Natural light • follow-up on course notes

Before moving on to project 3 and consideration of artificial light, I take this opportunity to comment on the quotations offered by the course notes (EYV, 80-82)


Eugène Atget (French, 1857 – 1927 ), Parc de Sceaux, 1925, gelatin silver print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2002.73.27 [Source: ]

The light in the south is so different from the north, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the northern light. You have to live in the south to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos. (Sally Mann 2010)

In my opinion, this statement is a piece of Southern (Confederate) States “Johnny Reb” romanticism. Immediately before this passage, Mann tells us “Southerners are preoccupied with the past, with myth, with family, with death. And, of course, we tend to be a little more romantic.” Objectively, ignoring myth and romance, the further south the viewpoint (in the northern hemisphere) the higher the sun at any given time of day. My own experience of photographing in Georgia is one of very bright, harsh sunlight.

Of course, the quality of daylight depends on more than just its direction. Atmospherics are a vital component, and I note that most of the images in Southern Landscapes (Mann 1992-1998) seem to be taken in light overcast conditions (or rising mist in the case of the swamp image which is my favourite of the set) and exhibit flare from the uncoated lens that she tells us she uses.

The vulgar gate of the day gives no quarter and its insistent brightness will tell lies about all, forcing the subtlety back into the interiors of trees and the other side of the sky. (Brian Catling 2012, quoted in Surridge 2013)

Checking this quotation in its context yielded two surprises. The first is that ‘gate’ is not a misquotation of ‘gaze’. The second is that the quotation describes dawn light, rather than midday sun as I had assumed from reading it out of context. Indeed, it is a wet dawn with ‘lead-grey clouds’ and a weak sun, ‘moist and limp’. Catling is describing the light of day, as opposed to the ‘purity’ of darkness which he considers the forest’s natural state.

Going back to my original assumption, I can identify with the idea of bright light ‘forcing subtlety back into the interiors of trees’. As the outer shell of leaves is sunlit, the interior of the tree and the space below it becomes lit with a softer dappled light.

I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects (Michael Schmidt 1979)

The quotation as given is incomplete, missing an important clause from the first sentence, thus: In order to achieve a maximum of objectivity and thus create a photograph which possesses credibility and authenticity as a document (factual information), I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. …”  This tells us something about the photographer’s intent.

Schmidt was a member of the Düsseldorf School of photography and preferred to make images that would describe his subject without emotionally distracting the viewer. His images are monochrome employing a full range of great tones, “For me, black and white are always the darkest grey and the lightest grey.” (Schmidt, quoted in his Guardian obituary, O’Hagan 2014)

To my eye (camera-club pictorialist) Schmidt’s images are rather flat in terms both of subject and image contrast, which seems typical of the Düsseldorf School. Midday light with a light overcast would be ideal if that is the effect one desires.

In his early views of Paris, Atget the documentarian sought to illuminate his subject with an even clarity, the best to convey information. He usually made such images – see, for example, Environs, Amiens – in the middle of the day, when shadows were minimal. Atget’s late photographs, however, are frequently marked by subjective light and deep shadows. Often made early in the morning, these pictures – such as Parc de Sceaux – use light and shadow to create a mood rather than to describe a place; they mark the apex of Atget’s formal and expressive investigations of the medium. (Washington NGA)

The quotation is prefaced, “Atget’s treatment of light and shadow was central to his style, especially in the expressive final phase of his career.” The two images referenced as examples are his first and almost last images in the Washington NGA collection, sorted chronologically. Viewing the collection in that order, it appears that Atget worked in a documentary style with even lighting for his whole career (his purpose was to produce images for reference by artists), with occasional more expressive images appearing when he restarted after the end of the Great War.

The three photographers quoted all seem to have a preference for diffused light, giving a full range of tones. I would have liked to see them balanced by exponents of hard lighting (such as Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’) or dramatic light (such as Lee Frost in many of his articles for Black+White Photography magazine)

Overall, the message is that natural light comes in many and various forms depending on geography, time of day and weather. Which is best will depend entirely on the individual photographer and what he/she is trying to say with a particular image.


Mann, S. (1992-1998) Southern Landscapes [online] at: [accessed 14/8/16]

Mann, S.(2010) The Touch of an Angel (interview in Chinese Photography magazine) [online] at: [accessed 14/8/16]

O’Hagan, S (2014) Michael Schmidt obituary [online] at: [accessed 16/8/16]

Schmidt, M (1979) Thoughts About My Way of Working [online] at: [accessed 16/8/16]

Surridge, M (2013) Brian Catling and The Vorrh [online] at: [accessed 14/8/16]

Washington NGA (s.d.) Atget at Work [online] at: [accessed 17/8/16]


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