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Masters of Photography

Lesson 15 of 34

Let Light Be The Subject

Joel Meyerowitz

Masters of Photography

Joel Meyerowitz

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Lesson Info

15. Let Light Be The Subject

Lesson Info

Let Light Be The Subject

Observation. Really, that's all we do. We're observers. We're like Mount Palomar, we're a telescope, looking at the world. And our observations give us subjects, appetite, direction. Basically, it's the guiding force behind making photographs, the quality of our observations. So, for example, you enter a place and you're looking around and you don't see anything that speaks to you. Yet, you feel good in the place and as you look around, you realize, oh, it's that light beam that's coming from a high window in the church that, let's say, you're visiting, and the beam comes all the way down and then it crosses the floor, and in the beam, there's a little bit of dust floating, and suddenly you realize that the most important thing in the whole space you're in is that little light beam. And it's gonna go away in five minutes. But the moment you recognize it, light has become your subject. So I urge you all, anytime you're feeling, I don't know what to photograph, or I have no imagination t...

oday, look around you and let light be your subject. Just give yourself over to it for five minutes. And go and see the source it's coming from, the window, watch where it bounces off the floor and how it lights up the area around where it's landing, see how it is when people walk into it and it slides across their body. If you observe the light, and let's be honest, photography is made of light. Photo, graphy, engraved by light, is what it means. So if you let light guide you, you will discover that there are subjects, since light falls on everything, the subjects that light is lighting up, become your observation. It's like a wonderful circle. It connects you, it stimulates you, it allows you to put disparate things, things that do not belong together, as a group. So, if you have a photograph of light falling on the way a mother is holding her baby and you see light falling on top of the baby's face, or if you see light bouncing off of the hood of a car in a kind of glinty way, or off the top of a building or through a flag that's waving and you see the light coming and going or in the woods where there's speckled light, light, light, again and again, becomes a subject. But it's a great training ground, because if you follow the light, you'll see the light. I'm serious, though, even though I'm laughing about this. Because it's there on those days when you are feeling flat. The light is a way to stimulate yourself and bring you back into the game again so that you can really see what's around you. There are so many times when every one of us, me too, feels like, you know, how do I get my engine going today? And sometimes, it pays off to look at a detail. I know it seems like a crazy thing, but you know, you could be standing on a street corner and there's a person in front of you and it's a hot summer day and maybe her shirt, her blouse has just slipped a little bit off of her shoulder so a little bit of shoulder is showing and the blouse is here and you're standing right behind it. And for some reason, it's so appealing. It's vulnerable, it's sexy, it's flesh in the city against the buildings. And you see it. You are awakened for just a moment. Maybe her bra strap is cutting into her shoulder or maybe there's a white mark because she's been to the beach and the rest of her shoulder is tan except for where the bathing suit strap. Whatever it is, there's a little moment where a total stranger, a part of their body or their clothing is just right there in front of you and you say, oh, it's beautiful. And you make a photograph of it. That will whet your appetite for whatever else is coming next. So sometimes, the detail is like putting the key in the door and opening it and suddenly, the rest of the world comes alive again. And it could happen anywhere. It doesn't have to be something sensual or vulnerable. It could be that you're standing in front of a building and you see the way the building has cracked after a hundred years of standing there, it's gone (mimics cracking) like that. And there's this zigzag. And in the little zigzag, a seed has landed. And the seed has sprouted. And you think, oh my God, nature, nature in the city finds its way in this tiny little crack, a bird dropped a seed, or the wind blew a seed in there. And so, you're awakened by this tiny detail and the billions of other details all around you. I think that these are pump primers. They get you excited to look at something intimate and small and then you take away from that the energy of what else is there to see? So you're alive in the world. I do it to this day, when I need to get myself started. Because it always makes for an interesting photograph, 'cause you have only a moment or two to kind of frame it and go for it. But it also gives you back some kind of pleasure. And in fact, one of the big questions for anybody who works on the street is how do I get close to strangers? How do I work my way into the space with strangers without bruising the situation or without alerting them to my presence? I've talked about being invisible, and this is part of it. But I also think that the detail, observing the detail when you're in a crowd or on a city street, wherever you find yourself, the detail gives you that sense of accomplishment. Aww, I just made this photograph and I feel good about, that I saw something out of nothing. And so if that detail was on somebody, you can apply that right then and there to the larger field of interest, which could be lots of people walking on the street. So maybe you walk alongside people, or if people stop to gaze up at a monument or, you know, point something out, as people do, you can sort of get in as close to them as you feel like it and maybe you enlarge the detail to looking at the way they're pointing to things or the way they're holding the map or whatever manipulation they're doing of themselves as a unit or of the family unit on the street, you can get close and it's an encouragement. Starting with the detail encourages you to accomplish something and then to be able to step back a little bit and look at the whole thing as if it's a big detail in the larger scope of the street. So, these are little, what I would call shoehorn methods. They're a way of you lifting yourself up and getting into something that might be, at the moment anyway, a tight fit for you in terms of your shyness or your resistance to doing it. It's a way of making it easier for you to get closer and take a picture. And if somebody ever stops you and say, what are you doing? You say to them, oh, this, the fabric on your shirt is beautiful. I just had to take a picture of it. Or your arm looks so beautiful, the tan you have is so gorgeous, I had to take a picture of it. Is that okay with you? And the people will be so charmed by you. They'll say, oh sure, of course, I just came back from Jamaica. And then you say, well, you know, looking at you now, you're really interesting. Can I do a portrait of you? See, it's a trick. Let's face it. But you learn that trick, and you use that trick, which is only being nice to people and complimentary, nobody thinks you're a bad person. They're not afraid of you, you're not a threat. I mean, look at me. Am I threat? No, I'm not. I'm (laughs) I'm kind and gentle, but I have to use these tactics on the street, because it ain't easy as you get older to be the charming person you were when you're young, so you find a tactic. And compliments go a long way, let me tell you. So, you go on and look at the detail and follow the light and learn to get close to people, your life as a photographer will be richer for doing that.

Class Description

Internationally renowned and award winning photographer Joel Meyerowitz is known for his iconic images that encompass decades of capturing all genres of photographs. Masters of Photography is bringing Joel’s class to CreativeLive to share the learnings from his vast career.

You’ll learn:

  • How to find a subject to photograph
  • How to improve your compositional skills
  • How to determine correct lighting
  • How to print your images and also create a photo book

Walk with Joel through picturesque Tuscany, bustling Siena and the vibrant streets of New York as he shows you how he creates his photographs. He will shares ideas, experiences, and his secrets on how to make great images. Joel will also suggest ideas for projects to try yourself. You can use any device from camera phone to DSLR, but in the end it’s all about you and your photography.

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I have an all access pass and thought oh no, I have to pay for this one? I bit the bullet and I am so glad I did. Joel has a great deal of wisdom and experience because of his age. BUT, despite his age, he exudes a fountain of enthusiasm, playfulness, curiousity and constant wonder surrounding his subjects. He opened within me the possibilities of exploring different photographic subjects and allowing myself to experience the fun in pursuit of those subjects. I love the way he shows how someone can take the same ho hum scene, but then look around for a different point of view. He is indeed a Master and I thank Joel for the class.


This is a absulutely fantastic class. Joel Meyerowitz takes you on an journey of little but important advices. In each short video you got some jewels to improve your approach, your view and your art. I own a lot of classes here on CL, but this one is one of my favourits! Gentle and human. Thank you Joel Meyerowitz, you helped me a lot on my journey to develop my photography.

Cosmin Dolha

What do you do after you learn all the mechanics, the technical stuff, exposure triangle, lights, where do you start? Because I am starting, now! You will find encouragement and guidance, and real applicable wisdom. If you are new to photography as I am, this course will point you in the right direction. What a treasure! Thank you CreativeLive for this and thank you Joel Meyerowitz for taking such a gentle approach to such a complicated subject, that is photography.