Photography is all about light. I think that’s a fair statement. The very definition of the word “photography” is something like “painting with light”. Isn’t it? Yeah. I’ll expand more on this comment as I go along, but to start with, you should know that light is a huge part of photography. It’s all about light. Therefore, looking at things like this, I think it becomes pretty obvious that learning to see light – to understand it, and to use it creatively when making your photograph – is a vital part of any photographer’s knowledge base. If I had to single out a particular theory of photography that makes all the difference in the world, it’d be this one. Definitely. Makes me wonder why I took this long to write this post on a blog that’s all about photography! Probably because it’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain – like many other things in photography – but let me try anyway
Alright, you’re probably wondering right now what I mean by seeing light. Seeing light? That’s what you already do, isn’t it? You see light. It’s bright. It’s white. What else is there to know about it? Yeah, at first I didn’t get it either – I’d just check if my scene or subject is bright enough to be photographed, and that was about it – but no, what I’m talking about here isn’t simply about having enough light for a good exposure. I’m talking about learning to see light…to see how it hits your subject, how it reflects off some objects but is absorbed by others, how it flows around (or through) some materials, how it shines – you should be seeing the direction of the light, the color of the light – the way light works with shadows, and the real effect it has on everything you see. This is what I mean by seeing light! As a photographer, this is the where you want to be, where you can use all these little properties of different forms of light to your benefit, these little details that can all come together to make a huge difference to your final result, to create the exact image you want to. Knowing how to see light, and to use light, is where you take this art to another level
I understand it’s difficult for beginners to seelight like this. If you’re anything like I was when I first picked up a camera, all forms of light looks the same to you. In fact, you’re probably thinking this post is a whole load of crap right now. But stick with me – get through this post – and hopefully you will pick up a thing or two that will help you understand the very basics of what I’m trying to show here, at least, which should be enough for you to start noticing differences in your photographs, and inspire you to take it a step further
Today I’ll be talking of both artificial and natural light, with more emphasis on the natural light which I love – but note that this is going to be all about continuous lighting – there will be no talk of using flashes and strobes and that kind of studio gear. Alright? Let’s get down to business
The Importance of Light in Photography
Light is what lets us see. Without light, we’re blind. You know this. So when you really think about it, it’s pretty obvious why light is so important in photography. I mean, if we see because of light, it’s pretty obvious that we see things differently in varying types of light. Right? Therefore, it shouldn’t really be all that surprising to learn how important light is to your photograph. If light is so important to our eyes, and can change how we see things, just think how it can affect a simple electronic device like a camera
Light can change everything about a subject that you see, and even more so when you photograph it: it changes the visible size and shape of a subject, the color of the subject, it can vary the look and size of the background, it can alter the depth of the image – yeah, it can pretty much change everything about the appearance of objects in your shot; so by using it to your advantage, by knowing how it works in photography, you get photographs with something special, instead of the flat and boring stuff that is often the result of poor lighting. Getting started…
Learning to See Light
To begin, just look around wherever you are right now. You’re probably in a room. Hopefully a rather well lit room. With enough light to see how light looks! In fact, to experience what I’m trying to say, get to a place fairly well lit by sunlight. Then look around at all the objects around you – look closely – and see how the sunlight works around these objects. See how the light flows, how it sparkles, how it lights everything it touches. See how light plays with shadows, relative to the direction of the light. Notice how it reflects or how it is absorbed. Notice the color of the light. See the brightness of it. The intensity or the lack of it. Focus on the light, and how it works with the things in your room – not at the objects themselves – and look at these elements. See how light makes these objects look! Do you see now? Do you really see? If you do, good job! That’s the basic idea of seeing light right there
If you picked a spot lit by sunlight, look at these things right now – maybe note a few things down on how everything looks – and come back a few hours later, when the sun has changed in many ways. Notice anything different? Again, look closely, see how the light plays around with everything, and focus on the light itself. Force yourself to see. Once you start to, compare what you see now to how it looked before. It would be ideal if you took notes earlier. If you’re seeing differences already, wonderful! You’re really getting the idea of this. If not, no big deal – just read through this entire post, get a better idea of what you should be looking for, and try again!
Anyway, this is how light affects things we see, and things we photograph, in its simplest form. From here, we’ll get to the more technical parts of seeing light – the different types of light and all that – which can actually be very interesting! Here we go
Diffused Light and Direct Light
Getting started, let’s talk about this simple quality of light. You see, at a pretty basic level, light can be split into two categories of sorts: direct and diffused. It’s very easy to understand. Just picture yourself outside on a clear, sunny day. The sun is shining directly on you and everything around you. That’s direct light. Then move to a mild, cloudy day, where the sun is hidden behind soft white clouds, and while everything is bright, it’s not quite as intense as the earlier example. That’s because it’s diffused!
Diffused light is light that has been filtered through, or reflected off, something. Sunlight can be filtered through many things, like clouds, fog, or haze; it can also be filtered through other things like through the curtains in your window. Or through opaque glass. Artificial light can be diffused by professional diffusers, which are opaque ‘filters’ of sorts that attach to the front of your light. Or through the opaque light fittings on your wall lamps
Light can also be diffused by reflection. It can be reflected (or ‘bounced’) off of professional reflectors, or simply off white walls or ceilings. That sort of thing. I’m sure you’ve seen the large white reflectors or bounce cards that professional photographers carry around. These are used to diffuse light by reflection
Diffused light has a soft, even quality about it, and as it’s filtered through something, it is not very strong or harsh. Because of this, diffused light illuminates the subject/scene evenly, with low contrast, controlled highlights, and minimal shadows
Direct light is obviously a more intense form of light, shining from source to subject with nothing between. No filtering, no reflection. You get the idea. Sun shining on a clear day is a perfect example of direct natural light. It’s the only natural light example, I guess. A naked light bulb hanging over a subject should create an example of direct artificial light
Direct light is pure. Focused. Therefore, it has a harsh, intense quality about it. It creates strong shadows, strong highlights, and therefore has a high-contrast look to it. It lights up a focused part of the subject, and is pretty uneven compared to diffused light
Both forms of light have their pros and cons. Know how they look, what they work best for, and how to use each type of light to best effect. Diffused sunlight can work great for outdoor portraits, while direct sunlight often brings landscapes to life. Sometimes, diffused light can look flat and boring, in which case you can try going for direct light. If direct light appears too harsh and contrasty, try diffusing. Unfortunately, you don’t always get full control of the situation – when shooting outdoors, using natural light, the weather controls this quality of light – so in such situations, you have no option but to leave and try another time
As a general rule, I find that direct natural light looks far better than the diffused light found on cloudy days – cloudy daylight never really worked for me – while artificial light has a far more pleasant quality when diffused compared to direct. Just my opinion. And even I don’t always go by that!
I already talked about color temperature, or the color of light, back in my post on White Balance, and yeah, it’s another very important aspect of seeing and understanding light. Color temperature basically refers to the hue of light that a particular light source emits. Think about it: do all forms of light look the same? Yes? Think of sunlight, for example. In the mornings, it’s got this mild look about it. At noon, it seems white. Pure. During sunset, it’s a deep orange or red. Move to artificial light for a moment: a fluorescent light has a pale blue/white glow, while tungsten/incandescent lights have a yellow look to it. See what I mean? That’s color temperature
I’m not going to go through the technicalities of color temperature, and why it’s called temperature, and all that – do a Google if you want to know these bits – but for now, just know that color temperature is measured in Kelvin, a temperature unit, and works by assigning a particular Kelvin value to different hues of light
Color temperature ranges from ‘warm’ to ‘cool’. Warm light refers to yellow/orange light, while cool light refers to the pale blue/white hue. Easy, right? To each sort of hue, a color temperature value is assigned, in Kelvin. For example, daylight, which is a very neutral hue, is assigned a value of approximately 5500K. Warm incandescent light or candlelight is rated around 2000-3000K, while cooler fluorescent lights have a temperature of 6000-7000K or so. Weird, I know – a warmer light has a cooler ‘temperature’ value – but that’s just how it is
NOTE: Color always affects the ‘mood’ of the shot, so use that as much as you can. In a very general sense, warm light tends to create a pleasant, ‘happy’ feel to the shot, while cooler light gives a more spooky, dramatic, cold mood. Use that
And that’s the basic idea of color temperature. Read my post on white balance for more about it – and to get a better understanding of how color temperature works with white balance on your camera – and hopefully that plus this will give you a comprehensive look on color temperature!
When shooting outdoors, know that sunlight changes in color during the day. Assuming the entire day is pretty clear, sunlight starts off with a cool, blue (almost purple) look to it, at dawn. During sunrise, it gets beautifully warm. Great time to shoot at. During the morning hours, it slowly turns more neutral, going from the golden sunrise, through a fairly warm glow in mid morning, before turning very neutral during midday. After midday, it goes in reverse. Neutral goes back to fairly warm, going back to the very warm color that is the sunset, after which it goes to a blue/purple dusk, and then complete darkness. That’s how sunlight changes color, or hue, during the course of a clear day. When shooting natural light, dawn/dusk and the Golden Hours of sunrise and sunset are beautiful times to shoot, especially for landscapes. Think about that
With artificial light, you have all these options, and can be switched at any time. Cool light? Turn on a fluorescent. Warm? Incandescent. Something in between those two? Try a halogen. A flash generally has a cool look about it too. However, you don’t always have these options as shooting indoors does not always mean a studio. It could be a living room or a restaurant, where you can’t quite well change the lighting, and in these cases, coming back later won’t help either. So just work with what you have, and adjust your camera’s white balance to get the perfect color. That’s the best you can do. Shooting RAW helps!
Oh, and remember: diffused light is always cooler than direct light. That’s why the diffused light on cloudy days lack warmth (in color of light!) compared to sunny days. That’s one reason why I find cloudy daylight to be rather boring (look back to the earlier example on diffused/direct light, and notice how the second picture looks slightly blue compared to the first)
Anyway, once you figured out the direct vs. diffused bit, look for the color temperature. Use that. When you’re shooting outdoors, see what it looks like. Is it warm? Cool? Neutral? Does it work with the current style I’m going for? Should I come back later? Same thing indoors – except that instead of having to come back later, just bring in a different type of lamp!
All in all, use the color of light for what you’re going for. As long as it suits your shot, go for it. I personally find the diffused, cool sunlight found on cloudy days rather flat and dull, and I try avoiding these conditions if I can. However, use it as you see fit – photographers often use diffused natural light (cloudy daylight) for portraiture, which often produces great results – so if you think it works in your situation, go for it. As I can’t really say this sort of light has worked for me, I’m just going to leave it at that…leave it to you to experiment and decide for yourself. But I can say for sure that for some shots, like landscapes, diffused light definitely doesn’t work as well. See the first example image I posted and notice how the first image looks boring compared to the rest. That’s the cloudy light I’m talking about
Apart from all this, go out and learn stuff by practice. Look outside during early mornings, see the color of light then. Look again at noon, or at dusk, or during sunset. See the differences. Train your eye to see all these intricacies, and how it looks – then use it all the next time you’re out shooting, and make the perfect shot!
Direction of Light
Alright, here we are. Already at the end of this topic. That’s right, this is the last part I have for you in this post. The direction of light. And as you will notice as you see the sample pictures below, and as you will notice as you learn to see by yourself, the direction from which light hits your subject plays a super important role in your photograph and how it looks, and is probably the most important factor I’m covering in this post today
Direction of light can be controlled very easily indoors. In a studio, all you need to do is grab your light stand and place it in the direction you want. Easy. With natural light, it’s possible, but is not as easy as when shooting indoors. As usual. You see, as the sun moves throughout the day, changing its angle as it moves, it creates different directions of light that you get to work with, based on time of day. Therefore, similar to color temperature, you get to control the direction of light by choosing the time of day you shoot at. You can also modify the angle of light by how you place yourself and your subject relative to the position of the source
Anyway, have a look at these sample images to get an idea of how drastically different the same subject can look, with just a change in direction of light:
Crazy, isn’t it? It’s quite stunning. And pretty easy to figure out. Basically, there are these general directions from which light can come from:
- Front Light
- Side Light
- Back Light
- Top Light
Obviously, I’ll now through each one and describe how it looks and when you should try using it (and when you shouldn’t)!
Frontal lighting is when the light source is placed directly in front of the subject, and behind the camera. It is very commonly used, and often incorrectly understood as the ‘best way’ to light your subject. It’s not
This form of lighting works well enough – having the light right in front of your subject allows it to be evenly lit up, making metering easy, while ensuring colors and patterns are captured accurately, and keeping contrast well controlled. And as the shadows of everything tend to fall backwards when the light is directly in front, this means minimal shadow distractions
However, frontal lighting is not all that good and is definitely not the best way or the right way or anything of the sort. Learn to see light, and you will understand how there are so many better ways of lighting your subject. The biggest issue for me with front lighting is that it creates photographs that look boring! Images lack texture and depth, and therefore lack interest. Due to lack of shadows, the subject can look flat, without any real depth to it, and appears very 2D, if you know what I mean. Subjects with texture – weathered wood, stone, even skin, sometimes – can lose the look that makes them interesting. In flat scenes with low contrast, this form of lighting can make it a disaster
It might work for some subjects, and may suit what you’re going for. But if not, forget the amateurish notion that frontal lighting is how it should be. Try other lighting setups
The opposite of frontal lighting, this direction of light places the light source directly behind your subject, with the subject between your camera and the light source. Considered a horror by new photographers, it means you’re shooting directly into the light, and is not nearly as bad as it is made out to be. It’s a bit tough to shoot into the light and get your exposure right and all that, and it’s not always suitable, but experiment and you can get some rather interesting, dramatic, cool results
With this sort of lighting setup, the best option is to go for the silhouette effect. You know what this looks like, right? The light is behind your subject, lighting the background pretty well, while shining around your subject’s edges, creating a bright outline, and keeping the front of the subject in dark shadow. That’s it
It can look very good, but know when to go for this effect. Subjects with interesting and distinguishable shapes will benefit from this effect, but avoid shooting this type of image if your subject has bright color and strong texture, which will be lost in the silhouette. Or if it has no recognizable shape or outline. Meaningless
If you’re not going for the silhouette look, just avoid backlighting. It’s just not worth it. The biggest negative when shooting into the light is that it’s super hard to meter. And even if you work really hard, using exposure compensation and whatnot, and get an exposure good enough to gather detail from the front of your subject, it’s not going to be perfect i.e. either you will get a properly exposed subject and blown out background or a well-exposed background and a silhouetted subject. A middle ground is just not possible in backlit cases, not for 99% of the time. Shooting into light can also create lens flare – another negative – so unless this is your only option, avoid backlighting. Or think of introducing a flash
Most people talk of back and front lighting like they’re the only two options out there – bad and good – but they forget the coolest one of all. Side lighting!
Side lighting does wonders to your subject. It adds depth, texture, detail, and it adds interest by doing all that! It adds drama…mystery! Yes, I love side lighting
Shadows are fairly strong and pronounced, but not harsh – and combined with the strong highlights found on the opposite end, the texture of the subject is really brought out. Side lighting tends to separate background from the subject, creating a look of depth, almost 3D-like, which is great, and also increases contrast in the shot. Fantastic
In some cases, however, you might find this extra detail and texture a bit too much. In a portrait, for example, all this visible detail might draw too much attention to imperfections in skin, which will not be that flattering. In other cases, the strong contrast created by the powerful highlight/shadow look that side lighting creates might not be ideal. In these cases, experiment. I mean, side lighting is a great way to get some interesting results, but you should realize that it’s not the perfect solution for everything! Always keep an open mind
Portrait experts tend to favor the 45° angle when placing a single light source for a portrait. By placing a light directly between the ‘front’ and ‘side’ positions, you get the best of both worlds, really: fairly even lighting, reduced shadow, controlled contrast, extra texture and detail but not too much, and nice background separation for noticeable depth. Perfect? For a portrait, yes. But again, not for all subjects!
Landscapes work great with side lighting too. Texture, detail, shapes – all emphasized – while adding depth and contrast. Brilliant
Placing the light source at a very high position, shining downwards on the subject, is what is knowing as high lighting, or top lighting, and is my least favorite direction of light out of all of them! This is why I avoid shooting during noon, when the sun is high in the sky, shining directly down on you. Horrible. Why?
Well, take a portrait example, outdoors, at noon. The sun shines downwards, lighting up only the top parts of the person’s head, casting shadows across the face, under the eyes and chin, and not giving the face much detail at all. It just looks ugly. Even if it’s not directly above you, high-angle lighting is generally unfavorable, so try avoiding it at all costs. It might work alright for landscapes (even then, it’s not that great) but for localized subjects, forget it – I can’t think of any instance where I’d actually want to shoot with high-angled light
In this example shot, see how the background is perfectly lit, with minimal shadow, but look at the subject. Plenty of shadow cast across its face and body. Very unattractive. Not nice
Low-angled light creates longer shadows, but these always land outside of the subject, leaving the subject’s face itself better illuminated, while high-angled lighting casts minimal shadows outwards, but instead covers the subject’s face with it! Avoid this type of light, seriously!
And yeah, those are the basic directions of light! Just like the other factors, direction of light can be controlled very easily when shooting in an indoor studio or similar location, but when you step outdoors, direction of light completely depends on the time (as well as your position!)
As you probably figured out, low-angled light is best. Therefore, when shooting outdoors, go for early mornings/evenings, when the angle is low and color is beautiful too – avoid the periods close to noon – and go for side lighting!
Indoors, the same applies, but as you’d never have to really deal with high-angle light, it’s not a big deal. Just place the light where you want it, and shoot. Easy
And there you have it. That’s how light can affect your shot. That’s how you can use light to improve your shot. It all makes sense, doesn’t it?
To summarize: force yourself to see the light. Look at the light, and not the objects, at first. See how it makes the object look! Oh, and that reminds me: try the earlier exercise of looking at objects in your room – now that you know exactly what you’re looking for – and you might notice differences that appear when you view the same objects in different types of light. And yeah, that’s all there is to it, really – just look at the light, and see how it makes everything look. If you ever find it difficult, just break it down. Is it diffused light? Is it direct? What color is it? Where is it coming from? How does it flow over the subject from this direction? Where are the shadows cast? Then figure out why it is such. Is it diffused because it’s cloudy? Or reflected? Is it warm because it’s late evening? Is that why the angle is low? This sort of thing. It’s not that difficult once you understand it, and thinking like this allows you to train your eye to see all this better. And once your eye is trained, you can stop bothering about the ‘why’, and simply look at the scene itself, seeing the light and your subject together as one, and use the conditions to make your photograph as good as it deserves to be!
Think like this whenever you look out at…anything. It doesn’t have to be only during the times you’re shooting. Definitely not. Just look around you all the time, and try to identify the type of light you can see. Look for the same old things – color, direction, diffused vs. direct – and notice how it makes things look. By always seeing things like this, your eye starts to see things better, and makes you more capable of using it to make a good photograph. Another tip: watch the lighting used in movies – which are obviously lit perfectly to match the mood and setting – which can be a great source for lighting ideas and a great way to learn
In general, go for interesting light. Warm light, that gives a happy look to your shot, or a cooler light that makes things more dramatic. Side lighting for more texture and depth and interest, or back lighting for drama and mystery. It all depends on you and what you want, as always. I personally don’t like shooting in what I consider flat, boring, white light found outdoors on cloudy days – nor can I think of a reason that I’d want to shoot during noon – so unless I find it works for a particular style (maybe outdoor portraits, again?), I’d choose a better time…but if you disagree, and you know what you’re working with, and what you’re going for, and you think it looks right…go for it! It’s all up to you
If you found this post useful, please leave a comment. If you have any questions, again…comment! I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I really hope this helps. And I hope you enjoyed my Christmas-themed sample shots (unless you view this in June!) Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own