Light is the most important and fundamental aspect of photography. The word photography itself derives from ‘photon’ (a particle of light) and graphy (Greek (graphé) – to draw). So writing with light is essentially what we do when we capture an image in our cameras or smart phones. I prefer to think of it as painting with light because the images we create are more in the form of a visual art than the written one although that might be slightly misleading but you can see where I’m coming from!
So we know light is the major player, yet all to often photographers overlook this fundamental component because they are often too busy worrying themselves about lenses, shutter speeds or other technical issues before they have really understood the most important component; light.
So isn’t light just light? No it’s certainly not. In this video I try to break it down for you into the 4 main components: 1. Hard Light, 2. Soft Light, 3. Transmitted Light & 4. Reflected Light.
Understanding these will help you understand light and how to use it to make better pictures!
Generally when we think of light we think of either the sun (daylight) or a bulb (interior lighting). Both of these in their simple form are ‘hard light’. As an example the sun on a clear day at midday will cast a strong shadow from objects that it strikes. A bare clear glass light bulb will do much the same thing, but if you wrap a lampshade around the bulb or put a cloud in front of the sun then the quality of light changes.
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If you put a large sheet of tracing paper in front of the bulb or a large blanket of cloud in front of the sun then you create soft light where the shadows become soft or disappear. The simplest way to explain this is because of the ‘apparent’ size of the light source. The sun in a clear sky and the bare bulb are both small apparent light sources, but if you put a large diffuser in front of them you convert them into large light sources giving you soft light. Watch the video to get a better understanding of what I’m talking about.
Transmitted light simply means you can see the light source in your picture. Whether this is a picture of the sunset or a city at night, it usually makes for a more interesting image.
Reflected light is all around us, this is the light that bounces off of stuff and back onto other objects and this has a great effect on the light hitting our subject. For example, even when you are stood in the shade there is light hitting you, it’s either coming from the blue sky and white clouds or it is bouncing off of the wall next to you. You may not be able to see the light source (or it see you) but you are still illuminated by the light being reflected off other objects.
The trick for great photography is to understand which of these four types of light (or combinations of them) make better pictures. In simple terms they all have their own qualities and situations where they can work well but as you hopefully gleaned from the video and the photo below, it is that a combination of these qualities that can often make for the most interesting images.
My 6 top tips for working with the best light
1. Shoot in the magic hour of sunrise or sunset, even shoot before sunrise and after sunset too as sometimes the colours of the clouds become more vivid 10mins after the sun has gone down.
2. Look for interesting light. Sometimes the unexpected gives you great light, like the sun bouncing off of a glass building an illuminating an area of shade.
3. Use reflectors such as white card or proper silver reflectors to make the light reach the shadow side.
4. Put the low setting sun behind your subject to halo them and then use a reflector or a pop of flash to fill in the shadow side.
5. Shooting at sunset or sunrise is much better than midday. At midday the light is from directly above and casts unattractive shadows on your subjects faces. Late sunlight is much better, it’s coming from the side which looks more attractive and its softer because its intensity is diffused and reduced by the earth’s atmosphere giving it added warmth too!
6. Look at other pictures that you like and start analysing the light. Figure out if it is soft light (no shadows or soft shadows) or is it hard light? Are there light sources visible in the picture (transmitted light) and is the light mostly reflected or is it coming directly from the source? As you study pictures you will soon learn to identify which types of light work best for different scenarios and then with that knowledge and what you’ve learnt from this video you should start to bring a whole new dimension to your photographs!