How space changes with light

As the title suggests, the object of this exercise was to show how changes in light change affect the way the space being photographed looks and feels.

Given the speed at which light conditions change in Singapore, both from the point of view of the sun’s movement given the proximity to the equator and the ever changing weather conditions, this promised to be an interesting exercise. Usually this would be the case. However, Singapore is currently in the grips of it’s annual haze ‘event’ and this year has been slightly worse and more prolonged than usual. The haze emanates from neighbouring Indonesia, the farmers and corporates (multinational and often anonymous and conveniently left out of media reports) practising the annual and illegal ‘slash-and-burn‘ of it’s forests to clear the way for new grazing land and crops (such as palm oil). This culminates in Singapore (and surrounding areas) being swathed in a dense blanket of smoke (haze) for days and weeks on end, choking the sun and residents alike. As it happens this was also occurring during previous work for P&P. The net result is light that the changing relatively little and certainly doesn’t have the dynamic range that I would ordinarily expect to find. To begin with I felt this exercise could be a dead loss, however, it occurred to meet that it could work to my advantage. It just meant that I would have to work harder to see the subtle differences of light rather than have them laid out in front of me as is so often the case.

I chose two different locations close by and took photographs over the course of around two weeks. I will compare the images next to each other and describe the changes I see. The locations were chosen for their proximity and (potential) variance in lighting conditions. In each location I was exposing for the highlight in the frame to ensure the viewer would see the dynamism within the image and it would be easier to discern the change of light.

The first was a pair of coconuts growing in my garden. They are quite a neutral colour surrounded by dark greens and a white wall in the background.

Looking at the images side-by-side like this there are several factors I can see in the light differences. The first is the colour temperature variance ranging from quite cool at 9AM to very warm at 930AM (NB the first are in the shade of the house, the second has just come in to the sun). I would have expected the 210PM image to be much cooler but suspect the haze is casting an odd colour cast. I can also see the difference in contrast from very flat (8AM) to quite large contrast at 210PM. In fact I would have expected more contrast between these two images but the haze is playing it’s part in diffusing the light. What I would have expected to see at 210PM is very bright coconuts and a marked drop-off in the background creating a natural vignette around the focus area.

The most pronounced shadow on the coconuts appears at 1030AM. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly it is clearly sunnier than on other days. Secondly the sun is still fairly low in the sky giving a harsher, more elongated shadow. The angle of the sun is also hitting a leaf that is quite close to the coconut giving a better definition of shadow than in say, the 210PM shot.

An interesting aspect which I hadn’t anticipated is on the 730AM image. Although the image is quite low contrast due to the shadow and flat light, the earlier rain has caused some interesting marks on the husk of the coconuts. The lack of rain during this period meant they hadn’t been wet for some time and now looked like they were saturated and ‘bleeding’ water.

8AM and 730AM give the most saturated colours with flat light, haze and cloud all contribute to very diffused light and therefore low contrast but high saturation.

Finally the last two shots (taken on the same day half an hour apart) show what happens when the sun is out with only a little cloud and little haze. The background wall is now picked out as white highlights. The cool, low dynamic of the first at 9AM (the coconuts in the shadow of the house) contrasts with the much higher dynamic of the second at 930AM which is both warmer and more contrasting.

My second location was a small area with some Muslim graves. It was chosen due to the nature of the foliage (green grass, trees overhead) and the striking yellow of the material covering the headstones which I felt would show the differences in light quite clearly. Firstly I made the photographs from the same point-of-view then I changed my angle of attack to see what I could gain in terms of changing light. Again, these photographs were all made over a two week period.

These four images had much more variation in weather types and it shows immediately. The yellow of the cloth gives a very warm feel to these images but one in particular stands out as much warmer than the rest. At 145PM there were extremely heavy storms and I managed to get out between them to shoot this image. The saturation occurring due to mixture of wet ground and cloth and the overhead conditions of cloud and haze (not to mention the overhanging trees) is quite extreme. The hitherto yellow cloth is now golden with saturation from the diffusion of light. Although the image is quite saturated, the contrast is quite low due to the conditions described above.

By contrast, the 310PM image is very flat and without life. Given the trees above I would expect some very harsh, dappled shadows to appear but the haze has wiped out any real dynamic in the image with only the slight highlight from the material giving me some contrast. The lack of detail in the tree trunks in the background is noticeable compared with the other three images. Again the haze is casting a cool look to the photograph. The final 910AM photograph finally shows what my expectations would have been from this area initially. Although slightly hazy, the low sun is warming the frame and the trees are giving the dappled shadow I would expect.

There is only 30 minutes difference between the 840 and 910AM images but due to the weather conditions they are very different in look. At 840AM the far white wall is flat as are the grassed areas although some light is picking out the tree trunk in the background quite nicely. At 910AM the sun is dappling these areas as well as highlighting the gravestones whilst still leaving them quite saturated due to the early morning softness of the sun.

The next set of images were taken moving around the same site but testing the available light with different angles to see if I found a preferable more pleasing place to shoot from.

The photographs above were made on two separate days and I have tried to make similar photographs (at least from similar angles) for the sake of comparison. I took some on a very hazy day and some on a sunny day. The first thing I notice about them is the difference in contrast. Images 1,4,6 and 8 were all taken with morning sun dappling through the trees. Images 2,3,5 and 7 were taken on a heavy haze day during the mid-afternoon.

On the whole those taken in the sunny weather have far more contrast than those taken during the haze. I have introduced a little back light in to 1 and 2, 7 and 8. As per the previous photographs, I have exposed for the highlights leaving room for the dynamic light to show through. In images 2 and 7 the light is very flat and blue although there is still highlight on the tops of the graves such is the sheen of the yellow material (which fades in time leaving less and less reflection). Images 1 and 8 show a much more contrasting scene with the greens more lush and warm due to the low sun (and also a certain amount of rain in between shoots).

Interestingly in images 3 and 4 the pronounced highlights appear on image 3, taken in the haze but with diffused light directly above. Image 4 has no noticeable highlight even though the sun can clearly be seen in the background on the wall. As I am shooting in the darkened area for image 3 (that has no highlights in the background) it pushes the graves to look brighter.

Probably the most discernible differences appear in images 5 and 6. In image 5 I suspected the sky was not much different in exposure to the gravestones so decided to expose for the sky to see what would happen. Ordinarily I would expect everything else to be drastically underexposed but in this case we once again have quite a flat image with the just the highlights of the graves showing through the gloom. Given that this image has had minimal work done on it, the viewer can see how dark the sky was even though it was mid-afternoon. Suddenly in image 6 the frame comes to life with introduction of sun in to the equation. I waited until the sun had moved a little so it was touching the grave stones. This meant I could get a better exposure for both them and the detail in the clouds. The trees also benefit from the rising sun and the warmth gives them more personality and detail.

Given the choice I would work with the warm early morning sun and I like the more contrasty type of photographs. However, in other circumstances the low-contrast approach works very well. Indeed, in taking this approach and looking for highlights in the scene one can achieve some interesting results by not worrying so much about the high contrast. In fact the haze has made me think harder about my approach to light and led me to take some personal shots to experiment.


F1 lighting gantry above Anderson bridge in Singapore


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