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There are several factors that set apart good photos from mere snapshots, and good photos from great photos. Things such as exposure, composition, and decisive moment all play a part in setting apart great photos. Equally important is light. Quality of light can make or break a photo. Whether you take photos with a DSLR or take quick snaps with your cell phone, seeing the light will help improve your images.
For the most part here, we are discussing natural light. Often, photographers will create their own light to match their vision. But when photographing using available light, we are at nature’s mercy. There are many different kinds of light: harsh, soft, warm, or cool, among others. The direction of the light plays an equally important part. Direct, frontal light, low angular light, side light, and backlight all create different qualities in an image. Learning to use the different types of light, and even manipulate them to taste, means always being able to find a photo.
Midday light is generally not a photographer’s friend. The sun is bright, and high in the sky. The light tends to be harsh. Shadows are cast straight down, causing people to look less than their best with deep shadows in the eye sockets and under the chin. On landscapes, this can cause things to flatten out and look uninteresting. When shooting portraits in this light, fill flash or a reflector can work wonders, creating a second light source that adds depth. Finding some shade can be helpful in using the bright light while the shade reduces the harshness.
Late afternoon and early morning sun tends to be the most beautiful light. When the sun is close to the horizon, it shines at a low angle and casts long, deep shadows that add interest and define those subjects that catch the light. The sun takes on a warmer, softer glow due to atmospheric haze when it is at this low angle, making it very pleasing for use in portraits as well as nature and landscape photography. Add in a reflector to help soften shadows. Fill flash can be used but be aware that flash is much cooler compared to late afternoon and early morning sun. Using a CTO (color to orange) gel on the flash can help to match the color temperature of the available light. That late day and early morning light is very directional, so depending on where you stand in relation to the sun, you could have front light, side light, or back light. Try all three and compare the quality of the light from each direction. Each can provide beautiful, yet very different lighting.
In addition to late afternoon and early morning light, there is what is knows as “The Blue Hour”. This is the time just before the sun comes up in the morning, and just after the sun goes down in
the evening. While the horizon will have a pleasing warm glow, the ambient light takes on a bluer tint than what is usually seen during the day. It’s a very mystical light that leaves a dreamy feeling over the scene, and is well worth getting out of bed early to photograph in, or staying out after sunset to capture.
In terms of direction, front light tends to be the least interesting of light. The reason for this is the light is coming from directly behind the photographer, hitting the subject and fully lighting the scene. Very few shadows are cast. While there are times when shadows are not desirable, more often than not shadows add interest to an image. Light can reveal your subject, but shadows define your subject, so a direct, frontal light source is not usually what is wanted. This is the kind of light direct, on-camera flash creates. There is a reason most pros try to find ways to bounce the flash off of walls and ceilings rather than aiming it directly at their subject.
Side light has the effect of splitting your subject in half. This can be a very effective light when used properly. The shadows created have the effect of slimming portrait subjects, and creating depth with other subjects. It can at times be very contrasty and harsh, but often it will provide soft, warm light that enhances the beauty of whatever it is you’re shooting. For portraits, the use of a reflector can be helpful in softening the shadows. It’s difficult to use fill flash in this situation due to the split lighting. The flash will be coming from the front of the subject, so it will illuminate both the bright areas and the shadow areas. Off-camera flash positioned to the shadow side of your subject works well for this situation.
Backlighting can be beautiful, but it’s also very difficult to work with. Your subject is lit from behind, so for portraits some sort of fill will be necessary. A reflector can work wonders in this situation. When shooting with a cell phone or point and shoot camera, turn on the flash or use the HDR option, if available. For subjects where a reflector or fill flash is impractical, such as sports or wildlife, exposure compensation will be necessary to open up the shadows. Backlighting is nice in that it adds a nice rim light around your subject, really defining the outlines. It creates the perfect conditions for dramatic silhouettes as well.
Fog, mist, and clouds create a softer, more diffuse light that can at times be boring, but ultimately is easy to work with because it is so even, creating soft shadows that aren’t too deep, and soft highlights that aren’t too bright. It can create a mysterious or a dreamy mood depending on how thick it is. It can help create beautiful landscapes, a soft even light portraiture, and be desirable for shooting wildlife and sports due to the even light.
Paying attention to the light, watching how it falls on your subject, can help you improve your images, regardless of what you use to shoot them. Learn to recognize the type of light you’re in, and how best to work with it. Doing so will help you create better images.