Light is the most important element in a photograph. Photography is the action of capturing light on light-sensitive material. Photography is the art form of light. Without light, you have nothing. If the light is not right, it does not matter what apples or children or pets are in front of the camera; the picture will not work.
Each light source will create its own set of shadows. They add a dimension that can give a photograph depth and substance. Very intricate and subtle shadows can be recorded within textures, for example. It is these two elements, light and shadow, that are the beginning of a stunning photograph.
Understanding light is crucial. Experienced photographers learn to judge the quality of the light first, then analyze shapes, lines, patterns, and textures later. To have the desired effect, light must reveal or show the shape properly.
Like many things in digital photography, you can learn about light much faster than you can with a film camera. The LCD screen can immediately show you the quality of the light and also how the light appears after being recorded on the light-sensitive computer chips (image sensors).
Light has many qualities. It can be soft with light gray shadows or bright and harsh with deep shadows. A scene might be evenly lit or have areas of directional lighting like spotlights. The direction of the light is very important. The light can come from behind the photographer, from the side, or from behind the subject. Photographers can control this by positioning themselves in relation to the light.
The angle of the light is another element. Lighting from above is very different than lighting from below, for example. Lighting that is at a low angle to a surface will reveal minute details in a texture, even the weave of cloth, while lighting from the front will show very little texture.
Each light source has its own particular color, which can be recorded quite distinctly in a photograph. Again, experienced photographers are used to this aspect of light. Digital cameras have a white balance control, which will see one particular light source as white light.
Each light source has a distinctive color. Incandescent bulbs, halogen lamps, sodium street lights, florescent lights (many kinds), mercury lights, camping lights, and even kerosene lamps and candles have their own colors. In addition, there are strongly colored light sources such as neon lights and stage lighting.
Multiple light sources can cause problems or be used for artistic effect. A photographer will have to choose which light source will be seen as white while the other light sources may have noticeable colors. These can pose a number of problems. First, each source will have its own direction and create its own shadows. Second, the different sources may have very different colors, so the photographer will have to choose which source will be considered the “white light” using the white balance control. The other light sources may create odd colors in the scene, a bit like colored lights at a rock concert.
Light creates images in photography. It is the fundamental building block of the art.
A photographer uses light in the same way that an artist uses paint. Light is the source of all color. All colors combine to form white light. When light strikes an object, some colors are absorbed and others are reflected. For instance, a fire truck looks red because its surface is reflecting red and absorbing all other hues. An object appears white when its surface reflects all colors and black when its surface absorbs them.
The sun is the most common source of illumination. During the course of a day, the sun's light shifts from dawn's soft radiance to harsh midday brightness to the delicate rosy glow of sunset. Once the sun has set, the night is filled with cool tones. When shooting a city skyline at sunset, you'll find the buildings tinged with the pinks and lavenders of the twilight sky. But under a noonday sun, those same buildings will be starkly lit. Bright, sunny days are good for capturing brilliant images. Overcast days produce subtler color combinations. Seasons, too, will change the effect of light upon a subject.
Sunlight not only changes throughout the day, but also from season to season. By studying these changes, you will learn techniques for effectively tackling the challenges presented by different lighting situations. You will also discover new ways of using your digital camera as a creative tool to express your unique message.
A great photograph requires great lighting. Time of day and the resulting angle of light affects form, contrast, texture, and color. Professionals know when the best times to shoot are.
Here is an overview of how light changes throughout the day:
Predawn: Pink, dreamy light; ideal for shooting bodies of water and landscapes
Dawn: Crisp, golden light reflects on subjects facing east
Early morning: Soft light
Midday: Harsh sunlight; best for shooting monuments, buildings, and urban streets
Late afternoon: Warm, golden light; ideal for people and landscapes
Sunset: Beautiful skies, especially twenty minutes before and after the sun sets
Dusk: A purple glow in the sky; does wonderful things to skylines
Night: If you're willing to experiment, night offers some interesting effects
Contrast is a key element in any photograph. A good photograph should have a full range of tones from black to white. For example, even though an image might have primarily light pastel tones, a true black should exist in the deepest shadows. Contrast becomes especially important when a picture is printed in a publication or converted to black and white.
The angle of the light determines a lot about its mood and quality:
Front lighting, such as taking a picture with the sun behind you, provides an even illumination of your subject and tends to produce natural-looking colors. However, since shadows are cast behind the subject, it can appear rather flat, lacking depth and volume. You can turn this to your advantage when you are shooting to emphasize patterns and when you prefer that forms appear as two-dimensional shapes.
Side lighting will better convey a three-dimensional form. For most photos, side lighting is the most effective type of illumination. You can use side lighting to emphasize texture, especially when the light crosses the surface of your subject at a low angle. It can also be used to emphasize the roundness of shapes.
Back lighting, lighting that comes from behind a subject, can be difficult to use correctly, but properly executed it can produce dramatic results. With strong light, the subject will turn into a silhouette. With weaker light that is balanced by other light from the front or side of the subject, back lighting may produce what is known as rim lighting. Rim lighting refers to a slightly darker than normal subject that is circled by a halo of light.
Lighting from above, such as the light emitted by the noonday sun, tends to produce unflattering shadows on both people and scenes. However, sometimes it can be utilized to produce drama, such as when shooting images of urban buildings.
Lighting from below is typically used in horror movies because it produces deep sinister shadows. As a result many photographers avoid this kind of lighting, but in the right situation it can be quite useful.
Even lighting, such as that on overcast days, provides soft light that reveals more subtle colors and detail. When shooting on a sunny day, you can sometimes capture subjects in open shadow for diffused light that reveals vivid color usually lost in harsh, direct light. Open shade often has a bluish tint, so make sure your camera properly sets the white balance.
The use of light is an artistic tool. Mixed lighting might be a problem for one photographer and an artistic effect for another. The same can be said of overlapping shadows from multiple light sources or a bright light that flares directly into the lens. Use your creativity to make light work for you.