Quality Of Light

Beyond illumination, there is the mood of a photograph
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Family and friends have to get used to a photographer’s definition of good shooting conditions. They’ll ask, “How’s the weather out?”, whereas a photographer will ask, “How’s the light?” One of the key components of any photograph—whether you’re working in a studio or outdoors—is the quality of light. The “feel” of the light in a photograph often can determine its visual impact.

Mood: Hard Versus Soft Light. On a sunny day at noon, you’ll be faced with hard, defined shadows. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t bother taking my camera with me during the middle of the day; the light is really bad.” Fortunately, I was taught by photo icon Jay Maisel that “there’s no such thing as ‘bad light.’” What if that’s the only time you’re able to photograph! Keep an open mind and try to work with the light you have; it’s a great exercise.

A small, collapsible reflector is a must-have in your camera bag to use as a baffle or reflector. When photographing a closeup of grapes, I was able to bounce light using a small reflector, which allowed me to shape the light and control it a bit more.

What happens when you’re faced with the other extreme—cloud cover? An early snowfall in Vermont became a gift on a very cold morning. The sky turned into one giant softbox. The air was thick with moisture, and the low-hanging clouds produced muted, painterly light enveloping the lakefront area. I experimented with depth of field and selective focus to exaggerate the soft, almost ethereal feel of the scene.

Color Temperature: Warm And Cool. Many variables affect the color temperature of light such as time of year, time of day, atmospheric conditions, altitude and shade, to name a few. The beauty of digital is that you can set your white balance on the camera to match specific color temperature conditions (degrees Kelvin) to render white as white and colors as “true,” or you can accentuate a warm or cool tone. The pleasing warm light of a sunrise or sunset can be warmed up even more (liquid golden light) by fine-tuning your white balance or setting the white balance to cloudy or shade. A fun trick at the other end of the white-balance scale is to experiment with incandescent white balance and turn ordinary blue into deep, dramatic cobalt blue.

Go Back. When you find an interesting scene, go back! Document how the changes in light throughout the day (and evening) affect the subject matter. And don’t forget to turn around while you’re photographing sunrises and sunsets. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the light changes all around you.

Nikon School of Photography is a nationally traveling one-day photography seminar. Designed for basic to intermediate photographers, the Nikon School covers technical and aesthetic topics and demonstrates ways to take advantage of evolving digital SLR camera and software technologies. For information on locations and dates, contact Nikon School at www.nikonschool.com, (631) 547-8666.