How Light Can Be Used in Photography

Photography cannot exist without light. From the beginning of photography, the only element that had to be present for photography to exist was light, and this is still true today. Use of light in photography needs to be understood to make photos stand out from your everyday snapshot. One needs to know how the position of light will make or break the photo.

lighting in portraiture

“Brooklyn” captured by Gagan Dhiman

Most professional photographers, with the exception of studio photographers who have total control of the light, usually stay away from midday sunlight. This type of light creates harsh shadows and gives very strong highlights. The result is strong contrast, which looks normal to the human eye but is usually well beyond the dynamic range of most film and digital cameras. Shooting in strong midday sun will cause your subjects to lose much of their detail. The preferred light types for photographers who shoot outside are sidelight, backlight, twilight, front light, and light from overcast days, also referred to as diffused light.

Types of Light

Sidelight reveals form and texture. It brings even the smallest wrinkles and details to life. The best times for sidelight are about one hour after dawn and one hour before sunset.

side light in portraiture

“The Face of Chennai” captured by Wayne Crichlow

Front light occurs when the light source is behind the photographer. This type of light produces saturation in color and contrast and brings out detail. The best times for front light are early in the morning or late in the day. Because most of the light will be directly aimed at the subject, your camera readings are usually quite accurate.

horse photography

“Appalousa” captured by Carlotta Grenier

Backlight refers to instances when the light source is behind the subject. It is mostly used by photographers to create silhouettes. This type of lighting can be tricky to handle. It’s best to take a reading directly from the subject and set the controls manually. You should also bracket some of the shots and choose the best one afterward. A word of caution when using back-light: lens flare (light which directly hits the lens and bounces inside it) is common. A good lens hood is recommended.

sunset light in photography

“Boracay Sunset” captured by Ina Hillier

Twilight is the chosen light for landscape photography. When the sun is just below the horizon, the landscape is illuminated by the sky. When photographing at twilight, your exposure time will be longer than at other times of day, so use a tripod. This type of light will usually impart an orange to red/yellow cast to most shots, often with dramatic results.

twilight photography

“Setting Sun” captured by Ina Hillier

Overcast/diffused light is the preferred light source for many professionals. Overcast skies render light that is soft and diffused. Colors are more saturated, fine details are more visible, camera readings are more exact without regards to your aim spot, and shadows are less pronounced. You can also use diffusers to control the outside light. An example would be to hold a white cloth over a flower while shooting in direct sunlight.

outdoor travel photography

“Sắc màu chợ phiên Đồng Văn” captured by Cao Nguyen

Light Modifiers

Flash. Some photographers specialize in flash photography outside or in the studio. For nature shots, flash can bring out unnatural highlights, so its use is not suggested unless your subject is partially hidden within heavy brush or foliage, and of course at night or when no light is available.

Reflectors. Reflectors, which are nothing more than white, silver, or gold colored reflective materials, are widely used for shooting outdoors, especially on heavily overcast days or for macro shots in wooded areas. Most reflectors can be made at home, but they are not that expensive if you choose to buy one. I use the reflective sunscreen/visor that I use on my car windshield.

About the Author
This article was written by Luis E Gonzalez He enjoys photography and has been doing so professionally and independently for over 30 years. He’s also had several photographs and articles published in local and national publications.

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