Writing with Light

An article by guest writer Lai Chan See. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.

Sadly the Singapore Mandai Orchid Gardens is no more. I used to go there to photograph dragonflies. One day I found at a corner on the ground a tablet with these words (photo 1):

O Lord, how manifold are Thy works;
In wisdom has Thou made them all:
The earth is full of Thy riches.
Psalm 104 : 24

#1 Tablet at Mandai Orchid Garden

#1 Tablet at Mandai Orchid Garden

Indeed the earth is full of wondrous things. Unfortunately until not too long ago I had walked them by, not appreciating their beauty. For to me then, a tree was a tree was a tree. But a tree is different at different times of the day, in different weather conditions, in different seasons. Each vision of that same tree evokes a different feeling and response.

I have been interested in photography for decades, but in the days of film I rarely shot more than half a dozen rolls (6 x 36, or slightly more than 200 pictures) during a whole holiday. Processing and printing was expensive. And the growing number of albums and boxes of slides took up increasingly more space. Worse, over time the prints faded and the slides became mouldy in our humid climate, and they had to be thrown away. During those days I confined myself to taking family pictures of the children growing up. I think these constraints blinded me in developing an eye for the many beautiful things around.

The advent of digital photography and advances in camera technology have been a boon to photographers. I can now take unlimited numbers of photographs without any regard for the cost of development and printing. A fortnight’s holiday often results in a rich harvest of two thousand or more images. The tendency is for me to squeeze the subject dry before moving on – shooting from various angles, from different distances, and with different backgrounds. In this way, even with the most mundane and ordinary subject a winner may emerge. It is also a great advantage to be able to view the picture on the camera’s LCD monitor as soon as it has been taken. Immediate improvements or corrections to the picture can then be made should this be necessary. The sensitivity of the sensor in present day cameras can be increased simply by turning a dial so that photographs can be taken even in extremely low light. The street scene shown in photo 2 was taken with a hand-held camera in Zhongdian (Shangri-la) on a dark night when I could hardly see the cobblestones at my feet.

#2 Zhongdian Old Town

#2 Zhongdian Old Town

The eye has to be trained to recognise beauty in simple and ordinary things. The challenge is to make the ordinary extraordinary. Often in the wider context of the environment this can be difficult to do, but when the subject is isolated by a frame the beauty shines through (photo 3). It has been said that only in fragments of the whole is nature’s order apparent.

#3 Drinking Straws

#3 Drinking Straws

I do not restrict myself to any genre of photography, but since I travel more frequently these days one may say that travel photography is my special interest. This actually is a misnomer, for travel photography is all-encompassing, including architecture, landscapes, flora and fauna, portraiture, sunrise and sunset, night scenes, and anything else that one encounters during travel. However there are two things that I strenuously avoid – to photograph landmarks from viewpoints as seen in tourist postcards, and to ask someone to photograph myself at every place visited. The latter serves no purpose other than to mark territory and declare that one has been there before.

I rarely indulge in reportage or street photography because I find that these pictures while of news making interest rarely, to me, have traditional artistic appeal.

My exposure to art has influenced the way I shoot, from composition to lighting. There are rules of composition which any art student knows. Of these, the rule of thirds is probably the most basic. The advice is not to place the subject smack in the centre of the frame. A visit to any art gallery will show that hardly any artist does this. Instead the subject should be placed at any intersection of the two vertical lines dividing the frame vertically into three and the two horizontal lines also dividing the frame horizontally into three. This placement of the subject is most pleasing aesthetically (photo 4).

#4 May in Her Garden

#4 May in Her Garden

The background is of utmost importance in a photograph. Sometimes I think it is more important than the subject itself. It either enhances the subject or ruins it completely. A busy cluttered background never works, and the trick is to move about to find a plain background, such as a wall or the sky, to show off the subject to advantage. Alternatively the background can be thrown out of focus by opening wide the lens aperture so that only the subject is sharply defined. A smooth creamy background is what every photographer tries to achieve. The Japanese call this “bokeh” (photo 5).

#5 Red Dragonfly

#5 Red Dragonfly

Other means of enhancing composition include judicious use of lines, shapes, patterns, colour, texture, and frames. While horizontal lines give a sense of stability, slanting or diagonal lines convey tension. Lines that lead into the picture serve to direct the viewer’s eyes into the frame. S-shaped lines are especially beautiful and often help to enhance the image. While standing on a high vantage point at Mount Etna I saw a winding road below me, and when the lone cyclist appeared I had to react fast to capture the scene which would have disappeared in a few seconds (photo 6).

#6 Cyclist on Mount Etna

#6 Cyclist on Mount Etna

Many things can be used to frame a subject, the most common perhaps being a gate or doorway (photo 7). But serving just as well may be a break in the foliage (photo 7). The frame helps to bring unity to the image and the viewer instinctively knows that what is important is to be seen within the frame.

#7 JiaYuGuan and Rocamadour

#7 JiaYuGuan and Rocamadour

Light is the very essence of photography, and the best light is to be found in the golden hour, that hour after sunrise and before sunset. The photographer has to be able to read light and utilise it appropriately to bring out the best in the image. Frontal light, oblique light, side light, and back light each has its own characteristics. Frontal light is flat while oblique light brings out depth and modelling. Side light is contrasty. Back light is superb for translucent objects, such as leaves revealing their fresh radiant greenness. Back light also endows objects with a silver lining (photo 8) and creates a halo around hair. And there is chiaroscuro light, one that I most like. Chiaroscuro is the interplay between light and darkness, resulting in very dramatic effects (photos 9 and 10). Caravaggio, “the master of darkness”, and Rembrandt are well known for using this manner of lighting in their works.

#8 Bee at Kangaroo Paw

#8 Bee at Kangaroo Paw

#9 Reading by Window Light

#9 Reading by Window Light

#10 The Bride

#10 The Bride

When talking of travel photography, sweeping landscapes come readily to mind. These invariably form part of a travel portfolio (photos 11 and 12). The latter was taken on a rainy day in Tam Coc, Vietnam, which has scenery similar to that of Guilin. The rain produced a misty covering for the whole landscape, adding a sense of mystery to its beauty. Increment weather is therefore no reason to pack the camera away.

#11 Huangshan

#11 Huangshan

#12 The Gorge at Tam Coc

#12 The Gorge at Tam Coc

My favourite subject during travel is portraiture. It is interesting to interact with people from other lands, and their manner of attire makes wonderful pictures (photos 13 to 17). Portraits need not necessarily be facial shots. I took a picture of a girl having a nap under her umbrella at the Lama Temple in Beijing (photo 18). Her face was not shown, only her pretty legs. This photograph was awarded a Spotlight in an international photography blog.

#13 Ninety-Five and Counting

#13 Ninety-Five and Counting

#14 Man in a Spanish Monastery

#14 Man in a Spanish Monastery

#15 Scribe

#15 Scribe

#16 Elder of Kashgar

#16 Elder of Kashgar

#17 Young Lady of Bhutan

#17 Young Lady of Bhutan

#18 Snooze

#18 Snooze

Most of the time I ask for permission from the people I photograph. By first chatting with them and showing an interest in what they are doing they are often more than willing to be photographed. For those who decline I thank them anyway and respect their wishes. The people photographed are generally thrilled when shown their images on the LCD screen. If they have an e-mail address I would offer to send the pictures to them.
To quote another travel photographer “the sheer joy of looking for great subject matter and then in deep concentration while creating the shot is the best medication for driving away the blues. You forget all your problems, and when you look at the results when you get home you relive every joyful moment.” While certainly good for the mind, photography is also beneficial physically. Each shoot involves two to three active hours on the feet, walking, climbing, bending, or stooping, and quite often carrying a heavy pack on the back.
A picture speaks more than a thousand words, but space constrains me from including many more pictures. For those wishing to view more of my work I invite you to visit my photoblog at http://www.laichansee.aminus3.com where I post one photograph each day.

About the writer

The writer is a 95% retired doctor who now spends his leisure striving to make the ordinary extraordinary and hoping to visit the more exotic parts of the world before infirmity of body and mind prevents him doing so.

Photo Slideshow

6 thoughts on “Writing with Light

  1. Wow, what an enlightening article. I am delighted not only to read this guest writer’s post but to be able to see the lovely photos posted, and as if that was not enough, I get to visit his own photo blog. Thank you, Pin Foo and John!

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