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Assignment

First Light

This assignment ran from Dec 15 to Jan 19, 2015.

Set your alarm. Sleep can wait.

Challenge yourself and awaken just before sunrise. Grab a cup of coffee, and find a window facing east. Leave your camera in the bag. Watch the sun rise and begin its soft kiss on your world. At first, the light is barely noticeable, and as it brightens shadows begin to give shape to the landscape until it blinds you like a spotlight. First light—its beauty is fleeting, and that’s what makes it so special. Welcome to your new assignment.

This assignment will focus on the quality of natural light—its character, subtleties, and beauty—and how it enhances your image. No artificial light is permitted. If you’re a heavy sleeper, don’t fret. I’m all about bending the rules. First light is magical and worth a look, but I’ll give you a few hours after to make your photographs. It’s your pick, but look for that sweet light within this window of time.

You can plan for sunrise by being in the right place at the right time. Scouting your location ahead of time can help a lot. Do it when sleep has been satisfied and you have fresh eyes! You don’t want to be wandering around in the dark. Find that special spot beforehand and return at sunrise. Here’s something fun you might want to try: Photograph your scene from the exact location at different times of the day and learn how light “paints” a different picture each time.

Read more in the Editor's Update below.

Curated by:

Kurt Mutchler
Senior Photo Editor, National Geographic Magazine
Assignment Status
  • Open

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  • Closed

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  • Published

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Published Jan 26, 2015.
Thank you for your contributions!

Opening Your Eyes to Light

Posted jan 12, 2015

This assignment reminds me of one of my first-year photo classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology. It was a studio class, and we had to photograph an egg. Yes, a simple egg that you fry for breakfast.

It was one of the more difficult yet one of the most memorable assignments of my college years. We not only had to create the perfect optical density in the shadows and highlights, but we also had to make an interesting photograph (we were shooting and hand processing black-and-white film). We had control of three aspects: the exposure, camera position, and lighting. It's essentially what you had to work with, albeit with unlimited subject matter.

But what the assignment really came down to was the lighting—seeing, creating, and looking at how light can change the look and feel of a simple object like an egg. If you haven’t tried photographing the same scene at different times of the day, you should give yourself the assignment. It can really open your eyes to see how light can change the look, but mostly the “feel,” of your photographs.

I hope this assignment will make you look at light in new and invigorating ways as you continue to make pictures. I really have been enjoying your photographs, which show such a wide breadth of geography, subject matter, and people, but, most of all, everyone’s enthusiasm for the photographic process. As the assignment window closes, I’ll be editing my favorites and will comment on each image to provide my insight. I wish you all the best with the remaining time.

Words and Pictures Form a Duet

Posted dec 29, 2014

A frozen car window with fractured ice crystals in a hue of blue, a view of the moon over the wing of a plane, a painterly touch of orange at Grand Canyon National Park—they all capture the gist of the First Light assignment, not just by focusing on the sun itself but also by using its light to see the world in a different way. Just over 10 of my 50-some favorites actually show the sun. Sometimes the main character only plays a supporting role.

I have really been enjoying going through everyone’s submissions. I’d like to thank all of you for participating in this assignment. The first thing I do if I like a photograph is read the caption. Words and pictures form a duet. Working as a picture editor for the magazine and website, I recognize that they are both equally important. For all of you who provided what's known as the five W’s—who, what, where, when, and why—I appreciate the information. It gives me a better understanding of what's going on beyond just seeing what's in the photograph.

I've seen enough sunrises at the beach to last the rest of the assignment. These images are nice, but you need to bring more to it. Perhaps try putting your back to the sun and see how the light shapes the shore, beach, and dunes.

A reminder to those of you who haven’t entered yet: First light is sunrise to two hours after. There have been some beautiful photos entered, but they don’t qualify due to the time they were taken.

One of the masters of understanding light for landscape photography is photographer Michael Melford. I had the pleasure of working with him on several stories for the magazine. Take a look at his work if you can get the time.

All About Firsts

Posted dec 15, 2014

Our January issue is all about firsts. I edited two stories in the issue, both relevant to what you do, what you care about. The first is a story on dark matter in the universe, and it includes a supercomputer image of the first light from the first stars igniting in the universe a hundred million years after the Big Bang. With the James Webb Space Telescope set to launch in 2018, we’ll be able to make pictures of light nearly 13 billion years old! The second story is a look at art made by the first artists, dating back 100,000 years. Light and artistry—why we all love photography—is what this assignment is all about.

So show me your light and your artistry, and let’s have some fun.

Kurt Mutchler

Kurt Mutchler

Senior Photo Editor, National Geographic Magazine
Kurt Mutchler has worked at National Geographic magazine since 1994 producing more than 130 stories, including 27 cover stories. During this time he has held many positions—photo editor, deputy director of photography and director of photography. Currently, he is the senior photo editor for science. He is a former adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, DC, where he taught photojournalism. Prior to joining the magazine he was the photo and graphics editor of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, La. He graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and The Ohio State University.