Learning How to See Light

One of the basic concepts that will take your photography to the next level is the ability to see light.   Most photographers don’t really know how to see light, and will just produce snapshots, with maybe an occasional “really good picture”.  The key to great photography is to know why an image is great, and what separates it from an ordinary snapshot.

Depending on what type of photographs you create, you will use the light that you see differently.

How To See Light

You need to look for it!

Look around you throughout the day.  Look at what produces light. Look at shadows and highlights caused by light.  Look at sunlight, and artificial light.  Look at light indoors and out.  Look at diffused light, reflected light, indirect light  Once you really learn to SEE the light around you, you will see it everywhere, and your photography will greatly improve.

Different types of light

Direct light is the light coming directly from an unmodified light Soft, indirect window lightsource.

Diffused light is that has been softened in some way.  The curtains on your window produced diffused light.  An overcast sky is an example of diffused light

Reflected or deflected light is light that has been redirected.  A mirror is a common reflector, but a white wall also reflects light.

Indirect light is light that wraps around an object.  Examples of indirect light could be standing just under the roof of a porch or overhang, or just to the side of direct sunlight coming through a window.  Another great place to find beautiful indirect light is from a north-facing window if you are in the northern hemisphere or a south-facing window of you are in the southern hemisphere.

Bride was under an overhang and lit with indirect sunlight
Bride was under an overhang and lit with indirect sunlight

The light just before sunrise, or just after sunset could also be considered indirect light.  This type of lighting can produce a beautiful glow and is a favorite with nature and landscape photographers.

 Quality of light

In regards to light quality, there are two types: Hard light and Soft light.  Hard light produces strong shadows, while soft light produces soft, diffused shadows.  Here’s a great principle to remember when dealing with quality of light:    The larger the light source, the softer the light.  In contrast, the smaller the light source, the harder the light.

You can easily see this illustrated by comparing a bright, sunny day to an overcast day.  On an overcast day, the sky becomes one huge light source, like a massive softbox.  You will notice soft, even lighting, with almost no shadows.  On a sunny day, the sun (although quite large in comparison to the earth) is quite a small light source in comparison to the whole sky.  It will produce harsh shadows and specular highlights.

Along the same line, a close light source will produce softer shadows than an identical light source further away.

Many portrait photographers will use six foot tall (or larger) softboxes in their studios to produce beautiful soft light with diffused shadows.  In contrast, a photographer may use a small, undiffused light source to produce harder lighting with strong shadows.

Direct light and some reflected light (like a mirror) produces a harder light, while indirect, diffused, and most reflect light produces softer light.

Once you learn how to see light, your photography will greatly improve.

Another important aspect of lighting is color temperature or white balance.  Read more here.


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