Learn To Read The Light

Subtle changes can make the difference between a magnificent image and a mediocre one

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.

Visit www.russburdenphotography.com for information about his nature photography tours.


    Crummy article. Subtle changes in light indeed. If you want to claim an article about light having subtle differences, then you should show the same subject in a bunch of different lighting.

    And the elephant looks flat.

    @ sherwood botsford,please take a happy pill and stop making childish comments.

    Thanks for putting this article together Russ,i did learn something new about the fact that thicker clouds do flatten out an image and the 90 degree angle to the sun is something i must put into practice,cheers.

    Sherwood, It seems these periodic articles are intended for beginners to get them intrigued to learn more. The comparison you suggest might be the 2nd or 3rd in a series at this level, but if the writer is trying to capture the widest possible range on this topic, in a piece short enough to keep beginners’ attention, it is probably just about the right balance. I stopped expecting to learn something for myself in these some time ago, but use them to expand my view on how to teach young or new shooters.

    Sherwood, not all articles are intended to help everyone. like the saying goes “take what’s useful and disregard the rest.” Don’t be rude just because it wasn’t geared directly at your needs.

    Hmmmmmm – wasn’t my intention to stir up controversy! Glad the vast majority can glean some info from this week’s tip. It’s tough to please everyone all the time. Appreciate everyone’s support!!!!!! BTW – the light on the elephant is a bit flat in that the example is one for front light which produces flat light……… It’s the color of the light that adds intrigue.

    I don’t consider myself a beginner–at all– yet I still expect to learn something each time I read one of Mr. Burden’s articles. As good as I hope to become, I hope I’ll never think that I know everything. Someone else’s input is always fresh, and I always appreciate it.

    Hi Russ,
    Thanks for the article. I recently picked up interest in amateur photography after I realized how much I had spent buying art work. I have also read an article about how to use speedlite to fill in the light to counter the sun’s harsh light. The problem is remembering these tips once out there. I guess practice, practice, practice will make it second nature.
    Again, thanks.

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