How to Best Work with Light in Your Photography


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There's a lot that goes into photography. As you gain experience, you may not even notice what you put into it. Think about composition for instance. When was the last time you really thought about composition? I'm not sure I can remember my last time. That's not to say that I don't think about it. It just means that I don't consciously think about it. I've gotten to the point in my photography that I have a feel for things and I don't have to sit and consider them for very long.

If you think about the four elements of what makes a great photo; light, composition, subject and timing, you'll find that each of these elements is thought about less and less as you get better and better at what you do. I already mentioned composition, but I'd say the same is true for subject and timing as well. Subject is easier to deal with than timing is, but the one that still trips me up is light. Light can make or break a photo and it's something that needs to be thought about because it can be ever changing when outdoors in nature. There's actually a post written in this forum that discusses light as a subject.

We already know that composition is where it's at with photography. Some photographers choose to stand and take a photo of an average leaf at eye height, straight on. Others prefer to lie on their backs while pointing their camera straight up at the bottom of the leaf. The second group of photographers would most likely capture a more interesting photograph because he/she took it from an angle we don't often see things from. That's the trick when it comes to composition. People like images of things they don't often see. Either that or of things that are just so beautiful that it doesn't matter if we've seen them before. This is what we'd refer to as a strong composition.

Let's get to the subject of light. Light is everywhere. It can stem from the foreground, background, underneath, above and just about anywhere else in a scene. The challenge is to harness and control that light so it better serves your subject. Light can detract from and emphasize a subject and it's important to consider this when photographing. The question is, how can we use the light to make our photos interesting for others to view and to make us, as photographers, proud of our shots?

Below, I'll discuss a few methods and tricks that I think you'll find useful when dealing with light in your photography.

1. Use light to give your photo focus. Think about taking a picture from the top of a mountain, across a landscape with a lake below. Beautiful scene, right? Now think about that photo being taken on a cloudy day. Still beautiful? Probably not. Now think about those clouds breaking up to reveal a few rays of sunshine hitting the lake in the landscape down below. Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Have you ever seen rays of sunshine that hit a side of a mountain, a valley or some other natural feature that would otherwise be sort of boring? The light wakes things right up and draws the viewers eye directly towards the area in which it's shining. So, use that light as the focus of your shots. It won't be available all the time, but when it is, you better have your camera in hand.

2. Shadows are your friends. Oftentimes, light creates interesting shadows. Take a look at this photograph.


Need I say more? Can you imagine this shot without the light or the shadow? If you think about how shadows work, you'll find that they truly are dynamic creatures. They change and they lead the viewer's eye into the source of the shadow. Shadows create lines and can section off parts of a scene to emphasize other parts. Use them to your advantage.

3. Light creates color. I think one of the most depressing things about mid-winter is the lack of color. Oftentimes, winter days are cloudy and dreary and it's the lack of light and resulting color that gets folks down. It's not until there's a break in the clouds and the sun shines through that people say, "Hey, winter isn't so bad after all." It's true, when the sun shines, color appears. When it comes to photography, you should take advantage of the color that light creates. Light doesn't simply shine on things. It actually creates contrasting and complementary colors as a result of its shining. If you take a look at the image above once more, you'll find and orange color on the snow with a blue sky. Does this day appear to be dull and dreary? I don't think so. So find the color that light produces and take your photos based on those colors.

Remember, light doesn't always need to be overt or intrusive to be noticed. It can consist of a mere glow that accentuates other objects in a scene. Take a look at this photo that was taken during the blue hour, after the sun went down. If you look closely, you'll see stars in this shot. the true beauty though, lies in the tree line that's set against the sky.


4. The result of angled light on a rough surface is texture. Next time you're hiking in the snow as the sun is going down, kneel down close to the snow. Take a careful look at all the tiny shadows that have formed because of the angle of the sun. If you were to do this at high noon, you wouldn't see any shadows, but since you're doing it during the golden hour, you'll likely see a texture across the surface of the snow.

You're not limited to the snow when it comes to engaging in an exercise like this. Texture can be found almost anywhere in nature; on the bark of a tree, ripples of water in a stream, almost anywhere you look at closely enough. Use the light that's at an angle to discover new textures that you may not have seen otherwise.

5. Don't get hung up on bad light. I'm sure you've said to yourself at one point or another, "Man, this light is terrible." I know. I've been there a thousand times. I used to get completely bummed when my chosen photography day would be overcast or completely rained out. The thing is, bad light can produce wonderful images. Have you ever seen photography that was taken on a rainy day? Or maybe a cloudy day? Fog? Mist? Were those shots nice? I think some of them are lovely if captured correctly. They are moody and depressing and everything in between. Photography doesn't always need to be uplifting and stunning. Sometimes it can be somber and sad. Something like a photo of friends and relatives standing at a funeral in the rain. That would be appropriate because the mood of the day and the actual event would match the lighting and the rain. You wouldn't want cheerful sunshine in an image light that.

Also, overcast days are perfect for long exposure photography. If you take these types of images in the sunshine, you'll get high peaks and low valleys on your histogram. If you, say, take a long exposure photo of a waterfall on a cloudy day, your dynamic range will be much easier to work with during post-processing.

6. Consider your direction. Light can come from four places; top, side, front and back. Each direction dictates where you want to take your shot from. If the light is coming directly from above and you're photographing a flower, you might want to shoot straight down or straight up. If it's coming from the side, you'll want to shoot from the side as well, capturing the light on one side of your subject and a shadow on the other. This creates contrast. My favorite by far is backlighting. I love it when the sun shines through the trees directly at me. Those trees break the sun up and form rays that I find appealing. I've also taken tons of shots that were directly into the sun when it hangs low in the sky. I know people shy away from doing that, but I love it. Talk about creating a mood.

7. Atmosphere creates depth. If you've got mist in the air, you're in for a treat if you're out there photographing. When the light hits the mist, an atmosphere is created and you'll see all sorts of depth. Depth is wonderful for photography because it, again, creates mood. And feeling. And that's what it's all about. Atmosphere and fog also separate subjects from one another in a scene and diffuses the light in the atmosphere so the resulting photo is somewhat softer than it would have been if the fog or atmosphere wasn't present. The results can be beautiful.

Well, that sums it up. Please let me know your thoughts on light as it pertains to photography and add your comments below. Thanks!