The sun is a magical light source — the mother of all luminosity — and we have tried since we first struck flame into fire, to contain and replicate its hot, molten, goodness of warmth and healing rays. “Finding Your Light” is an important duty in each of our days because sunlight, and even starlight, breaks the darkness and guides us more fully into the span of the horizon.

When you’re on stage, there is a special light created just for you.  It’s called your “Key Light” and here’s the easiest way to find it.  Look around at all the lights shining down on you, and the one that is directed to shine straight in your eye is your key light.  Yes, that key light hurts your eyes.  Yes, that key light is something from which you would want to hide.  Yes, you have to love that key light, find that pain, and let it illuminate you.  That light was created, is maintained, and will forever be yours, as long as you allow it to blind you on stage.

In the field of the real world, you also have a key light — it is called, “The Sun” — and it glows eternally for you. The trick is that your sun key light is — unlike a sealed stage performance — is always moving, and that means you have to move, too. You need to shuffle along the lines of this mortal coil to sync with the arcing of your ethereal sunlight key wherever it may be during the span of the day.

Now, the measure of your sunlight key light is that you have to share it because it is everyone else in the world’s key light, too. Next you must determine if you are the object or the observer.

If you are the object, you must place yourself before the sun so it shines in your eyes.  I am old enough to remember painful Easter Sunday mornings when the family would gather in my grandfather’s front yard and we’d all be full face into the sun so the camera had the best chance of catching all the details of our beautiful clothes and perfect hair.  For years, I was memorialized in print as a child with my head down, and squinting, because my fair eyes could not stare down the terror of the sun.

My temporary step-father was so incensed one Easter morning, that he took be behind the shed and, clenching me in his arms, forced me to stare into the sun as he counted down a minute in 60-second increments.  I learned, at age five, how to measure time that day in heaving breaths, unblinking tears, and nanoseconds.

If you are the observer, it is your duty to position whatever you are recording for all of eternity, in the full face of the sun, and that means the sun will always be at your back.  “Find the sun!” I cry to my students, “Move your body until the sun is behind you, and then start filming and photographing!”  You will have to gather people into facing the sun, and be kind to those with fair eyes, and if you’re herding cats or trying to capture buildings, you’ll have to move and plan out the arc of your key light sun beforehand so it is in proper ascension or declination depending upon the luminosity quality of your wants and magic hour needs. I argue, if you cannot see the sun, but only sense the sun, the sun is not properly positioned “at your back” and you are actually standing in shadow.

If you find yourself inside using artificial suns, you will work with light in a three-quarters arc all around you to help remove shadows.  You will still need to find a key light and invent one if one isn’t already available.  I prefer shadows because they suggest depth and tell of space, but many believe shadows are ugly upon the face, and so it will be your task to not only create a key light, but also add some fill light to help minimize the damage from a single, keying, raging, indoor sun.

Always look for the sun.  Honor your unearthly key light.  Let the sun, and then the moon, and finally, the stars, light your way and direct you upward into the undiscovered hallowing of your life.

17 Comments

  1. This is extremely practical advice. When we were in Disney World I was always looking for the sun when taking pictures — and noticing how much better the pictures were when I strictly took your advice over taking shots that did not have the sun behind me — but sometimes time and schedule dictated it was taken then or taken never! 🙂

    1. It’s hard to use the sun for illumination — because it is always moving. That’s why flash photography was invented and flash photos are generally harsh and unforgiving. Always use the sun when you can. It will always give you the best results.

  2. Ah yes – the elusive sun. I’m no photographer, but I have to use photos in my blog and on my Etsy store, I have learned about the beauty of natural light. Here in the Pacific Northwest, I am learning when the sun pops out, I better take advantage of that so I drop everything to do a photo shoot while I have the opportunity.

    1. The sun is money! In moviemaking, there’s a certain time at the end of the day called “The Magic Hour” — some call it the “Golden Hour” — when the sun gives everything a beautiful shimmer and color and the film stock just sucks it up. You wait all day for that natural, magical, lighting and sometimes you get the shot and sometimes you do not. If not, you have to wait another 24 hours to try.

      In making movies you spend a lot of time “waiting for the sun.” Days with moving clouds are the worst because you get moving shadows and the sun disappears! Best days are overcast when there are no natural shadows. I tend not to like those cloudy days because, while “evenly lighted,” are flat and dull.

  3. oh the key light bought back memories of being blinded by it whilst narrating school plays – I was useless at acting but could narrate well.

    I have real problems with artificial suns …………. I have to work really hard to get inside shots to work. I have just spent the day measuring and photographing all the rooms at the house in Alcacer – I took each shot at least three time – once with and once without flash and once with the lights on.

    1. I had a friend in graduate school who would get severe migraines when a light was shone in her eyes. Her job, unfortunately, was to sit on stage and help the lighting designer focus key lights for all the actors. She’d wear big hats with wide brims and sunglasses on stage. Every time she’d be asked to test the light focus by actually looking at the key light in question, her whole body would cringe! It was both sad and funny and she handled it all well… with medication!

      I hate artificial light as well. There are some new LED lights that are supposed to provide the spectrum of the sun — but they’re still fake and imitative and unauthentic.

  4. Poor girl – what a job to have !

    In the Uk they sell “daylight” bulbs and lamps for those who suffer from “SAD” – seasonal affective disorder – AKA winter blues. I have never heard anyone sing their praises yet !

  5. This reminded me of seven-year-old me on the day I received Communion. Endless pictures, a bright spring day, and a sea of little girls in pristine white dresses… I don’t think my eyes are fully open in a single photo.

    I think I’ve come a long way since then, though, especially since attending a campus on fickle Long Island! I appreciate any sunlight I get, as do our many aspiring photographers, especially when spring rolls around and our tulips bloom.

    1. Oh, I’m with you on the photo shame, Emily! Unfortunately, it hasn’t really improved for me. Still too bright for my eyes. Sunglasses and sunscreen are my friends.

      I do enjoy the heat of the sun on my back now. I don’t hide from the exposure any longer.