8. The importance of understanding light in 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
Light is what allows us to convey information and, more importantly, emotion in an image. Once you understand light, you’ll be able create a wide variety of creative and effective images.
The best light for photography
Light is all around us. It comes from a variety of sources, both natural and man-made, and we can use it to create different moods and atmospheres in our images.
There are four main categories of light:
1. Transmitted light is light that you can see emitted from its source. This means we can see the light source itself in the picture, e.g. a candle or the sun.
2. Reflected light occurs when light reflects off your subject. Almost all of the photographs we take make use of reflected light. Occasionally, 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 comes from a light source that is small compared to your subject, e.g. a light bulb or the (distant!) sun on a clear day. It results in very dark, very sharp shadows. Used correctly, hard light can be good for revealing textures in objects.
4. Soft light comes from a light source that is large compared to your subject. It 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 creating a large apparent light source.
Types of light in photography
Ways to use light 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 fear. Hard shadows create more drama than soft shadows, and cool colour tones convey more negative emotions than warm light.
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How to control light
As photographers, there are a number of different ways we can control natural light to help us get the result we want.
One of these 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, you should be shooting sunrise or sunset. If you want a subtler light with softer shadows, wait for a cloudy day – or work indoors, as Karl does in the video.
You can also control natural light with reflectors. These simple accessories can be great for adding more light to your subject (or, if you use a dark reflector, darkening your scene).
Alternatively, diffusion material spreads light and soften shadows, much like clouds on an overcast day.
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When working with different types of light, it’s important to keep white balance in mind. Why? Because different types of light 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. The higher the Kelvin value, the bluer the light.
For example, if you’re shooting on an overcast day, using a lower Kelvin value will 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 too important and large a subject to cover comprehensively in this single chapter. To learn about light in greater detail, and discover how to harness the power of light in your photography, we recommend you explore some of the other 900+ classes here on Visual Education – starting with Lighting Theory and Equipment.
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