Well, you can’t actually look at light, but you can see the effects of light, and how it impacts your photographs. I believe lighting and composition are the two most important keys to making a good photograph. This is true regardless the type or cost of the camera. We’ll spend some time on composition in a future column, but in this article, let’s take a look at light!
Most of us take light pretty much for granted. Like air, it’s just there (even when it’s really “dark”). But I believe those who are into serious photography spend a lot of time looking at the effect of light. Here’s a quick exercise: Take a look around you. What is illuminating your surroundings? And equally important, where are the shadows?
If you are indoors, chances are there will be multiple light sources from overhead light fixtures and table lamps. During the daytime, there will probably be light coming through windows and doors. Notice how the daylight is generally much more bright and bluish in color than your interior lighting. Try turning off different lamps and see how that affects how various objects look. Look especially at how the shadows change. It is probably best to do this exercise after dark, as daylight will likely overpower indoor “artificial” lighting.
Shadows can work for you or against you when taking a photo. In the days of film photography, shadows would tend to be dark and lacking in detail. Outdoors in sunlight, shadows tended to be very dark and bluish in color. But shadows are important because they give your photos dimension and depth.
For example, Take a look at our beautiful mountains at mid-day. When the sun is overhead, they tend to look flat and two-dimensional because there are few shadows. But in the morning or evening, when the sun is low, the long shadows give your photos almost a three-dimensional look.
Today, digital photography makes dealing with shadows much easier, as they don’t tend to take on a strong bluish cast. Lightening the shadows with built-in editing software in Smartphones or on a computer is usually as simple as moving a slider on your screen until you see the effect you want.
Now it’s time to get out your camera and experiment. Since there is no real expense to doing this, I expect you to take a lot of photos! I recommend starting outdoors on a sunny day with a subject you can photograph from various angles. Try this at various times of day and see the varying effects of different sun angles. Of course this time of year you may have a cloudy day. This will give you a chance to see what photos of your subject look like without shadows (generally pretty dull).
Now, let’s break a few “rules” (and we all know rules are meant to be broken!) In my column on taking photos for publication, I recommended always having the strongest light behind you to help assure your photo is bright and clear.
Now, try doing just the opposite. Take a clear or tinted vase or other glassware and photograph it with the sun or other primary light source shining toward you. If possible, keep the light source out of your photo or position your subject so the light can shine through the glassware. Look for interesting shadow patterns. Try different angles. This is an opportunity to experiment!
I also find it useful to study the work of other photographers. In my personal opinion, Ansel Adams was the master of understanding and using various lighting conditions in his photographs. Any of his books are worth your time, although his “Yosemite and the Range of Light” is one of my personal favorites.
Once you get the hang of “looking at light,” I think you will be amazed what a difference it will make in your photos.
Space constraints make it difficult to include detailed info in these articles. If you want more info on any of the topics covered in this column, have general questions or comments, or an idea for a future column, please send me an email at PhotographyForEveryone@hagedon.net. I want and need your feedback to make sure this column is relevant and worth reading in future issues of Saddlebag Notes.
Jim has a Fine Arts degree with a major in Photography and more than 50 years’ experience in a wide range of photographic disciplines.