Creative Use of Light – Part 1: Creating A Mood

mood-photo-lightCorfe Castle is located on the southern coast of England. Constructed by the Normans in the 10th century, it finally fell to the forces of Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s.

The castle ruins are, of themselves, an imposing structure. It would be difficult to take a shot of them that didn’t work and, of course, they have been photographed ad infinitum.

I was on assignment for PHOTOgraphic Magazine back in the early 1990s to photograph and write about English Castles and Cathedrals. Corfe, for obvious reasons, was one of my premier picks. But how was I to do it justice? It was mid-afternoon. The sun was starting to sink, so the light wasn’t too bad.

I shot the ruins from several angles and got some good shots. I was just about to wrap things up when I noticed some dark clouds moving in from the east. The sun was still shining but the sky was darkening quickly. I rushed frantically around the village looking for just the right spot. I found it just to the south of two public houses with a fine view of the ruins on the hilltop – actually, it’s called a motte.

I barely had time to set up when the clouds moved it. I managed only three frames before the sun was gone. Five minutes later, the rains came and I got soaked.

My point is simply this: the image absolutely screams “impending storm.” You can see it at The sunlight on the buildings and the dark clouds create a mood that no human could possibly duplicate.

In this instance it’s the lighting, not the subject, that stirs the viewer’s emotions.

Now take a look at this second image: also at

This one came with only seconds to spare. I was out looking for outhouses. Yes, I have a thing about old American facilities. The outhouse is one of our country’s disappearing historical oddities.

Anyway, many years ago, I’d photographed a rather unique double-seater. It was in disrepair then but, having just converted to digital format, I wanted to locate it again and get some new images.

I never did find that outhouse; a subdivision had been built on the spot where it had once stood (the lesson here is get it when you can). So, there I was, wandering the river bank and I came across the scene you see here.

It was early morning, just after 7am, and there was this bridge and the little boy, all alone, fishing. His folks were in a camper nearby. The mist on the river was enhanced by the early morning sun shining from the east. The light was changing rapidly. I had just time – no more than five minutes – to grab a few frames. I wasn’t sure if I’d gotten what I thought I might have, but when I loaded the images into the computer, there it was.

mood-photo-light2Does it create a mood? You bet it does: peace and tranquility, the joys of childhood, the quiet solitude of the early morning river bank and I would imagine you can think of even more.

Shots like these are not planned. They have to be taken when they are presented, and you have to think and act quickly.

Mood lighting often lasts only for a moment or so, sometimes only seconds. These are the shots that make the difference. These are the shots that will sell over and over again, because they tell a story, create a mood, and because they are one-of-a-kind.

Most often conditions like these will take you by surprise: you’d better be ready for them. Sometime, you can anticipate such conditions.

For instance: we all know that in the early mornings, especially in fall and spring, the mountain tops and the valley are shrouded in mist. So, get up early, grab your equipment and head out. As the legendry, though anonymous, prospector of old would have said: Thar’s gold in them thar hills.

So, how can you make light work for you? Well, first you have to learn how to analyze the light around you and then adjust your technique accordingly.

Four Key Elements

There are actually four elements of light that concern us as photographers: quality, direction, intensity and color.

Quality of Light, then, is the subject of the rest of this article. I’ll talk about the other three elements in other articles.

Light, and I’m talking mostly about natural light here, comes in two forms: hard and soft. That’s a very simple way of putting it, but it’s true. Let me explain:

Hard light is direct light. That means it comes directly from the source: the sun, a lamp, or a flash unit. It’s hard because it comes from a relatively small source. Hard light makes for very hard shadows.

The further away from the subject the source is, the harder the light will become. The sun, for instance is, in fact, an extremely small point of very bright light a long way away and, in its unfiltered form, it casts very harsh shadows. The same goes for a single lamp: one lamp pointed in any direction will cast very hard, harsh shadows. A flashlight, for example, casts a very tight, directional beam of light from a very small source and thus creates very hard shadows. We’ve all seen the harsh shadows cast by such a flashlight in a darkened room.

Your camera’s flash unit – in or off-camera – acts in much the same way. It too is a relatively small, directional light source and, unless it’s filtered, casts very harsh shadows. We’ve all seen those shots made by friends and family – those heavy black shadows on the wall behind the subject are a dead giveaway that a directional flash was used.

The point is: hard light makes good photography difficult.

Soft light is also directional, but there’s a big difference. It too is directional, but it’s almost always filtered in one way or another and thus is diffused.

In some cases it too will cast a shadow, but the shadow will be less defined, soft and unobtrusive. Soft light is what you get on an overcast day when the sun’s light is diffused by the clouds. Thus it offers a wonderful soft, overall illumination that renders the subject in a much more favorable light – sorry, no pun intended.

mood-photo-light3It’s for this reason that professional portrait photographers never use their flash units as a direct source of light. They either bounce it off the ceiling, out of an umbrella, or through a softbox – a large box fitted around the flash head with a large diffusing screen to the front through which the light is filtered.

They want their light to be soft and diffused. And you can do the same thing. You can buy a small diffuser that fits over the flash head, or you can do things really quickly and cheaply by simply taping a tissue over it. This will diffuse the light sufficiently to soften it and the shadows it creates.

Now I need to back up for a minute because, at first glance one would think that only soft, diffused light will work for us photographers, but that’s not really true.

Each of the two forms of light has its place in good photography. The creative use of hard light can make for dramatic images full of impact and life, while the creative use of soft light can generate images full of mystery and imagination, of atmosphere and sentiment.

In good photography there’s a place for both forms of light. It’s up to us, as photographers, to assess the situation and apply our knowledge and expertise to make whatever type of light we have available work for us rather than against us.

In Creative Use of Light Part 2 we’ll look at ways to use the Direction of Light to create stunning photographs.

Copyright © Blair Howard 2006

Blair Howard is the Chief Creative Officer at The American Institute of Photojournalism He is a full-time writer, photographer, instructor.

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