Article by Spencer Elliott
Growing up outside of Chicago, light was ubiquitous, an ever present factor in every photo I took. Not only the sun and the moon but the building lights, the orange street-lamps, the buzzing neon signs, the Christmas lights in the snow; they all created a spirited aura, making the city feel vibrant and alive at any time, day or night. And as a teenager, most of the time I found inspiration was at night, when I was running around aimlessly looking for something to captivate me. Now that I live in LA, I find myself doing the same thing.
Not all photographers understand the complex science that goes into a photograph, but most know that a photo is entirely dependent on light, and not just a technological dependence but an aesthetic one as well. When utilized correctly, light, or lack of light, can be the difference between a good photo and a great one. So, it’s important to always be aware of the light around you and how it’s going to affect your photo. It’s particularly important to be aware of light at night when there is no natural light around. In the absence of natural light, one has to turn to artificial light. Now, artificial light is a broad term, it can be applied to any light that is not natural, including studio lights, speedlights, or a camera flash, but what I want to focus on, what I found inspiration from was unplanned, or “naturally artificial” lights found at night around a city. Yes, the phrase “naturally artificial” is paradoxical, but it’s a simple way of explaining those artificial lights that are out of our control, that are unplanned and untamable, or the lights that are so omnipresent at night that they seem to be natural, like the city building lights.
It doesn’t end there. Uncorrupted and beautiful artificial light can be found in the most mundane of places: the harsh fluorescent lights of a gas station at midnight, the red glow of a 24 hour drive through sign, the single streetlamp on a lonesome road. Again, by “natural” I simply mean unmolested by you, the photographer, or light that is going to happen whether you are there or not. Even fleeting moments like the sparks of a firework, or the ember of a cigarette, or the headlights of an oncoming car can provide some of the most genuine light sources.
Always keep your eyes open for light from any source, because in the city, light is everywhere. Photographers are artists, and artists are students of creativity, so you have to get creative when looking for light in the dark. Yes, the sun is arguably the ultimate source of light, and many of the greatest pictures have been the consequence of natural light, but that doesn’t mean that artificial light can’t provide something just as authentic. Artificial light, in my experience, seems to have a negative connotation. Artificial light is unnatural, it’s harsh, it’s nauseating, it’s polluting, and in some ways it is, but in other ways it is hopeful, it is calming, it is protective, as it shields from the terrors of the night. It is pure because it is human, and isn’t the point of art to capture what it is to be human?