Light: the magic ingredient that makes our photography possible. Without light, you don’t shoot pictures. So learning to really see light in all its nuances is a fundamental key to improving as a photographer.
But what is it about light that you should learn to look at?
Here’s an incomplete list of attributes that you should consider:
Intensity—How strong is the light? How dim? Is it high noon daylight or late evening light? Dawn? The same scene will appear radically different thoughout the day, depending upon the intensity of the light.
Direction—What direction is the light coming from in relation to your subject? Overhead? Three-quarters? Directly from the side? Is it sunlight or artificial light? The direction of the light, along with its intensity, combine to create a big part of the mood of your photograph.
Hard or soft? (Or: Directional or diffuse?) When we talk about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ light, we’re referring to a principle quality of light. Hard, directional light—say from a spotlight—will cast dramatic shadows. Soft, diffused light—from a window or maybe a big studio soft box—will tend to ‘wrap’ around the edges of your subject, softening the look and feel of your photograph.
Color Temperature—Refers to the relative warmth(yellow/red) or coolness(blue/cyan) of your light source. The Kelvin temperature scale measures this along a continuum and assigns a degrees Kelvin to the result. High noon daylight is 5500 degrees Kelvin. This is what your portable strobe puts out. Early morning sunrise will have a number somewhere in the 1500 to 3000 range, a rainy, cloudy afternoon could be 8000 degrees. This is a great thing to work on, watching the light and considering the emotional impact that different color temperatures have on your images.
Incidence on Your Subject—The direction that the light is coming from—hitting your subject—is another key consideration. Think about the difference between an overhead light source and one coming from below (an Orson Wells ‘up light’). The difference is dramatic and decisive upon how your photograph will look. Once again, the fundamental truth: light makes your photograph!
So spend some time this week thinking about light and watching it. Driving in your car or riding the train or simply walking, watch the light around you. Note its direction, intensity, color, hardness/softness. Now try to imagine the same scene in different light. Which is more appealing to you as a shooter?
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog