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Do you speak light?

The prow of a fishing boat is caught in evening sunlight, as dark storm clouds approach. Note the warmth of the low sunlight, the contrast against the sky, the texture of the hull and the interesting shadows on the mast. This is a straight shot from the camera, without any enhancement in image manipulation software.

Light is the language of photography. To express yourself well and communicate you need to be able to speak with light.

Light determines what you see (and what you don’t see); the mood of an image; colour and tone. Light can be loud and brash or soft, gentle and soothing. It can wrap around something or cut across it as hard and sharp as a Samurai sword.

People have probably been writing about the qualities of light and how to use it in relation to photography from the moment the first print was made. Google “light in photography” and you will get millions of hits (well actually 68,800,000 hits to be entirely accurate).

In the past I’ve been complimented for explaining things clearly in plain language. So here goes on the subject of light…

Things to consider about lighting when you are about to make a photograph:

  • What do I want to communicate about my subject? Consider, personality, mood, clarity, what you want to emphasise?
  • What do you want to show and what do you want to hide?
  • Pick your view point with the light in mind. Can you control the light within your frame? Can you make it say what you want it to say about your subject?
  • How can you improve the light? By adding flash, using constant light sources, bouncing light, using reflectors, covering windows with a translucent material, using black cloth to absorb light, using Gobos and flags between the light source and subject, using gels, waiting for a different time of day etc

Here’s some layman’s science to help you understand light

The size of the light source and its distance to the subject affect how hard or soft it is and how deep the shadows will be. A larger light source like a softbox, large window, umbrella flash or bounced flash will produce a softer light. The smaller the light source the harder the light and stronger the shadows. Diffusion simply comes down to making a light source bigger in relation to the subject.

Light always hits your subject at an angle, whether it is straight from the front, at 90 degrees, behind, top, bottom or from many angles simultaneously. The angle of the light dramatically affects the look of the subject.

Light has colour, specifically it has a colour temperature, which means it can be warm, cool or neutral. The colour we see depends on the wavelength of the light reflected off the object we are looking at. Colour deeply affects our emotions. Warm colours seem to come forward while cold colours recede. Using colour of light in this way is a classic way to create a sense of depth and visual tension in an image.

The quality of the light will be affected by its intensity. For example the same flash reflected off a silver umbrella has a harsher quality than if it were reflected off a white umbrella surface.

So if you want to speak the language of light here’s a quick checklist you should run in your head:

  1. How intense does the light need to be?
  2. What is the best angle for the light?
  3. What colour/s do I want?
  4. What size light source?
  5. What can I do to control and enhance the light?

Just remember every element above needs to contribute to the emotion you are aiming to communicate. Think of light as the language you are using to describe your subject; quite literally to show the viewer what you want them to see – nothing more and nothing less.

Controlling light and getting it do what you want it to is a technical art. It is not easy. But with perseverance, determination, close observation and loads of experience you will begin to master it. After all my years as a photographer I am still learning the language of light every day and this journey will continue until I shoot my last frame.

As ever, I hope you find my blog helpful and your comments are always welcome.


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