8. The importance of understanding light in photography

Understanding light and learning to 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

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.

location fashion photography

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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 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 help you learn how different types of light create different effects and how they work with different subjects. It’s also good to keep in mind that you can also mix different types of light in an image, which can produce very interesting results.

Types of light in photography

Many photographers will tell you that the best light for photography occurs during ‘the magic hour’. This is the hour just before and just after sunset or sunrise. The ‘magic’ comes from the combination of hard and soft light occurring simultaneously.
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. Once you understand the different types of light, you’ll understand how to control light to get great results at any time of day – even noon!
Indoor natural light portrait photography
Both soft and transmitted light can be seen in this portrait. © Karl Taylor

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.

Natural light couples portrait photography

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Dramatic fashion photography

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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.

Understanding light in photography - Three reflector positions on model compared

© Visual Education

Finally, you can use flash – either on-camera, speedlights, or studio flash (also know as strobe lighting). Studio lights can be modified with modifiers, which can drastically alter the effect.

White balance

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.

Types of light in photograph - White Balance infographic and Kelvin Color Scale

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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