Seeing the Light

The one thing that can make or break a photograph is your understanding of light.  It's all too easy to get caught up which lenses we want, or how the different modes work on our camera, but understanding light is actually the most crucial element of photography.  It doesn't matter whether you have a DSLR or a point and shoot, or you are even just taking a snap on your i-phone - if you take a moment to assess the light and work with it, your images will improve immensely.

When we see an object we are basically seeing the light reflected from it.  When we take a photograph our cameras capture those light rays on the sensor (photography essentially means "light writing" ) For the purposes of taking great images, we need to know how light affects our images, and how we can control it and use it to our advantage.  Today, I'm just going to give an overview on the different ways light affects our images (Please note that I'm generally talking about natural light here - thousands can be spent on getting the light exactly how you want it in a studio but I prefer the free version - the sun!)

Exposure is essentially how light or dark the scene is. We generally strive to reach an exposure that looks like how we saw the scene with our eyes.  We have looked a lot at how we try to get that correct exposure in camera by first understanding how our camera "sees" light,  the different ways your camera can measure for it, and how we can compensate to get the exposure right in camera. Knowing how the tones in your image will impact on exposure helps you to get this right in camera.

Light also has color and this can vary greatly depending on the light source, whether it is cloudy or sunny, and even the time of day.  These different tones can be warm or cool, and are measured in Kelvin (You may have heard about using Kelvin for white balance) For example, sunlight might measure around 5600K during the day, but can drop to 4000K in late evening. Lightbulbs measure at around 3200k.  Our eyes automatically adjust so we don't see these color temperatures but our camera can't. This is why we set our white balance either by choosing the appropriate light source WB in camera,  or using a grey card to set the white balance manually.

Yes, believe it or not, you can get good or bad light. Light can be either hard or soft, and generally speaking, softer light is much more flattering for most types of photography. The time of day you take your photographs in is very important to get good light quality.  For example, the sun's light is at it's strongest at around noon, which creates a very harsh light.  Very few photographers will schedule a photo shoot at this time because the light at this time is very unflattering for portraits.  The best time to take photographs is an hour before or after sunrise, as the light is much softer then - and ultimately more flattering. However, if you cannot manage this (I have yet to get myself and Callum up and dressed for that time of day!) then still try to get your pictures earlier or later in the day when the sunlight is a bit softer.  Cloudy days are also great for portrait shots - the clouds diffuse the harsh light of the sun and act like a giant softbox, making it pleasing and soft.

The direction of light is also very important.  Again, midday is not a good time for taking pictures due to the direction the light will fall. As the sun is high above your head, shadows fall straight down giving your subjects shadows under the eyes or chin. Shooting earlier or later on in the day will give a better direction of light as the sun is lower to the ground. Another thing to think about is the position of your subject in relation to the light source. A photograph can look very different depending on whether it is side, front or back lit.  Side lit can give your portrait more depth and add more visual interest.  Back-lit images are more hazy and produce dreamy images. Lighting from the front creates even skin tones and great catchlights in the eyes (make sure that with front lit your subject is not having to squint)  Each can provide glorious, yet very different images.

This was just an introduction to light - there are going to be a few tutorials coming up on light, including how to use the light to create different portrait shots (side-lit, back-lit etc) how to read and understand a histogram to check exposure, tricks for seeing and understanding the direction of the light, and even how to use Kelvin for white balance (gosh, I'm going to be busy!) but hopefully this will start to make you aware of how important light is in your photographs, and therefore why we should strive to understand it.

If you have questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below!


Jan said...

excited about this series! as i was trying to get a christmas card picture of the family yesterday, i propped the camera up on my colander that's filled with bibs and whatnot that was on to of our piano bench. i did this so that we could all face the window light. it was pretty funny!

Kristen said...

I was hoping you would do a tutorial on Kelvin! Looking forward to it.

Audrey said...

Hey Jan - Oh the things we do to get good light! I have a tripod but must confess to using a set more like yours most of the time! (When i remember to get in the frame!)

Audrey said...

Hi Kristen - glad to hear it! I've got so many ideas for posts at the moment so it's nice to know people are looking forward to them!

Paola said...

I'm very excited about the upcoming tutorial's on light. Finding the perfect light frustrates me beyond words, i sometimes feel like the skin tones get an orange tint when i am photographing my kids late in the afternoon, do you have any suggestions? Thank you so much for making your blog so detailed and easy to understand, i love it!

Audrey said...

Hi Paola, skin tones is so hard to get right, I'm afraid that is a tutorial all on it's own! (and something I still struggle with) Generally, if your photo is looking too warm, you will need to add in some blue to counter it when you are editing, or you can change your white balance setting when taking the picture so that it adds a little blue. I know it's a bit of a vague answer - I'll make sure I go into this as I go along on the blog. Hope this helps for now.

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