FREE On-Line Digital Photography Course

"Scratching in the Spotlight"

[listen to the lesson]

On the 21st of June in Paris everyone fills the streets to enjoy the melodies, and sometimes god-awful racket, flowing from every street corner as part of the Fête  de la Musique, our annual free music extravaganza.

Well, not everyone. Just off the beaten track of boulevard St. Michel, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, we find plenty of laid-back Parisians enjoying the warming rays of the longest day. It's always strange to think that the nights will get longer from now on, when you don't really feel that summer has even begun yet.

But there it is. The legendary Jardin du Luxembourg, inspiration for countless monochrome photos of weathered gents leaning on walking sticks and solitary iron chairs contemplating still lakes and life.

These days there's always a bunch of weird sculptures round by the orangery, and I'm quickly itching to get my camera out whenever I go there...

Key points
Shadows & Light

The thing that caught my eye immediately as I strolled down one of the gorgeous tree-lined avenues from the RER entrance down to the lake in front of the Sénat, was the contrast between this brightly lit lady and the dark shady greenery behind her. She stood out like a solitary flower in a field.

Unfortunately, she was way away in the distance and also I try not to obviously snap people so I was a bit wary of simply stopping and shooting. So I grabbed three furtive shots, two of which were unusable, and was left with this one, with her a little speck in the distance (see the original here before I cropped it). Indeed, the entire bottom half of the picture is a complete waste of pixels! Never mind, that's when hi-res cameras actually show some utility for once instead of just clogging up your hard disc with enormous redundant images!

What was great about this was the way the low-lying sun was highlighting her pale skin and a part of the light-coloured sand at her feet, while not penetrating the dense shadow behind. The lighting could hardly have been better. Without going on about it, this is something to look out for when you have an acute light source and the lie of the land lends itself to creating areas of deep shadow and bright spots. If you can get an interesting subject into one of those light areas they will be literally thrown into the spotlight in stark contrast to the muted areas all around.


Obviously, drastic cropping was called for here. But once I had done this the result is actually a pleasantly balanced composition.

The bench is almost dead centre with the woman on one end and the upright support balancing her on the other. She's also ideally placed in the bottom right section of the shot, looking into the picture, and rather wonderfully framed by those two nicely side-lit tree trunks.

Not to mention (oh, all right, I'll mention it) the cute framing from those little umbrella-like leaf canopies up above and the subtle sliver of shadow down below. Which brings us to her rather original position...

Human Element

I believe she has an itch. Either that, or she's lost something down the back of her top, or just likes sitting like that!

Well, whatever the explanation, I rather like the angles of her limbs going all over the place, highlighted by that sunlight hitting her from the side. I've actually accentuated the contrast and warmed the colours slightly and to be honest there isn't really any detail left in her skin and skirt which have completely burnt out. But this isn't necessarily a problem in this kind of 'mood' shot, where the harsh skin tones remind us of when the sun is so bright you can't look at light-coloured things for too long or they make your eyes go funny.

The 'V' of her left arm is actually an echo of the upside down 'V' made by her crossed legs, and hey, why shouldn't the lady have an itch anyways? I get them all the time, although I don't believe any of mine have yet been immortalised on any photo blog I've ever read!

Photo Ideas
  • Go out on a bright day as the sun is getting low in the sky and look for areas of harsh sunlight next to deep shadow. Try and get something interesting in the spotlight and snap away!
  • Purposely shoot a crowd at a far wider angle than you need. Then look for interesting interactions between individuals later on the computer as you zoom in. You can often find some interesting expressions or happy coincidences you didn't notice at the time.
  • Capture someone doing something personal and not particularly sexy or flattering, such as yawning, adjusting a shoe strap or blowing their nose as they wait to cross a busy road. In an interesting context this can produce a photo which has a bit more to say than the average run-of-the-mill city street scene.
Then comment on this lesson in the Photo Blog with a link to your best result - we all want to see them!

  • shadows & light - apart from being a great old live album from Joni, without shadows and light, what have you got?! Zilch! The extreme would be only pure black and white, which is an option you can try from one of those funny menus in your favourite photo manipulation program. But without going mad, the difference between light and dark is one of the photographer's most powerful tools.
  • cropping - although I try to take the ideal shot before I press the button, there are times when you either have to shoot wide because you're not sure where the subject's going to be and you want a bit of room for error, or as here when I simply didn't have time to do anything. In any case, the need to crop opens up a whole new opportunity for creativity... and error - use it wisely!
  • human element - so she had an itch! Well, to be honest, how exciting is someone lounging motionless on a sunny bench anyway? An unexpected, and very human, gesture could be what it takes to make your shot just a little bit special, or funny, or unusual.


~ Comment on this lesson in the Photo Blog ~





Photo Course ~ Contents