Updated: March 2, 2022
Light. It’s something that’s with us every day, yet science is still trying to fully understand it. It’s obvious, yet also mysterious. Is it a particle or a wave? Is the speed of light truly constant? Can matter be made from colliding photons? Humans have been trying to grasp the nature of light for a long time, and new discoveries are still being made.
As photographers, it goes without saying that we need light. Yet, it can also be an easy thing to overlook when you’re busy dealing with camera settings, composition, and your subject. In this article I want to explore how we can learn to see light and work with it more effectively to create photos with impact.
Why does light matter? The types of light bulbs we have in our living or working spaces can really affect how we feel. The same can be said for light in a photo. It plays a huge role in giving your image a particular mood. The range of feelings that light can evoke is amazing. It can make an image feel happy and uplifting, awe-inspiring, introspective, or somber and ominous, to name a few.
We intuitively respond to certain types of light differently. But what are we really looking for as photographers? How do you learn to see light?
Light: Quality, Direction and Color
1. The quality of light. Is the light soft (diffused),or harsh with strong highlights and shadows?
The above image is lit with indirect window light, which can often provide a beautiful, soft, and dreamy effect. This type of lighting tends to be calming and peaceful for the viewer.
In both of these square images the light is harsh, with strong shadows and bright sunlight. This type of lighting can feel dynamic, and tends to have a sense of high energy, drama, and impact for the viewer.
2. The direction of light in relation to your subject. Is the light coming from the front, side, or from behind your subject?
The flowers in the above photo are being front lit by the sun, which was positioned to my back as I took the photo. There was also a railing behind me that is casting the vertical shadows on the wall. Notice how front light tends to look like a spotlight on the subject.
In the above image, the sun is located toward the left side of the frame. As the light sweeps across the rock from the side, it creates shadows that really bring out texture and detail.
In the case of these grass leaves, the light is coming from behind the subject (backlit). Notice, with this type of lighting, the edges are highlighted, creating an outline that makes the front leaves stand out from the background.
Notice the difference in color between a cloudy day and sunset. Photos taken under cloudy or shady conditions will always have a bluish color cast. These two images feel completely different because of the color of the light.
3. The color of light. Every light source (including the sun) casts a particular color. Is the light giving your photo a warm or cool tone?
There is really no right or wrong type of light. However, if you can match the mood of your lighting with the desired mood of your image, it will go a long ways toward communicating an overall feeling. Your photo will have a stronger ?wow’ factor if the viewer is able to make an emotional connection when they see your image.
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Watch the extremes: Highlights and shadows create form and contrast, which can be used to accentuate shapes, pattern and detail in your shot. However, if there are very bright or dark areas in your frame, it’s important to notice where those fall. You want to avoid any bright highlights that could distract the viewer’s eye from your subject. Ideally, your lighting should bring attention and focus to the subject.
The above image has very strong highlights and shadows, but in this case the light draws the eye to the subjects, rather than competing for attention. When I saw this scene, I decided to use the strong lines created by the light and dark areas as part of my composition.
Above is an example where the highlights in the background are too bright, drawing the viewer’s eye away from the subject. Whenever you have very bright or dark areas in your scene, you want to think about how you can either use them to your benefit, or exclude them from your frame.
A simple exercise that can be helpful in learning to see light is to photograph a single object being illuminated from different lighting directions. You can use any light source you want for this?the sun, a lamp, a bright flashlight, etc. Try and create each type of light mentioned above by moving your subject (or light source) around.
Here’s an example:
The photos on the left are front-lit, the middle photos are side-lit, and the right hand photos are backlit. Notice how the colors and details of the front-lit photos are a bit washed out. The photos with side light have the most texture and detail, while the backlit photos have very strong edges. I included the black and white versions of the photos as well because it might be easier for some to be able to look at light and shadow when separated from color.
Learning how to work with light is essential to creating images that tell a story, convey emotion, and engage the viewer. When you approach a scene, notice what type of light you are dealing with, and ask yourself if the light suits your subject and the message you are trying to get across. Sometimes the lighting is perfect as is, and other times you may need to work with it a bit.
Here are some tips and ideas for ways to work with harsh lighting conditions:
- Time of day makes an enormous difference in the quality of light. If you’re going for that soft, ethereal effect, try shooting early or late in the day.
- Keep an eye out for natural diffusers. Sometimes a passing cloud or the shade under a tree can give you a completely different type of light on a sunny day.
- If you’re using window light that is too strong, try hanging a white cloth over the window to diffuse and soften the light.
- If you need to subtly illuminate your subject it’s sometimes handy to use a piece of white foam core (purchased from any craft shop) as a reflector to bounce light and brighten shadows. Snow, sand, water or white walls can also act as natural reflectors.
- Sometimes moving either yourself or the subject even just a few inches can change how the light appears in your shot. Try shooting from different angles to adjust your composition and see if it makes a difference.
Creative use of exposure: There are times when you might want to adjust your exposure to let in more or less light as a creative choice. Doing this can significantly affect the mood of your photo. Below is an example in which I actually created a darker exposure than my eye saw in real life. I wanted the image to feel gritty with deep shadows. You can achieve this effect either by changing your camera settings (using exposure compensation or manual mode), or with editing software such as Adobe Lightroom.
The best way to learn about light is to get out your camera and practice. Challenge yourself to use light in a way that expresses emotion and enhances your subject. Start noticing how light and shadows fall around you, and how it changes throughout the day. Don’t be afraid to experiment, make mistakes, and try new things. It’s all part of the journey. Happy photographing!
All images in this article were taken by Sarah Ehlen.