08. The Importance of Understanding Light

Light, as you will have understood from previous classes in this course, is one of the six essentials for photography, and understanding light and paying attention to it is one of the quickest ways to improve your photography.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman, founder of Kodak

One of the most important elements of creativity in photography, light is what allows us to convey information and, more importantly, emotion in an image. Once you understand light, you’ll have the knowledge to create a wide variety of creative images.

location fashion photography

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The best light for photography

All around us, light comes from a variety of sources, both natural and man-made, and we can use it in a number of different ways to create different moods and atmospheres in our images.

There are four main categories of light. These are:

1. Transmitted light — Transmitted light is light that you can see emitted from its source. This means that we can see the light source directly in the picture. Examples of this could be a candle or even the sun. It is also light that has passed through something before reaching the subject. This could be glass, water or even the atmosphere.

2. Reflected light Reflected light occurs when light reflects off your subject. Almost all of the photographs we take make use of reflected light. Occassionally, transmitted light can also be visible in the same scene.

For example, a landscape image featuring the setting sun visible would include both transmitted and reflected light. However, if the sun was not visible in the frame, it would only be reflected light.

3. Hard light — Hard light is light that is from a small apparent light source, such as a light bulb or sun on a clear day. It often results in very dark, sharp shadows. Hard light can be a good choice for revealing textures in objects (when used correctly).

4. Soft light — Soft light, which comes from any apparently large light source (from your subject's perspective), produces light that is low in contrast with minimal shadows. The sun on an overcast day provides soft light because the clouds serve to diffuse the light, spreading it over a much larger area and therefore making it a large apparent light source.

Types of light for photography

TIP: To better understand light and how it works, try look at it in different situations and try to figure out what type of light it is. This will allow you to see what effect different types of light have and how they work with different subjects. Be aware that you can also mix different types of light in the same image, which can produce very interesting results.

Types of light in photography

Many photographers will tell you that the best light for photography is ‘the magic hour’. This is the hour just before and just after sunset or sunrise. This is because there is a combination of both hard and soft light, which can produce much nicer results than just hard or just soft light.

Natural light portrait photography
An example of combined hard and soft light, which you commonly see during sunset or sunrise. © Karl Taylor

However, the magic hour is not the only time to photograph. As you’ll have seen in the video, once you understand the different types of light, you’ll have a better understanding of how to control light and how you can get the best results shooting at any time of day — even at midday.

Indoor natural light portrait photography
Both soft and transmitted light can be seen in this portrait. © Karl Taylor

Ways to use light in photography

When it comes to using light, there are a number of different ways it can be used in photography.

The direction, hardness or softness and temperature of light can all have an impact on the mood and feeling of an image. Side light, for example, evokes feelings of romance and nostalgia, whereas light from below creates a sense of terror. Hard shadows create more of a sense of drama than soft shadows, and cool colour tones convey more negative emotions than warm light.

Natural light couples portrait photography

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Dramatic fashion photography

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How to control natural light

As photographers, there are a number of different ways we can control light to help us get the result we want.

One of these ways is planning. By planning ahead, you’ll be able to get the best type of light for your shot. For example, if you want warm, golden light with long shadows, then sunrise or sunset is when you should be shooting. If you’re wanting a more subtle light with softer shadows, try and wait for a cloudy day (or, you can work indoors, like I did in the video).

Another way to control natural light is through the use of reflectors (as you also see me demonstrate in this video). These simple accessories can be great for adding more light to your subject (or, if you use a dark reflector, darkening your scene).

© Karl Taylor Education

There’s also the option to use flash. By using simple lighting like speedlites, you can get quite creative results. Diffusion material is another useful tool for controlling light. This spreads your light and softens the shadow, very similar to clouds on an overcast day.

White balance

When working with different types of light, it’s important to keep your white balance in mind because different types of light all produce very different colours.

To compensate for different colour temperates, you can use the different colour balance settings on your camera. Auto white balance automatically corrects the colour cast caused by different colour temperatures, though there are other presets such as daylight, shade, tungsten or flash, for example.

You can also control white balance manually using the Kelvin scale, which ranges from 1000K to 10,000K. Quite simply, Kelvin is the unit of measurement used to describe colour temperature. The higher the Kelvin value, the bluer the light, and vice versa. So, for example, if you’re shooting on an overcast day, using a lower Kelvin value will help make your image appear bluer. Therefore, to make your image appear more neutral, you'll need to use a Kelvin value of around 7000 - 9000K.


Light, and how to control light, is a vast subject that is too great to cover completely in this single chapter. We look at this in far greater detail throughout our platform and recommend that you take a look at some of our other courses to learn more.

All content © Copyright Karl Taylor Education.

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  1. The opening stanza, where you switch between a bright clear day and an overcast day to demonstrate the difference between direct and diffused light is simply genius. The best example I have encountered where by an audience of all levels could get the concept. Much appreciated. Cheers

  2. Hey just wondering if you know of any books that cover the psychological effect lighting/color/composition can have on your viewer. Like how side lighting can give feelings of romance.

    1. Hi Adam, I’m afraid not, most of my study is derived from art and neurology related to human visual perception.

  3. Hey Karl, in case of harsh light falling on the subject causing deep shadows, where should we focus to get correct exposure. E.g. if the model is standing in a broad daylight that causes crisp shadows over her face, how can we get correct/optimal exposure?

    1. Hi, this all depends on the latitude recording capability of your sensor. The more latitude then the greater range of fstops it can record accurately. However as the photographer it is your decision to decide what is most important in the image and expose for that. The benefit or RAW files is that we can still extract or recover shadow and highlight detail too if necessary. The optimal/correct exposure is what you decide it is based on the narrative you are trying to describe.

  4. To: Maestro Karl Taylor,
    Your Introduction to Photography videos, in combination with E-books is in my opinion an excellent educational platform with I revisit more than ones to fully understand the subject matter. In Introduction to Photography is to prepare the student for the more advanced instruction and the live streaming classes that deal with the subtle differences of the photographic mysteries. I sympathize with the students watching the live class, distracted with a slice of Pizza or a pair of chopsticks, in one hand then forgetting to experiment with the equipment they have available, to emulate the techniques you demonstrate in the live classes. How can I add an ID photo to my profile?
    I apologize for my rambling!
    Thank-you, Maestro Karl Taylor
    Gerardo D. Duran Jr. a.k.a. PhotosGerardoDD
    “Using technology to cope with Dyslexia,
    and find my Dyslexic Advantage.”
    Presently I’m a widower, in my 80th decade of life and retirement active, a practicing photography enthusiast.

  5. Hi Karl!
    When using an aperture of 1.2 and a distance of 1.9 meters, the sharpness zone is less than 10 centimeters. This means that if the model turns its head more strongly, one of the eyes will not be sharp. Which eye to focus on in this case and how to control it? Take some test shots?

    1. Hi Alex, I’d probably say at 1.2 it’s actually less than 10cm! But I would have to go with simply what works, often it’s the eye closest to the camera but it can depend on the way you light the shot, the mood the angles of the head etc etc. You can of course shoot at smaller apertures (as is the case for most beauty fashion shots).

    1. Hi Hein, so my general rule is what is the most important part of your landscape? Is it a tree in the distance, is it a rock in the foreground? Then build your shot around that using f11 or f16. If it was a rock say 4m from me then I’d be focusing about 15m into the shot at f16 and DOF and the wide angle lens would be taking me back to the rock and beyond the 15m. If it was a tree 100m away then I’d be focusing short of the tree knowing DOF would take me beyond the tree but I’d also gain some extra foreground by focusing in front of the tree. Every situation is different and I would recommend focusing then switching to manual focus and taking a test shot, zoom in an check the test shot and then adjust from there.

  6. I find the changing of light one of the hardest aspects to expose and something I need to work on. I think we all can get those dreary washed out exposures when we get it wrong! I seem to tend to underexpose often fearful of blowing out highlights. Landscape photography like this is one of the few areas you do not need modifiers, maybe a filter or two and a tripod to compete with the pros. Well explained. I do cheat a little editing in post adding grad filters on selections……but hey ho its a tool nonetheless.

  7. Chaz27

    I understand the apeture at 1.2 in order to blur the background. I’m guessing you are focusing on the models eye.
    Won’t this cause other parts of her body to be out of focus?

    1. Hi Charles, yes your thinking is correct as 1.2 will be very shallow depth of field but it also depends on how far away your subject is, the further away then the depth of field increases.

      1. When using wide aperture like 1.2, where is the best point to focus on to ensure all the subjects body are in focus and the background is blurred out? And also in case where there are two subjects side by side and you want both of them to be in focus and the background blurred out, where will be the focus point be?


        1. Hi Babaatunde, it will not be possible to have all the body or two people in focus if shooting at f1.2 as the depth of field will most likely be too shallow, unless the subjects are further away. I’d always focus on the eyes but you will need to be thinking about using a smaller aperture for two people in the same shot.

    1. Hi Jaquelyn, the equipment information is on the page in the ‘equipment list’ at the lower right of the page. Thanks Karl.

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