Using Light in Photography

Light. It affects everything we do. Without it, we could see nothing. Our photographs would look strangely similar...plain black. Light can be what sets one photograph above another. This brings to mind when I went to the local fair this summer. Of course I went to the building with the photography exhibits. As I was browsing the pictures, I came across two prints of Mount Rushmore. They were almost exactly the same shot as far as focal length and composition went. The difference was the light. One was taken on a clear day. The sky was cloudless and a washed out blue. The light was harsh, and there were severe highlights and shadows. The competitor's shot was taken on a day with thin dappled clouds. It had a very pleasant sky--not grey, or washed out blue--but just very nice clouds. The resulting light was a soft, warm, diffused light. The landscape was a warm color and was very evenly lit, although not lacking soft shadows. It was obvious which was the winner- and all because of the type of light.

I'm going to touch on a couple basic types of light. This is a very commonly discussed photographic topic, so I won't do it justice. I'm not an expert either, but I'll do what I can. I'll first talk about the various directions of light, then I'll go through the types of light.

To start with, we'll discuss the front light.

This landscape is almost lit with a complete front light. There are still some shadows, but you get the idea. Front light is the least appealing. It does not reveal details as other lights do. The image looks FLAT. The reason I have front lit images is because I was not able to be at this landscape during a more appealing time of day.

The next direction of light I'll bring up is the side light. The side light is much more appealing than the front light because it reveals details in the texture on the object. It gives a sense of depth to the image.

The most dramatic direction of light is the backlight. This reveals the shape of the object.

With silhouettes, this emphasizes the outline of the object. With translucent objects, such as the hoarfrost crystals, it shows this textures and patterns in the substance of which the object is made. This light can be used VERY effectively to produce amazing images.

Now onto the types of light.

I'll start with the worst light. Hard light. This light is not, or is barely, diffused. It does not render very attractive images, in the most part. There will be a large dynamic range (or high contrast), and therefore there will be shadows and extreme highlights. Avoid using it as much as possible.

A much prefered 'texture' of light is

diffused light. 'Diffused' means that the light is being softened and evenly redistributed by a semi-transparent material, whether it is clouds, an umbrella (not the rain-resistant kind- the photographic kind), or something similar. This creates a more gradual transition from highlights to shadows. This tends to be much more pleasing on most subjects. You just have to work around the grey sky. :)

Another light that makes use of an overcast sky is dappled light. This is a very interesting light and adds a cool effect to landscapes. Sometimes you can line up dappled light perfectly to highlight a key element of a composition. This is more specificly called 'spotlighting'. Unfortunately, I do not have a good example of this.

In general, the best time of day to photograph something is in the morning or evening. That is because the light is often softer and has an attractive color to it. A good example of this is Alpenglow, as illustrated on the right.

You can also photograph light itself, but that's a different article. :)

Photo credits: , Elimitchell.

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I'm glad you found it interesting.


Thank you for the informative article.


Thanks for all your comments.


I want more light... :) Thanks for the great article!


Great images! Thanks for the useful tips!


beautiful photo.


Great article:)


Thanks, Fultonsphoto. It's almost quarter of my portfolio. :)


Nice blog and some good examples with nice pics.


Thank you for your comment.


Great blog.


Thanks for the comment. That is very true.


Good tutorial. Light can be your friend or your enemy.

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