In the beginning was (and is) The Light.
This is true of all photography, without question and indeed of all human sight. I could probably stop right here, but let’s not be hasty.
So. Of the five photographic elements, light is—along with the Photographer—of primary importance.
But why is this so?
Well, in the case of film and digital photography, the recording device (the film or the sensor) picks up the light that an object reflects, bounces, or emits, gathered and focused through a lens of some sort: no light, no photo.
When we make a photograph of a landscape, say, we’re not really taking a picture of the trees, but of the light bouncing off of and filtering through the trees. And when I make a photo of Olive, the sensor collects photons that bounce off of her black fur and translates them into the unique arrangement of 1s and 0s which cause a picture of Olive to appear on the screen.
This is remarkably similar to the ways in which most sighted, warm-blooded animals see the world. I don’t see Olive, I see the light reflected off of Olive, collected and processed into electrical pulses, which give rise to a picture of Olive (and various other sensations besides).[i]
Other animals and beings in the world (and, presumably, on other worlds) use other systems of vision, and their visual acuity is such that they see a wider or narrower part of the electromagnetic spectrum than do we humans. Olive, for example, doesn’t see much in the way of color, and has a hard time resolving fine detail, but she can see in much dimmer light than I, roughly 8 times less light, due to differences in our biology.
Now. Admittedly, I’m using ‘light’ in a rather general manner, and I won’t go into too much of a digression here, but with the aid of specialized instruments, we can create photographs of things that emit only radio waves, or gamma radiation, or any of the other types of ‘light’ that exist on the electromagnetic spectrum which covers a broad range of light types, from the type that carries the traffic report to me, focused through an antenna and displayed as a sequence of noises through speakers scattered throughout the car, to fancier types, like those that we use to see inside ourselves and those that turned Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk.
While we use other types of light to create photographs, the two most common types employed are natural light (sunlight) and artificial light (tungsten or compact flourescent and built-in/external/studio flash units). It doesn’t really matter which sort of light we use, and any sort of light is suitable for photography, depending on the scene photographed and the photographer’s vision. While all photographs depend on light of some sort for their existence, other factors go into the making of a photograph, and it is to those I turn next, specifically the equally important element of photography, the Photographer.
[i] I could go off into Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, but I’ll spare you that digression.