See the Light

Posted by on Jul 6, 2013 in Techniques | 0 comments

See the Light

The beauty of a mantra is that it reminds you of key actions or important items by using a simple phrase. I have spoken previously about my mantra for taking photos – BE CALM for better photos. This breaks down to a number of simple areas you should consider prior to taking a photo.

Breathe (basically take the time to think before pushing the shutter) & Examine, Composition, Angle, Light and Mood. In previous posts I have discussed Composition and Angle, today I would like to talk about Light.

Shayne by Ken Dickson 1/125sec @ f8, ISO 100 Canon 7d with Sigma 105mm lens

Shayne by Ken Dickson
1/125sec @ f8, ISO 100
Canon 7d with Sigma 105mm lens

The simple phrase of Light can actually lead to some very complex areas of photography, especially if you start bringing flash into the equation. In this post, I will just cover a few of the simple aspects of light and talk mostly about daylight, getting the basics first is an important base to our learning.

The Light in a photograph is arguably the most important aspect of all, it is after all the element for which our art form is named with the word photo being the Greek word for light. Without light we do not get a photograph and without an understanding of how to use light correctly we do not get great photographs.

Light in our images can be defined in a number of ways:

Early Riser

Early Riser by Ken Dickson
0.3sec @ f19, ISO 100
Canon 40d with Canon 17-85mm lens

Hard light – The best example of hard light is sunlight on a bright sunny day. The light is very direct and it casts deep, well defined shadows. The time of day has a very significant effect on our use of hard light. In the middle of the day with the sun directly overhead shadows are cast directly down and this does not create flattering portrait images at all, with the eyes normally being very dark. The beginning or end of the day is often termed by photographers as the golden hour because the sunlight comes to us from a very low angle with shadows being cast across the scene emphasizing texture. The colour of the light at this time of day is also alter due to the atmosphere it travels through, so you get very nice red and orange tones.


Soft Light – On overcast days or when we utilse shady areas, we get soft light. You will find this type of light produces soft shadows without strong edges. It allows us to provide pleasing photos as the light is more evenly distributed across our subject, the danger is of course that we can get a lack of contrast due to the lack of sharp shadows. You will find that soft light is especially pleasing for portraits, pictures of flowers or images inside forest areas. The shady areas or overcast day will lead to a drop in shutter speed so beware of that and pull out the tripod if things get too slow.

In addition to the type of light, the position that we put that light relative to our subject will have a great effect on the final photo. We need to account for the light direction when composing our image in order to achieve our desired outcome for the photo.

Frontal light – Imaging you are taking a photograph of a person with the sun behind you, it is striking the subject full on the face. In this case any shadows in the image will be cast behind the person, this has the effect of flattening the appearance of the photo, it will lack depth. This is normally the easiest exposure for your camera but is also distracting as the subject can be squinting.

Nicky #4 by Ken Dickson 1/800 sec @ f2.8, ISO 100 Canon 7d with Sigma 105mm lens

Nicky #4 by Ken Dickson
1/800 sec @ f2.8, ISO 100
Canon 7d with Sigma 105mm lens

Side Lighting – Now take that person and turn around so that the sunlight is from your right hand side, shadows will now be cast across the person’s face. the shadows will help show texture and shape on the person’s face and you will get an image that is significantly more interesting. The same affect applies to landscapes, as mentioned the Golden hour at the start of end of a day sees the light raking across the ground using shadows to emphasis texture.


Alex by Ken Dickson
1/200 sec @ f18, ISO 100
Canon 7d with Canon 50mm lens

Back lighting – If you were to now place that person between the you and sun. You end up with back lighting which is going to be the toughest exposure to get right on the camera. Basically you are going to end up with a big bright area behind the person which if not controlled will make your subject dark. You can use this set up to achieve some wonderful silhouette images or you can use a setting like spot metering to ensure the subject is well exposed but the background will remain very bright.

Pelican sunrise by Ken Dickson 1/2000 sec @ f5.6, ISO 100 Canon 40d with Sigma 100-300mm lens

Pelican sunrise by Ken Dickson
1/2000 sec @ f5.6, ISO 100
Canon 40d with Sigma 100-300mm lens

So when it comes to thinking about Light in our images as part of the BE CALM mantra, start thinking about 2 basics, What type of light do I have? and what direction is it coming from? Considering those two options, how would you change either of those options to better achieve the outcome you desire for your photo?

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