IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work

Years ago one of my teachers challenged me by asking me to photograph a subject by the light of a single small candle. I was to do so without a tripod. This was in the old film days, far before we could easily change our ISO at a seconds notice. So with film of 100 ISO, I set out to meet the challenge. With today’s image of a young boy lighting a candle within a group of candles, one can still appreciate the challenge and the wonderful effects of low light photography.

Rays of Hopeby Pritam Saha

Image of a young boy illuminated by candle light as he lights a candle on the eve of "Chat Puja" near Siliguri, West Bengal, India. Image by Pritam Saha.

Subject: This photograph was taken on the eve of “Chat Puja” ( near Siliguri, West Bengal, India. The boy here was lighting the candles as a part of the ritual.


The light was low, as the only source of light came from the candles. Also note that Pritam was using a very fast lens (35mm f/1.8). In order to allow more light to reach the camera’s sensor, he set his aperture at f/4.0 and bumped up the ISO to 400.


1. Low light

2. Circle of light and shadow

3. Edge light

4. Contrast and shapes

5. Gesture

Noella’s Comments:

There are three kinds of low light conditions:

1. Visible daylight, but in the depth of the shadows it is very dark.

2. The minutes of nautical dawn leading up to civil dawn or the minutes of civil twilight leading up to nautical twilight, when you can still see clearly, but the light is dim.

3. And then there is darkness. You can only see objects that are brightly lit.

Photographs can be successfully made (thanks in part to modern cameras) in any of these conditions.

Our eye is always drawn to light, and where light and shadow meet is frequently the strongest part of the image. Notice how in Pritam’s image there is a circle of light and shadow that traps the viewer’s eye. You may wander up to the embers and glow on the rock wall, but very soon you will be pulled back into that circle of brightness.

Notice the edge of light on the face as well as on the arm. It is delicate, but as strong as a bar of steel keeping us within the center of the image frame. Because it contrasts so strongly with the strength of light coming off the candles, it becomes important in involving the viewer in the scene.

Also, holding our eye in place are the blocks of darkness that encompass the light. These blocks of darkness are in strong contrast with the light sources and its immediate surrounding space of rocks. Now, notice the shape of the areas of darkness. If we were to sketch this composition in its simplest form, they would be strong rectangles of both positive and negative space. No matter which way we look, we are surrounded by the strength of these immoveable blocks. Not only does the light attract us, but these blocks of darkness keep us within the image space and involved with the candle light and the young boy.

Would the image be just as compelling if the boy were standing there as an observer? The gesture of reaching in is an important action. It strongly involves the boy within the scene. Candles are just candles, but the delicate edge of light illuminates the expression and gesture of the moment. You wonder what this young boy is thinking or feeling as he reaches out to place the small candle. Will the candle stay upright when he withdraws his hand? Is there a holder he is using or is it just a few drops of wax on the rock that will keep his candle in place? That gesture and expression is the subject and the strength of the photograph.

This is a lovely image Pritam and we certainly thank you for sharing it with us.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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