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The Story Behind That Picture: "Provoking the Light"

By: Thorsten Overgaard


Today I was explaining how to find the magic light. The type that makes things look sharp and sparkling. By training, tirial and error you can test out "provoking the light" and see what works the best, and before you know it, it becomes a way of seeing.

I will try to make it short and inspiring. I look for two things, the basic soft light, and then how to make it sparkling by adding edges. Hence, "provoking the light."


Too high contrast to be captured

What the human eye sees and what the camera sees is different. This perhaps is one of the most common problems in photography and one you must simply learn to acknowledge, live with - and then work with. It has limitations, but also possibilities. Unfortunately the camera industry tries to compensate for this physical impossibility by promising all sorts of complicated light metering methods to help you. This of course confuses most people because they buy a camera that promises to take "good pictures", so why doesn't this darn thing do it?

It's a physical limit and is not helped. The only way to deal with it is to start with the right light.

When you see a subject in sunshine with bright colors, the camera sees less dynamic range than your eye. It simply can't capture all the range of light within one photo. If you get the shadow right, the highlight will be blown out white. If you get the sunshine part right, the shadow area will be almost completely black.


It's a nice Kodachrome moment, but it's not the same as the eye saw. Shadow details are much darker in photos than what they eye saw. Some of this can lack of dynamic range in a camera can be fixed in LIghtroom (as it has been in this image) by increasing shadow details (brightens up shadows) and adding highlight recovery so as to make the two end of the scale meet. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95.


However, the good thing is that the camera sees and records things with more contrast than the human eye. So when something looks very dark and dull to the eye, the camera sees interesting contrast.

The eye doesn't change exposure time, a camera does. The eye could be said to have a shutter time of 1/13 second. A typical camera can adjust it from 2 seconds to 1/2000. Where the eye sees darkness, the camera extends the exposure time to make it look like daylight. Where the eye sees too much sunshine (and you take on sunglasses), the camera limits the exposure to have normal daylight.

This may not be entirely correct, but it gives a concept of how the eye sees differently and why you may take good pictures in almost any condition.

Just not high contrast within the same frame.

Further, the eye scans a landscape for details and somehow the brain processes an image. The eye adjusts further for contrast when doing this so as to compose one image with all shadow details and highlight details. The camera only takes one picture.

When it gets really dark, the eye percievse it as dark and low contrast. But the camera percieves it as daylight with sparkling highlights and shadows; and all within it's range of dynamic range.


This is essential a low light photo. For the eye it is a dark room. For the camera it becomes a room with almost daylight, with soft tones and highlighted edges that defines a lot of details.


How to make a good picture

What makes a picture sing is sparkling light. Your eye can recognize the conditions as soon as you learn to look for it. Sparkling light in a picture is composed of a base of soft light, and with reflected details such as highlighted edges of leaves, highlight in the micro details such as skin, highlighted edges of hair and so on.


Copyright 2009 by Thorsten Overgaard


When the human eye looks at a garden with nice green trees and sun and shadows, we sigh and think life is a pleaure.

To capture the same emotion with a camera, you need the whole scene to be in shadow with a limited amount of reflections. Not direct sunshine.

Shadow is a good starting point for a good picture with sparkling light.


Robin hanging out in LA.
Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.


The Basic Light

The right light for photography is basically soft, even light. Often this is daylight (or artificial light from lamps) reflected off from one or more walls that acts as the lightsources to light up this limited frame of life.

Windows with a soft curtain in front, or the sun filtered through a cloudy sky is also a good starting point.

It may look extremely dull to the eye, but it is an excellent starting point because it can be easily captured and will have a broad range of tones for the camera.

To the left below is the basic light where I have the tones from light gray to black in one photo. In real life it actually looks really dull. To the right below I moved so I "provoked" some edges into the scene. That's all I did. I moved my viewpoint so as to capture some highlighted edges.


Provoking the Light

The good soft light is the basic condition to capture all the information. Next step is provoking the light by moving to the side around the subject so as to get sparkling edges.

This is so extremely easy to do with any simple subject. I usually say that when a person sees a yellow Ferrari on the street, he or she uses an iPhone to take a snapshot. But if you want to make a photograph, you have to move around the yellow Ferrari to see how the light best reflects from it.

To photograph is to work with light as a painter would with paint.


Porsche in shadow in Hong Kong. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95.


Sharpness is light

Sharpness is a percieved condition of an image. It is not the exact distance, but the contrast you see. A picture can look really sharp but slightly out of focus when the edges have high contrast and the eye feel it gets a lot of detail information from it.

Likewise, a very sharp image where the focus distance is exact can look blurred because the light is dull.


Joy and Thorsten in Hollywood
Chateau Elysee in Hollywood. Did you notice where the focus is ... and did it matter? Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95.


Provoking the light even further

I tend to photograph against the light, so I will usually want to play with a strong background light directly into the lens.

What I tend to see in photographers who have consistently bright colors or very "alive" black and white photos is that they always move around a subject so as to get the light conditions in a special way. Most of us are pretty unaware of what we do, we just move around a subject until it "looks nice" and then take the photo.



I think we all learn by connecting small bits and parts that work, no matter if it is playing a piano, making pancakes, photographing or writing. Through trial and error we experience that if we do this or that, the overall result becomes better.

Mostly we forget why we do things the way we do, we just do them. But if we analyze how others do things and compare them to how we do them, in detail and step by step, we could see the difference.

That's why when you walk down the street with two different photographers, one will lift the camera and take a photo of the yellow Ferrari when he get's close enought to fill the frame with it. The other ohotographer started planning the picture and walks to the left to capture it. Why did he do that? Because he "intuitively" (through experience from what works) thought it would look better from an angle where the light comes from the side and the background is further away.

leica m monochrom sample photo
Hannah inside the girls' dormitory at Cambridge University. Leica M Monochrom with Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0.


This is what becomes "your style" or "your signature". Something others recognize as special but something you just do because that's how you do it.

By training, tirial and error you can test out "provoking the light" and see what works the best, and before you know it, it becomes a way of seeing.


Los Angeles. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95.


If you happen to be unaware of how the angle of light affects a picture but simply focused on correct exposure, I hope this will inspire you to explore the possibilities.

It is very easy when you see it and rather complicated to undersand what "magic light" is when you don't notice it. But it is something you can train your eye to do, with or without a camera. Simply look at things and notice how the light conditions make them alive or dead.





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Never to old to hang out on street corners. Paris, May 2014. Leica M 240 with Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 II.




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Thorsten Overgaard's Leica Article Index
Leica M cameras:   Small Leica cameras:
Leica M10   Leica Q full-frame mirrorless
Leica M10-P   Leica CL
Leica M Type 240 and M-P Typ240   Leica TL2
Leica M-D Typ 262 and Leica M60   Leica Digilux 2 vintage digital rangefinder
Leica M Monochrom Typ246 digital rangefinder   Leica Digilux 1
Leica M Monochrom MM digital rangefinder   Leica Sofort instant camera
Leica M9 and Leica M-E digital rangefinder   Leica Minilux 35mm film camera
Leica M9-Professional digital rangefinder   Leica CM 35mm film camera
Leica M4 35mm film rangefinder    
Leica M lenses:   Leica SLR cameras:
Leica 21mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4   Leica SL 2015 Type 601 mirrorless fullframe
Leica 21mm Leica Super-Elmar-M ASPH f/3.4   Leica R8/R9/DMR film & digital 35mm dSLR cameras
Leica 21mm Super-Angulon-M f/3.4   Leica R10 [cancelled]
Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4   Leica R4 35mm film SLR
Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH FLE f/1.4 and f/1.4 AA   Leica R3 electronic 35mm film SLR
Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leicaflex SL/SL mot 35mm film SLR
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95    
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 and f/1.2   Leica SL and TL lenses:
Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f//1.4    
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0    
Leitz 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0 "rigid" Series II   Leica R lenses:
Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25   Leica 19mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4   Leica 35mm Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica 75mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 50mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0   Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit f/2.8
Leica 90mm Summarit-M f/2.5   Leica 80mm Summilux-F f/1.4
Leica 90mm Elmarit f/2.8   Leica 90mm Summicron-R f/2.0
Leitz 90mm Thambar f/2.2   Leica 180mm R lenses
    Leica 400mm Telyt-R f/6.8
Leica Cine Lenses:   Leica 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leica Cine lenses from CW Sonderoptic   Leica 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R f/4.0
History and overview:   Leica S:
Leica History   Leica S1 digital scan camera
Leica Definitions   Leica S2 digital medium format
Leica Lens Compendium   Leica S digital medium format
Leica Camera Compendium    
The Solms factory and Leica Wetzlar Campus   "Magic of Light" Television Channel
    Thorsten von Overgaard YouTube Channel
Photography Knowledge   Thorsten Overgaard books and education:
Calibrating computer screen for photographers   Thorsten Overgaard Masterclasses & Workshops
Which Computer for Photographers?   Lightroom Survival Kit (Classic)
What is Copyright? Advice for Photogarphers   Lightroom Presets
Synchronizing Large Photo Archive with iPhone   Capture One Survival Kit
Quality of Light   "Finding the Magic of Light" eBook (English)
Lightmeters   "Die Magie des Lichts Finden" eBook (German)
Color meters for accurate colors (White Balance)   "The Moment of Impact in Photography" eBook
White Balance & WhiBal   "Freedom of Photographic Expression" eBook
Film in Digital Age   "Composition in Photography" eBook
Dodge and Burn   "A Little Book on Photography" eBook
All You Need is Love   "After the Tsunami" Free eBook
How to shoot Rock'n'Roll   The Overgaard New Inspiration Extension Course I
X-Rite   The Overgaard Photography Extension Course
The Origin of Photography    
Hasselblad/Imacon Flextight 35mm and 6x6 scanner   Leica M9 Masterclass (video course)
Leica OSX folder icons   Leica M10 Masterclass (video course)
    Leica M240 Masterclass (video course)
    Leica Q Masterclass (video course)
Bespoke Camera Bags by Thorsten Overgaard:   Leica TL2 Quick Start (video course)
"The Von" travel camera bag   Street Photography Masterclass (video course)
"Messenger" walkabout bag    
"24hr Bag" travel bag   Thorsten von Overgaard oin Amazon:
"The Von Backup" camera backpack   "Finding the Magic of Light"
Leica Photographers:    
Jan Grarup   Riccis Valladares
Henri Cartier-Bresson   Christopher Tribble
Birgit Krippner   Martin Munkácsi
John Botte   Jose Galhoz
Douglas Herr   Milan Swolf
Vivian Maier  
Morten Albek    
Byron Prukston   Richard Avedon
The Story Behind That Picture:   Thorsten Overgaard on Instagram
More than 200 articles by Thorsten Overgaard   Join the Thorsten Overgaard Mailing List
Thorsten Overgaard Workshop Schedule   Thorsten Overgaard on Twitter
    Thorsten Overgaard on Facebook
Leica Forums and Blogs:    
Leica M10 / M240 / M246 User Forum on Facebook   Heinz Richter's Leica Barnack Berek Blog
Jono Slack   Leica Camera AG
Steve Huff Photos (reviews)   Leica Fotopark
Erwin Puts (reviews)   The Leica Pool on Flickr (blog)   Eric Kim (blog)
Luminous Landscape (reviews)   Adam Marelli (blog)
Sean Reid Review (reviews)   The Leica User Forum
Ken Rockwell (reviews)   Shoot Tokyo (blog)
John Thawley (blog)   I-Shot-It photo competition
The Von Overgaard Gallery Store:    
Hardware for Photography   Von Overgaard Ventilated lens shades:
Bespoke Camera Bags and Luxury Travel Bags   Ventilated Shade for Current 35mm Summilux FLE
Software for Photography   Ventilated Shade E46 for old Leica 35mm/1.4 lens
Signed Prints   Ventilated Shade for Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH
Mega Size Signed Prints   Ventilated Shade E43 for older 50mm Summilux
Mega Size Signed Limited Prints   Ventilated Shade for 35mm Summicron-M ASPH
Medium Size Signed Limited Prints   Ventilated Shade for older 35mm/f2 lenses
Small Size Signed Limited Prints   Ventilated Shade E39 for 50mm Summicron lenses
Commisioning Thorsten Overgaard Worldwide   Ventilated Shade for Leica 28mm Summilux
Thorsten Overgaard Archive Licencing   Ventilated Shade for current 28mm Elmarit-M
Video Masterclasses   Ventilated Shade for older 28mm Elmarti-M
Photography Books by Thorsten Overgaard   Ventilated Shade E49 for 75mm Summicron
Home School Photography Extension Courses   ventilated Shade E55 for 90mm Summicron
Overgaard Workshops & Masterclasses   Ventilated Shade for 28mm Summaron
Artists Nights   Ventilated Shade for 24mm Elmarit
Gallery Store Specials   Ventilated Shade E60 for 50mm Noctilux and 75/1.4

Above: Paris May 2014.
Leica M 240
with Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95.


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Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4
Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4
Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95
Leica 50mm APO-Summicron-M f/2.0
Leica 50mm Summicron-M f/2.0
Leica 50mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4
Leica 75mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/1.25
Leica 90mm Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
Leica 35-70mm Vario-Elmarit-R f/2.8
Leitz Cine lenses
7artisans 50mm f/1.1
Leica Digilux 2

Leica M10
Leica M10-P
Leica M10-D
Leica M9, M9-P and Leica ME
Leica M 240
Leica M 240 for video
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Leica M-D 262
Leica M Monochrom
Leica M 246 Monochrom

Leica SL
Leica SL2
Panasonic Lumix S1R
Leica R9 dSLR
Leica Q
Leica Q2
Leica CL
Leica TL2
Leica Sofort
Leica S digital medium format
Leica X
Light metering
White Balance for More Beauty
Color Meters

Screen Calibration
Which computer to get
Sync'ing photo archive to iPhone
Lightroom Survival Kit
Lightroom Presets by Overgaard
Capture One Survival Kit

Capture One Styles by Overgaard
Signed Original Prints by von Overgaard
The Story Behind That Picture
"On The Road With von Overgaard"

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Thorsten Overgaard
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.

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