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Plain and Simple Light: Athar

Athar Khan is sort of a local legend in Howard County, MD. Many people know him as "the Columbia Bike Guy." He is always out on the roads, biking. He sometimes wears wild hats, or dresses unusually, etc. Lots of people honk and wave, but few people really take the chance to learn very much about him.

I photographed him for HoCo360 last week, and the post is making the rounds locally these days. And it is a good reminder that even though Strobist tends to center around lighting, what is far more important is what you are actually seeking to accomplish with your photos.

The mission of HoCo360 is simple: to better educate people in Howard County about their community and to do so in a visual way. And that's it.

So rather than the photography being and end goal, it is a tool toward that larger mission of discovery. That's a very important distinction, and one that I fear is frequently lost on many Strobist readers.

Take the photo above for example. It was lit with an SB in an umbrella at upper camera right and another SB, boomed above and bounced off of the ceiling.

That's neat to know -- and very simple light compared to many of the photos that are written about here. But it's important to remember that the main value of photography is not about f/stops and shutter speeds and lighting ratios. It is about photography's ability to connect people.

The photo above is lit even more simply -- a bare flash on a stand, pointed up into the wall/ceiling at camera right. The light takes on some of the color of the wall as a result, which disguises the fact that the photo is lit at all.

The aperture is set so that the light exposes Athar appropriately, and the shutter dragged just long enough to let the window light bleed in and create a natural look. But that is not what is important about the photo.

What is important is that Athar is seen (and recognized) daily by thousands of people. Yet very few of those people actually know him very well, or have an understanding of who he really is. The HoCo360 post bridges that gap of understanding.

That is the value of photography, especially when paired with words. Local readers of HoCo360 will recognize the face immediately. (Hey, I've seen that guy on the road…) And that is what draws them in to learn more about a unique and different person who makes our county more interesting.

They are very simple photos -- and that includes the lighting. But the lighting is not the star here, nor should it be. What is the star is Athar, and a photograph's ability to instantly bridge those gaps of understanding.

You see the photo. If you are local, you recognize the guy. And you are drawn in to learn about him, about the person you recognize but you don't really know.

Without the photo, that process doesn't happen.

So yeah, know how to use your light. But do not elevate lighting -- or any other technique -- to a level such that it obscures what it really important about photography. Or you reduce the whole medium to a parlor trick.

More: Athar Khan: The Columbia Bike Guy

Next: Martin Prihoda for Cosmo


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Blogger Will said...

Excellent post. This is the reason I was drawn to photography in the first place. I've always been a portrait person. I love to look at at portrait and I like the feeling of wanting to know more about the person I'm seeing. At the same time I enjoy shooting people I know and learning more about them in the process. I could care less about shooting landscape, I enjoy a nice landscape shot by someone else but I have no drive to photograph one. It was nice to read a post that could have been typed by my own hand.

February 27, 2011 9:06 PM  
Blogger Jake Myers said...

Great story! He seems like a really down to earth, interesting dude. Although I live miles away, I'd like to meet him one day. It's so easy for me to become self-absorbed, so it's refreshing and inspiring when you discuss this kind of topic. Keep it up, and thanks!

February 27, 2011 9:15 PM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

you took the photo, told us that we should know more about him and still did not tell us more(in the text)about him?

February 27, 2011 9:46 PM  
Blogger didymus said...

I love that shot!


Let the subject be the fancy part, not the lighting.


February 27, 2011 9:51 PM  
Blogger David said...


I kinda already wrote that article, on the other site. That is why I placed the link at the end of this post. Woulda felt kinda redundant to write that piece again, here.


February 27, 2011 9:51 PM  
Blogger Tim Kerr said...

I have been following your blog for some time. But not as long as many other readers would be my guess. This is the first time I have felt motivated to comment.

Thank you for connecting us with Athar. Technique is cool, but the subject is indeed the most important thing.


February 27, 2011 11:11 PM  
Blogger Bernhard A S said...

Thanks David.

Somehow the link slipped my attention, because it was not within the text.

February 28, 2011 7:40 AM  
Blogger David said...

No worries, man. I was kinda confused myself at first!

February 28, 2011 11:31 AM  
Blogger Jon Prentice said...

Thanks David! This made me laugh a bit. In the past, a common conversation at my home went like this

Me: Check out this COOL picture, look how I lit, isn't this awesome!!!

Wife: Uh, I don't get it.

Me: What do you mean? That's our cat, look at the reflection in his eyes! Isn't it neat?!

Wife: Well, yeah, I guess. His paws are muddy, he's sitting on our kitchen table and that in the background is your cereal bowl that I asked you to wash.

Me: Well...true...good point...

She's right (for real, not because she told me she is). Compose a good picture first. Add light as/if necessary to make it better. And to your point, David, keep in mind what the purpose of the image is. Who will judge it and what will they use it for? If you're just conducting science experiments, consider not showing your wife ;-)

February 28, 2011 12:12 PM  
Blogger Gary said...

David, more Athar trivia--he's the subject of the song "29" (as in Rt. 29) by Baltimore artist John L.T.:

Thanks for the nice story...I've met him, and I think you've captured him well in words and imagery.

February 28, 2011 1:15 PM  
Blogger John B. Crane said...

Couldn't agree more, David. Way to put your excellent skills to good use locally and bring folks together. Keep up the good work. JBC

February 28, 2011 1:28 PM  
Blogger Dream Boy Martin Kimeldorf said...

great reminder

February 28, 2011 1:53 PM  
Blogger Ted said...

Loved this post David. At my level I don't know the techniques nearly as well as many of the more experienced photogs our there, but I do have a sincere appreciation for the value of photography. I am coming to learn how lighting can help send the right message, but I loved your emphasis on subject matter in todays post.

February 28, 2011 2:38 PM  
Blogger John Douglas said...

Like someone else mentioned earlier, this is the first time I have been motivated to comment on your great site.

Great image and story, you are providing a great service for your community. We should all give back to what is important,
service to others, community, etc.
and especially to those who seem to have no voice of their own.

I think you have performed a great service to your readers with this story. After seeing the images and just a little information I was afraid there was not going to be a story about who he is.............I could not wait to read more about him. I agree, we sometimes lose sight of the subject being the most important ingredient in an image and not the photographer, lighting, etc.


John Douglas

February 28, 2011 2:44 PM  
Blogger Richard G said...

@Jon Prentice - OK, the wife conversation had me laughing. Spot on with her final comment.

As far as the post goes, one thing I'm trying to relearn now is sometimes you don't need to add light at all. A few years ago I was shooting with natural light 90% of the time and getting stuf I really liked. The more I started lighting the more I lit stuff. I still get results I like and can manipulate the situation a lot more because this, but need to remind myself now and then that adding light isn't always a requirment.

One of my favorite shots lately looks like it is lit with flash because it has a large soft light from one side and a very amber more harsh light from the other that would be something that would be easy to do with flash, but less likely with natural light. But in this case it was the setting sun coming through the house from one side, and fill light coming from an open window on the other. Really glad I didn't pull out the SB-800's that day, although now it does give me some ideas on how I might light a future portrait :)

February 28, 2011 3:06 PM  
Blogger Matti Vaittinen said...

Good photos! I especially like the second one and its peacefull and natural feel :)

February 28, 2011 3:31 PM  
Blogger Matti Vaittinen said...

Good photos! I especially like the last one because of the peacefull and natural feel :)

February 28, 2011 3:32 PM  
Blogger nicola said...


Do you ask people for model releases when you shoot these pictures?

I can see that the project is editorial, but just in case?

February 28, 2011 4:55 PM  
Blogger David said...


Depends entirely on the situation. No need for a release on this one, for instance.

February 28, 2011 5:48 PM  
Blogger Bryan Mitchell said...

David, I think this is one of your best posts. Maybe its because of my newspaper background and knowing yours is too. I remember years ago when I was still a staffer(and shooting film) I hated using strobes. And when I did use one I tried everything I could to make it look like I didn't. I love using them now but don't all the time. There is still a place for natural light and simple light. To many photogs, including some pros, have images that become about them and not the subject, I'm guilty of it too at times. Again, great post. Maybe see you in Grand Rapids. (not sure if I'm going yet)

February 28, 2011 7:52 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

Well said. An important and valuable post about photography. Sometimes a love and passion for lighting can get in the way of what's best for the subject. Lighting is a means to the end and sometimes the solution is a tripod or reflector and no strobes. Fancy lighting won't save a boring subject or bad pose.
I wasn't aware the Hobby/McNally tour was visiting my hometown of Grand Rapids Mi.until I read one of the comments. A great place for food and drinks is The B.O.B., walking distance from the convention center. The Grand Rapids Press, source of great photography,is across the street from the DeVos Place convention center.
We'll find a red carpet to roll out
for you.

March 01, 2011 2:00 AM  
Blogger nicola said...

I was just thinking of a situation where you might get asked by the city council (say) to supply stock pictures of local figures to go in a brochure about council services... something like that.

I can see you don't need a model release for this particular usage, but can you think of a situation where you might ever have wished you had got a model release at the time you took a shot, but didn't?

March 01, 2011 7:15 AM  
Blogger Hege Landrø Johnsen said...

That was a really interesting post. And I totally agree that there is more to a great photograph than "perfect" lighting.

Great blog!


March 01, 2011 7:40 AM  
OpenID yo-sarrian said...

Excellent article, David!

March 01, 2011 12:10 PM  
Blogger CarlCoxStudios said...


By far one of my favorite posts and I love the HoCo post.

I really enjoy your blog and read it faithfully.

This post really struck a chord with me; this is why we do what we do.


March 01, 2011 9:16 PM  
Blogger Diego Lorenzo Jose said...

Great post - thanks for sharing, David!

March 01, 2011 11:26 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

This was beautifully written, the blog post and the one about him you linked to. Your respect for the man shines through. I also am in the phase of my photography where I think too much of the light and not enough of the subject. Posts like this help. I hope Howard County does a good post on you, because you are certainly one of its treasures!

keep fighting the good fight,

March 02, 2011 12:56 AM  
Blogger JRSlater said...

An excellent post. Something I sometimes forget to keep in mind when composing an image. I will strive to do better.

March 02, 2011 1:15 PM  
Blogger sackytar said...

Great Post.

It's so important to realize that yeah we make the images. But why. Here is an excellent example. A person with a story. There is always a story.

March 02, 2011 5:37 PM  
Blogger Jon M. Fletcher said...

This post reminded me of a quote I read recently from Paul Strand:

“It is one thing to photograph people. It is another to make others care about them by revealing the core of their humanness.”

...see you in Atlanta. I'll be waiting at the bus stop.

March 02, 2011 10:20 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

I used to see him riding all over Columbia but I haven't seen him in a long time and wondered what happened to him. Interesting story.

March 10, 2011 4:12 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Great post! This post really makes me want to follow though with the documentary project that I have lined up. You can see something everyday, but not understand or care about it.

March 10, 2011 6:10 PM  

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