If you want to improve your photography, it’s imperative you learn how to interpret the amount, angle, direction, intensity, color and contrast of the light. Subtle changes can make the difference between a magnificent image and a mediocre one. The word “photography” literally means “to write with light.” Light is what shapes a subject. It’s what separates it from the background. It’s what adds warmth or coolness to the picture. It’s what fabricates burned out highlights and/or blocked up shadows. I’ll be the first to argue that composition, the subject, and the background all play an important role in determining the success of an image. But when push comes to shove, number 1 on my list of variables over which I’d choose to have complete control is “Light.”
Diffused Light: If the light is diffused, it’s dispersed far and wide. The result is soft and shadowless and it wraps around the subject. If you photograph people outdoors, you can place the subject anywhere as you don’t need to battle the bright sun. Bright sun creates hard, contrasty results. Diffused light works well for flowers, people, cars, any subjects with a high gloss finish, wildlife, etc. There are different degrees of diffusion. A thin layer of clouds that diffuses the sun is the best. There’s still some sparkle to the light and there’s some life to the color. As clouds thicken, the amount of light decreases. If you need a fast shutter speed, you’ll have to bump up the ISO. Another disadvantage to thicker clouds is the color becomes more gray and is very flat. When clouds are thick, the resulting images are weak.
Angle of the Light: Many nature photographers do most of their shooting at sunrise and sunset. Sidelight creates shadows and highlights across any subjects that have texture. Here’s where the focus of the article comes into play. If the low angle of the sun is at your back, even if the subject is textured, it won’t be revealed. Front lit subjects can’t exhibit highlights and shadows as the light is very flat. On the other hand, if you move so the sun is positioned ninety degrees to your left or right, it will put you in a perfect location to show off shadows and highlights - the subject is now side lit. The more you transition from the ninety degree point to the front light position, the less texture. It’s these nuances that can make or break an image that either needs to be front lit or side lit. As you become a better light reader, you’ll know what you need to do to make the image better or decide to photograph a different subject in that the angle of the light is not conducive to creating a good photo.
Color of the Light: As I stated just above, many photographers shoot at sunrise and sunset. Not only does it allow texture to be revealed, the color is much warmer. Over the course of daylight hours, note how the color of the light changes. The transitions are much more dramatic in the morning and evening. At the moment the sun crests the horizon, the light is very warm. If you simply watched it over the course of an hour, you’d see it transition from a golden yellow to blue. From two hours after the sun rises until two hours before sunset, the differences in color are less perceptible. The same scenario that occurs at sunrise is repeated at sunset but the colors are reversed. They transition from blue to a golden yellow or reddish warm color. They happen quickly and are very distinguishable.
The more you’re out in the field studying the angle and quality of every lighting situation, the sooner you’ll realize how it impacts the subject. They key is to not only learn to read the light, but what you need to do when it’s good or how to modify it if it’s not. The better you become at recognizing the nuances of light, the better your photos will become. You’ll know when to seize the opportunity if the light is fantastic or to simply move on if it’s poor.
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