Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Let There Be Light

In Scotland, photographer Jim Richardson commits a (previously) cardinal sin: Free and abundant overexposure, without guilt or shame.

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

For photographers light is a blessing—and a curse. Thus, photographers seem to be perennially unhappy, like farmers caught between flooded fields and dusty drought. We revel at the ways it transforms our world into glorious spectacles. We curse our inability to make it do what we want. There always seems to be too little of it or too much. Too harsh or too flat. Too rich or too dull. Always more than our cameras can handle and never just as it looks to our eyes.

This describes the lighting situation in Iona Abbey on the wee isle off the west coast of Scotland. You could say I was following in the footsteps of St. Columba but about 1,400 years too late. The saint-to-be came to Iona in the sixth century, exiled from Ireland, bringing Celtic Christianity to Scotland. The abbey we see today was built a good five centuries after Columba's first modest monastic dwellings, but it was fully restored in the 20th century and is now the heart of the Iona religious community and its worldwide works.

Out of courtesy I removed my hat, but I was not in a humble mood. Today I was in a bull-by-the-horns mood. I have been in the great sanctuary any number of times but it is the little side chapel that always draws me back, and that is where I headed. My intention was to slay a dragon, one of my own making, and conquer one of my own phobias about light and digital photography.

When I was converted to digital photography (sounds a bit evangelical, doesn't it?) I quickly adopted one of the sacred orthodoxies of the creed: thou shalt not blow out highlights! No overexposing bright areas of the pictures. It was a given that no part of the image should go blank white. The histogram was my holy writ. Never, ever would I allow the dreaded black blinkies to flash on my screen, sure and certain signs of the sin of overexposure.

I joined the holier-than-thou sect of histogram junkies, and a very great burden it was. A sort of ascetic order constantly dissatisfied with satisfaction, never able to make the real world conform to our sense of perfect exposure harmony and order.

Of course, history was at play. I had come straight out of the Kodachrome world of National Geographic, where saturation was next to godliness. Rich color in all things. No wishy-washy world for us. We had seen the light and it was saturated. By and by, we left the old god of Kodachrome behind (worshipping it in name only) and took up a new god called Velvia. This god trumped the old god in saturation but had even less tolerance for the sin of overexposure, which then became a deadly sin.

And now here I was, standing in the little side chapel in Iona Abbey, about to commit the cardinal sin, not just of overexposure, but willing overexposure. Free and abundant overexposure, without guilt or shame. I was about to become a heretic!

In that chapel is a lovely window where the morning light streams in and washes the simple flowers with light. Always before I had attempted the impossible—trying to get the full range of tones, looking for an angle where the bright scene outside could somehow be compressed into the camera's tonal range. I even toyed with the idea of adding light to even everything out.

But not today. Today I was breaking out. I had seen other photographers shooting straight into the light, highlights be damned. My friend Catherine Karnow does it all the time and makes lovely pictures doing so.

Like all photographic "mistakes," it must be made boldly lest it look sloppy instead of intentional. When great jazz players hit the wrong note, they do it loudly and with style, like a challenge to our ears.

It turns out that overexposing a little looks bad, but overexposing a lot can look quite wonderful. Once large areas of the picture turn white the remaining areas take on an otherworldly softness and glow. You just start cranking down the shutter speed, making lighter and lighter pictures—far lighter than anything you have ever considered possible before. Keep going until you see hardly any detail at all. Then back off some. There is no right or wrong in this technique. There is only the image and how it speaks.

At least, that's what I found in making this particular photograph. The flowers were awash in light, the glow radiated from around the stone tracery in the window. The whole image took on an appropriate simplicity.

Perhaps this technique won't always work. It will almost certainly get you thrown out of any photo club contest. You'll be a backslider and outcast in the Church of the Holy Histogram. But the freedom is wonderful, and that's how I felt walking out of Iona Abbey the other day.

It's a new day.