Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Light and Darkness and Lessons in Both

Thanks to the grant from the Lily Foundation, I'm finally learning about photography and taking the sorts of pictures I've always wanted. 
Of course, a good camera and great teacher helps! We have a professional photographer in the parish who generously has agreed to help this complete novice.
The general goal is for me to capture our experiences in kitchens across the country but a particular goal is to photograph the food. I had no idea how much of a specialty food photography is.
S, my patient photography instructor, had friends to her house who had offered to help them install new basement flooring. A bonus for our lesson was that her friend also happens to be a great cook and played Guinea pig for us by preparing a Persian stew. It was delicious and made the kitchen smell divine! For a similar recipe, visit
I learned that it will be a constant frustration for me that photographs can't capture kitchen smells.
In the little bit I had been using my camera up to this lesson I discovered what all photographers know already: natural light is amazing and artificial light is terrible. I brought to last week's lesson the goal to learn how to deal with artificial light and how to capture better close-ups of food. And we achieved this goal. I won't go into the minutiae, but I am now in love with my camera's custom white balance setting and the importance of a slower shutter speed.
But here is what has filled me most from this lesson.
We are living into the season of Advent in the Epsicopal calendar. Advent is a season of waiting in darkness for the light whose coming we will celebrate come Christmas and Epiphany. But for now we sit in the darkness.
It's not hard to do right now. By 5 p.m. sunlight is fading and evening begins its swift transition to night; quite a contrast to the 8 p.m. summer starts of the same process.
Then there's the news of the world: mass shootings, refugees seeking a new home, pundits and politicians screaming across air waves and tables at one another and encouraging the electorate to do the same, climate change debates, and more. 
The darkness isn't hard to find. We're bathed in it.
That said, there's plenty of articifial light to distract us and mask the darkness. Every storefront shouts promises of perfect Christmas mornings and contented families, slices of heaven come December 25. There are millions of lights plugged in outside sockets around the country to illumine the holiday cheer, or attempted cheer. We too have our lights up and ready every night to shine. 
I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for Christmas lights and the nostalgia and fantasy they trigger.
But the camera doesn't lie. Our eyes can adjust and our brains process the artificial light in ways that allow us to be fooled willingly and even comforted.
But not the camera. The natural light is divine in a very real and literal way. It emanates from a source outside our control and one that long pre-exists us and will long out-live us. It's the light we were made to grow under, bathe in, and drink up on a cellular level.
On the other hand, take the camera indoors or around outdoor artificial lighting and the balance is all out of whack. The light we make turns tepid, sallow, peaked, jaundiced. The lense knows it's not real and has no brain to trick it into believing otherwise. Instead, we have to train the camera to think differently to capture the image as we want it.
Too much light through the lens and the image "blows out". Too little and the image is too dark to make out details. The trick is to capture the light and help the camera process it.
Our van radio station has been tuned in to the Christmas station. With my schedule this time of year, I grasp for opportunities to try catch some of the spirit amidst the planning and pastoral demands of the season. But the start of Hannukah brought the discovery that the bluegrass station had been converted to a Hannukah station and we swapped over to enjoy songs about light.
It has been a balm for the soul. I love my jingle bells, holy nights, and white Christmass, but I have needed voices celebrating light in the darkness, Hebrew prayers, humor and meditation alike.
In that music I have heard a balance between encouraging people look for the light on the one hand and being the light on the other.
My week has been about light: learning to capture it, find it, reflect it, escape it, appreciate it, and use it. 
Who are we as people of light? Who are we as people who pass through shadows and darkness as well?
Like the lens of the camera, too much light and we risk "blowing out". We need the darkness even as we are uncomfortable in it. We need to learn to sit in it to experience a longing deeper than any we would dare conjur for ourselves. It makes us hungry for that flicker of candle light, a blessing or prayer said, the brief hours of full sunlight that might shine down on us.
Below you'll find some fruit from my lesson, unedited images of a pie and some of that rich stew. S taught me to find the natural light even as it is fading and use reflectors to harness even more of it. She also taught me how to find a darker background to better contrast with the light and make the subject pop in the picture. I used my tripod for the first time, a very flexible tool that can bend to wrap around almost anything, helping the camera be still to better capture the light by allowing the shutter speed to slow down significantly. And what comes out is a better sense of the subject that one could ever hope for otherwise.
If that isn't a sacramental lived Advent metaphor, I don't know what is.

1 comment:

  1. Mary, what beautiful metaphors and images! Your study of light and darkness speaks to my heart. With all the darkness in our day to day lives, finding the Light becomes essential - as long as it is balanced.


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