, to have a few minutes or even hours at one’s disposal in one of the world’s great cities, with a camera on hand, and great light…. As you know, I hardly ever leave home without my camera. That day, in London, I had my Canon 5D II and Zeiss ZE 35 f:1.4, and I hit the tourist trail:

How is that for perfect light, right? Not only hardly a cloud in the sky, but it is still quite early, as shown by this picture, right in front of Buckingham Palace:

It was July 2011, so that early morning light came well before the workday started, giving the dedicated photographer who was willing to get up a window of opportunity, and I made what I could of it:

As you can see, I avoided none of the schmaltzy clichés of postcard photography. I thought, the light is so good, and so rare in London, I just can’t pass up on this. More personal pictures would have to wait. Come on, help yourself to some more touristy schmaltz:

Ok, you get the idea. Boring. Yes, lots of detail, and colours, and contrast. But boring, boring, utterly boring. Apologies.

Fast forward to….London, a bit more than a year later, the day after the Games, actually. Another day when work only started at 9 am, and I was out and about well before that. Except that I now have this gem of a stealth camera, the Sony NEX 7, which I can take right into a business meeting with 4 prime lenses, and no-one any the wiser. Mounted on it the extraordinary Leica Elmar 24mm f:3.8, which, surprise, surprise, gives almost the same focal length on my APS-C-equipped camera as the 35mm Zeiss on my full-frame Canon. So, back to Waterloo Bridge, the London Eye, Westminster in the background…


Except that the weather wasn’t quite as nice, was it? A light cloud cover was coming over the City, expected to get worse through the day. And it did, since this is what it looked like after the meeting:

That wouldn’t deter a true photographer from walking the few hundred yards from Waterloo Bridge to Westminster, despite what had become light rain…

And looking the other way:

Now that picture is very close to one taken in “perfect light”. Just as schmaltzy, too…:-(

But which one is more “interesting”? The one taken in “perfect” early morning light, or the one with the ominous clouds? The ones that looked like this:

So, my point is not: don’t get up early, don’t look for perfect light, just snap up postcards with your P&S, the monument will speak for itself and its beauty will overwhelm your total lack of any compositional care.

Rather it is: a perfect picture is not necessarily the picture of perfection. Perfect light is not necessarily the light of the perfect moment of a perfect day. Imperfections, defects, clouds can be very inspiring and give a picture tremendous strength and mood.

All you need to capture the moment is a camera, and openness of mind….

  • pascaljappy says:

    Hi Philippe, there’s no doubt in my mind the cloudy pictures have far more potential than the sunlit ones. In fact, Photoshop has a tool to add clouds to your images, but to my best knowledge, no one removes clouds to leave flat blue clouds instead. In the days of Velvia, there were a few (cliché) opportunities of crary colours with ND filters and a polariser at sensut, but in the conditions you describe, the second set of pictures clearly wins ! Your middle picture of the Thames with the Eye on the left and Houses of P on the right is actually a lovely compromise, with an interesting sky and reassuring light. It needs less work than the cloudy pictures. But It won’t make the walls of a gallery whereas the stormy ones have the potential to !

    Thanks for the interesting idea 🙂

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