IMAGE TALK with Noella Ballenger: What makes that photo work…

Light has often been said to be the “lifeblood” of the photographic medium and certainly no one can dispute that. But, there is a bigger question here and that is how do we, as photographer/artists, use that light? In this Image Talk, I deliberately looked for images that showcased the way we use light and I think we have found some examples with that definite “WOW” factor.

The Flower Sellerby Shilpa Reddy Perugu

Subject: Indian man preparing his flowers for sale at the Koyambedu Market in Chennai, India

Photo of man selling flowers in India by Shilpa Reddy Perugu
© 2011 Shilpa Reddy Perugu. All rights reserved.

Conditions: Shilpa commented, “The Koyambedu Market in Chennai is open and very active around the clock. It’s a great place to photograph and I went to the market to try some photo journalism shots. I came upon this man selling flowers and I liked the lighting and the bright, colorful flowers besides him.”


1. Strong overhead light “spotlights” the merchant (the subject) as well as the flowers.

2. Good alignment of the light fixtures in the image not only targets the subject, but fills what might have become a “black hole” in the background.

3. Strong colors grab your attention..

4. The design uses simple triangular shapes.

5. The black background forces the viewer’s eyes to remain with the subject and the foreground.

Noella’s comments:

Shilpa has created a striking and very powerful image by using light, color and diagonal lines and triangles to force the eye of the viewer to move around the image, creating an implied circle. 

Diagonals give strength and interest to an image and no matter what direction they come from, triangles always produce diagonal lines. This image has many strong triangles that all lead the eye to the merchant. First, there are the bright yellow flowers that lead the eye to the merchant’s hand and feet, pulling your eye up to the merchant himself. Second, there is the stronger small triangle of the board holding back the flood of yellow flowers and supporting the merchant. Third, there is the triangle formed by the black background. And fourth, the lights overhead cast triangular rays that keep our focus down. 

There is dynamic simplicity in this entire image and it takes on a special glow–great job Shilpa.

Foggy Morning by Jeffery Gallo

Subject: Boats in a marina early one foggy morning at Huntington Harbor in Huntington, NY

Fog and reflection photo of boat in a marina by Jeff Gallo
© 2011 Jeff Gallo. All rights reserved.

Conditions: Jeff set out in the wee hours of the morning hoping to get some good shots of the boats at sunrise. But, as he got out of the car the fog was so dense it quickly became clear that the sun would not make a grand entrance. So he started taking some long exposures (8-10 secs). The fog, along with the long exposure, plus the marina lights across the harbor in the near-black pre-dawn, meant an obscured background.


1. The image was divided into thirds, both vertically and horizontally with good use of negative space.

2. The subtle colors create a sense of calm.

3. The dark silhouetted subject and its well-defined reflection demands your attention.

4. The halo, an implied circle of light, from the sun keeps the eye in the center of the image.

5. The strong illumination by the Marina’s mercury-vapor lights direct the eye to their reflections and straight to the subject.

Noella’s Comments:

Jeff has made a stunning image through his use of light, subject, color and overall scene. The subject, supported by the buoy, the birds on the dock, the boat and mast in the background, and all their reflections add impact to the image. It evokes a sense of peace and quiet.

All of the divisions of space, along with the great use of the images negative space and light source, keeps the viewer’s eye focusing on the definition of the subject and creates balance within the image.

Jeff positioned himself nicely to also capture the distant boat with its mast pointing to the light source, while its reflection directs your eye to the subject.

The soft, beautiful golden backlighting of the sun’s reflection and the diffused light of the fog makes this an extremely restful image. Everything is silently waiting for the break of day. One can’t imagine one of the birds sitting on the distance pier uttering a single chirp or anyone or anything making a ripple in the glassy smooth water. It’s as if no disturbance would dare break the calm of the moment. This is an excellent example of the use of backlighting, Jeff. Keep up the good work.

Bougainvillea Blossomby Cathy Pinder

Subject: The subject of this image is a single bougainvillea blossom surrounded by colorful bracts.

Photo of Bougainvillea by Cathy Pinder
© 2011 Cathy Pinder. All rights reserved.

Conditions: Cathy loves gardens and works hard to capture the essence of the flowers or plants she photographs. The sun was striking this one blossom just perfectly with the balance of the plant in the shade.


1. The subject is very simplified and the crop is tight to showcase the use of light.

2. A single shaft of light illuminates the flower leaving the rest of the image in shadow.

3. Set on a diagonal, the branch and the flower takes advantage of a strong element of design.

4. Striking color adds one more dimension to this image.

5. The subtle shapes of the background details help support the subject.

Noella’s Comments:

Cathy has done a wonderful job of taking advantage of a single shaft of light illuminating a lone, tiny white flower. The flower surrounded by the brilliant magenta-red bracts draws you in to take a closer look.

The leaves and the muted colors of the background add a framework that results in soft negative spaces. This background structure visually moves the bougainvillea flower forward to add depth to the overall image.

This image portrays simplicity in the diagonal arrangement of the image design. Distractions have been removed or softened. Everything in the image supports and showcases the subject. Simplicity in design allows the viewer to concentrate on the key subject. Frequently, one finds that the more you simplify the design of an image, the more interesting it becomes.

Cathy took advantage of the complimentary color scheme of red and green tones. Complementary colors give a sense of belonging together and are soothing to view. The small white flower stands out sharply against the rich colors and gives focus to the image.

The light in this image makes the entire photograph focused and satisfying. The photographer has used light to trap the viewer in the photograph. It allows the viewer’s eye to move around the image, but always be pulled back to the subject.

Cathy, keep up the good work of tending to your photographic garden.

All of our photographers did a terrific job of showing how light when combined with design and color can make outstanding images. They used a variety of design elements in composes their images and then turned to light to really make them exciting and dramatic.

Think about how spotlights are used in the theater to light up “the star” of the production. Can you imagine your subject as “the star” of your photographs? And, can you use light to produce sparkle and impact?

Come back and join us for another IMAGE TALK in the near future.

Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Marla Meier for her editing assistance in order to present the images for this series. And, our thanks to the photographer/artists who allow us the use of their wonderful photos in these columns.
You inspire all of 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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