5 Tips For Using Light: An Interview with Rupert Vandervell

5 Tips For Using Light: An Interview with Rupert Vandervell

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Behind bars by Rupert Vandervell

NOTE: This is a Guest Blog post written by Timothy Lunn exclusively for www.streethunters.net.

Shapes and Forms

‘I’m not necessarily interested in the main subject at all … all they’re doing is adding another shape or form.’

What Rupert describes as shapes and forms are in fact two builders fetching their tools from a van outside the cafe.

‘I’m more interested in the light coming through that bench in the street and the shadows it creates.’

By the end of the interview, Rupert’s not only reduced the builders to their shadows and the bench to its highlights. He’s reduced the entire daylight shooting hours from 9 to 11. And for that matter, he’s reduced the entire calendar year from mid-April through to late June. As if by summary, he raises his hand and exclaims:

‘If the light’s bad, I’ll go home.’

Palermo by Rupert Vandervell

Outside, the sky is overcast, the streets hung in the flat light of a passing storm. It’s certainly not the type of light for Rupert’s photography. But as we joke about waiting half an hour for the right conditions, Rupert laughs:

‘That’s what you have to do. The one key word is patience. You’re not going to get it in five minutes. It might take an hour. I’ve done two hours plus to get a picture. But if you know you’re going to get it, it’s worth the wait.’

That wait, in Rupert’s case, has totalled 38 years.

Rupert Vandervell

Light shopping by Rupert Vandervell

Rupert wasn’t always this good at waiting.

In 1983, a young and impatient man was taking photography classes in London. Developing a negative of the city streets, he made the rash decision to burn the shadows to an extreme. Why not? It would hardly destroy the image.

As the photo developed, deep pockets of black puddled against the bright white of the highlights. The effect was extraordinary. Rupert’s tutor smiled and compared it to the work of the American photographer, Harry Callahan. Unaware of Callahan’s work, Rupert bought a book and began his research.  

Back in the 1950s, street photographers such as Callahan and Metzker were moving photography away from the realism of the past, pushing the form toward the abstraction of the expressionist painters. Both photographers experimented with high contrast tones and multiple exposures, re-envisioning the modern city as something momentous and disempowering.

In their work, Rupert found a new way of seeing, a new way of using and transforming the light:

‘That’s how I see the world. The wonderful light, and the lines, and the shapes.’

Since the discovery of their work, Rupert began his own study of light. He has developed a number of personal projects, such as the recent Man on Earth, held a solo exhibition in the US, and even written a book on the subject: Light Work: How to Master Light in Street Photography.

Given his expertise in chasing light, StreetHunters invited Rupert to speak on the subject.

Here are his top five tips for lighting the streets.

5 Tips for Using Light in Street Photography

  1. Is it true you only shoot from 9 till 11, April till March? What quality of light are you looking for and why do you find it between these hours?

Light business by Rupert Vandervell

People often ask what is it that inspires me to pick up my camera and produce a body of work. In pure photographic terms, it’s how the light affects the city and its environment.

With different times of day come different moods. I like how cool and clear the light can be in the morning, creating sharp lines of shadow and jewel-like highlights.

It penetrates the space between the towering buildings and generates a dazzling display of intricate patterns on every surface.


  1. Your high contrast style appears to work equally well in night scenes. What are the benefits and challenges of working at night?

Other side of the Road by Rupert Vandervell

Night photography is a great way to make dramatic, stylish and atmospheric images. There is never a need to wait for the right light as the street lamps are always on,

and if it’s raining there are wonderfully reflective surfaces to work with. The main thing to remember is to try to work in areas that offer good main light sources.

This will make it much easier to isolate your principal subject and any additional lighting coming from shop windows or passing traffic will add to the mood and create a little decoration if required.

One thing to remember is that the amount of detail you capture is likely to be a lot less than when you’re shooting during daylight and human figures will often appear as silhouettes.

Therefore, it’s important to try to represent them as animatedly as you can so that they don’t just become a featureless blur.


  1. Street Photographers often forget interiors. What interior lighting would you recommend? In what ways is the quality different from natural light?

Dealer by Rupert Vandervell

Street photography doesn’t always have to mean taking pictures on the streets. I have often included pictures in my series of interior spaces that perfectly sum up the life of the city.

These images can come from anywhere – cafés, bars, clubs, churches, hotels, galleries, buses and trains to name but a few. Using the available light and with careful framing they are

the perfect places to capture the city’s inhabitants taking time out from the energy and buzz of the streets.

The light in these places is often quite good too as they usually have large windows allowing daylight to penetrate deep into the space.

At night, the light is more subdued but no less inspiring. There is always a fine array of characters to be found so you shouldn’t be stuck for a subject or two.


  1. Light can also reflect and refract. What reflections do you use on the street and how can they develop your composition?

Ricochet by Rupert Vandervell

With all the glass, steel and polished surfaces used to construct our modern cities, the one thing we can be sure to find on our travels is a plentiful supply of reflected light.

Depending on the time of year and hour of the day, myriad patterns can appear across the streets. This can look really dramatic in a picture, as though an artist has taken a

brush and painted long white strokes across the scene. A high sun on a clear day will provide the best lighting for this effect, making the reflected areas as bold as possible against the darker areas.


  1. Are there situations in which you would use flat lighting? What qualities can two-dimensionality add to an image?

Geometrix 5 by Rupert Vandervell

There are times when I want to get a picture but the light isn’t right and for me this can mean having to be extra creative.

The high-contrast style will still work in flat-light conditions but you’ll be looking for the extremes in black and white in different ways.

These may be found in the form of naturally occurring elements in the scene such as road markings or contrasting architectural details.

You need to think along the same lines as when working in bright conditions and look for the highlights and shadows.

Thank you Rupert!


Tidying Up the World

Cleaner by Rupert Vandervell

As Rupert finishes his coffee, we find the time to ask him about his future projects.

He describes a world where the human form has disappeared entirely: reduced to hands, feet and the pockets of light surrounding them.

‘There was a time when my pictures were so minimalistic that there wasn’t anything in them but a shard of light.’

One has to wonder how far this is pushing the definition of street photography.

To what extent can we photograph a street without a subject? To what extent can we photograph a street without a street?

But this is precisely the point of Rupert’s work.

So much of street photography wants to reflect the world, to document its day to day life, to record all of the minutiae detail and preserve the everyday facts of the world.

But Rupert’s work doesn’t strive to reflect the world at all. In fact, it strives to change it.

‘In a way, I’m cleaning up. I’m tidying up the world. I’m out there, cleaning up the city and all the things I’d rather weren’t there.’

Rupert’s work can be seen at: https://rupertvandervell.co.uk/
You can also follow him on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/rupertvandervell/?hl=en
For more on his E-book visit: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B075GT3WK3


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