Photographers’ Light: The Magic Ingredient

Light: the key to everything we do as photographic artists. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Light: the key to everything we do as photographic artists. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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?

Light refracted through glasses, late afternoon. The light creates the magic that makes this photograph. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Light refracted through glasses, late afternoon. The light creates the magic that makes this photograph. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

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 TemperatureRefers 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.

With strobe lighting, you control the incidence on your subject. Success or failure rests solely with you! (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

With strobe lighting, you control the incidence on your subject. Success or failure rests solely with you! (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Incidence on Your SubjectThe 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?

selfport1aHi, 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

Posted in: Light

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

2 Comments on "Photographers’ Light: The Magic Ingredient"

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  1. I could not agree with you more that lighting is the “magic ingredient”. Is that a self portrait? Very cool. -dz

  2. Yes, I confess, it’s a self portrait. I needed several shots for a series on Lighting that I was working on and I reused it here.

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