We need to learn how to read the light in photography if we’re going to capture great photographs. Whenever we take a photograph, we encounter light.
Reading the light in photography can be a challenge. For example, if you lift your camera to the sky, the lens will draw in all the light you’re pointing at, and if you’re shooting into the sun, the light will most probably overexpose your image, or underexpose it. Why is this?
Light is one of the most important elements of photography, and understanding the different types of light will greatly increase your chances of producing better photographs. In this tutorial I’ll give you some tips to help you use the light effectively in your photography.
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There are several main types of light that we should be aware of such as natural light, artificial light, and diffused light. But more than this, there is hard light, soft light and reflected light. Your understanding of these will make a huge difference to the quality of your photography.
Natural light is light that comes from the sun, and it can be quite varied depending on the time of day, the weather, and the location. Early morning and late afternoon light, known as “golden hour,” is often considered the most attractive for photography because it is soft and warm.
The science behind the golden hours is related to the angle at which sunlight hits the earth’s surface. During the golden hours, the sun is low in the sky, which means its light has to travel through a longer distance in the Earth’s atmosphere before reaching the ground.
This can cause the light to become scattered and diffused, creating a softer, more warm and pleasing quality. It can also be used to create a dreamy, ethereal atmosphere.
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It’s worth noting that the exact timing of the golden hours can vary depending on your location, the time of year, and other factors such as cloud cover and atmospheric conditions. However, generally speaking, the golden hours occur around sunrise and sunset.
If you venture out to take photographs outside of the golden hours, when the sun is high in the sky, its light travels through a shorter distance in the atmosphere and is therefore more direct.
You’ll notice the light is much harder, producing harsher, most contrasted light, which is never kind to people’s faces for portraits as its very strong and causes harsh shadows. but it can also be used to create dramatic, high-contrast images.
So, to turn this hard light into soft light we use a reflector to make it ‘reflected’ light. The reflector will diffuse the harsh effects of the sun and spread the light out to make it feel softer on your subject.
We also use filters to help diffuse the light, such as Neutral Density filters, which help to control the power of the light when it hits your lens.
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There is no ‘wrong’ time to take photos, but it’s really worth understanding the effects of different lighting conditions to help you plan your photo shoots effectively.
During a cloudy day, the light can be perfect for portraits, as the clouds act as a diffuser to spread the light of the sun more evenly, removing shadows and creating a much better lighting situation for portraits.
Artificial light is light that is created by man-made sources, such as flash units, studio strobes, and household lamps. Artificial light can be very harsh and direct, so it is important to use diffusers such as soft boxes, bed sheets and scrims to soften it before it reaches your subject.
Front lighting is light that comes from the direction of the camera and illuminates the front of the subject. This type of lighting is often used for headshots and can be very flat and uninteresting if not used carefully.
Side lighting is light that comes from the side of the subject and creates strong shadows and highlights. This type of lighting can be very dramatic and is often used to create a sense of depth and dimension in an image.
Backlighting is light that comes from behind the subject and creates a rim of light around the edges of the subject. This type of lighting can be very beautiful and is often used to create a halo effect or to separate the subject from the background.
Another important aspect of light in photography is color temperature, which is measured in degrees Kelvin. Different light sources have different color temperatures, and this can have a significant impact on the overall tone of a photograph.
For example, warm light with a low color temperature (such as candlelight) will give a photograph a cozy, intimate feel, while cool light with a high color temperature (such as daylight) will give a photograph a crisp, clean look.
To understand the different types of light and how to use them effectively in your photography, it is helpful to experiment with a variety of lighting setups and observe the results.
Try going out into a landscape in the middle of the day, when the sun is producing hard light, and then return at golden hour to see the difference the softer light makes.
It’s also good to experiment with portraits using natural light through a window, or diffused light with a bedsheet in front of the window.
It’s amazing to see the effects of different lighting situations. With practice, you will become more adept at manipulating light to achieve the desired mood and atmosphere in your photographs.