Light is the most fundamental component of a photograph. It not only causes the image to form, but its visual quality goes a long way toward establishing the look and feel of the picture. Learning to see and work with the subject lighting is a critical skill for making effective photographs.

Characteristics of Light

Shutter speeds: pages 57-60 Film speeds: pages 23-24

Quality. The type of light falling on your subject also has a major impact on the look and mood of your photograph. Light is often characterized as either hard or soft. Hard light travels uninterrupted from the source to the subject, as happens with bright sunshine or a spotlight, and produces sharp and relatively high-contrast photographs. By creating bright highlights and deep shadows, hard light also emphasizes the textural and three-dimensional qualities of a subject. For example, in late afternoon, sunlight on a portrait subject's face may be bright on one side and dark on the other, with all the features defined by light and shade.

Soft light is diffused, or interrupted, as it travels from the source to the subject. It produces less contrast and a relatively shadowless effect, such as when

Some of light's most important characteristics include its strength, quality, and direction.

Strength. Some light sources are inherently stronger than others. For example, a midday sun is brighter than an evening sun; stadium lights are stronger than candlelight. The strength of light has important visual consequences. Bright sunshine provides plenty of light to reveal detail and information about your subject; a dimly lit nightclub scene, on the other hand, may have mostly shadows with a few bright patches, contributing to a mysterious, romantic, or even edgy mood.

The amount of light in a scene also has important technical consequences when you are taking pictures. For instance, bright light may allow you to set a faster shutter speed, whereas low light may require that you use a high-speed film.

Light Quality

A sunny day creates hard light, emphasizing a subject's textures and three-dimensionality (left), whereas a cloudy day makes the same subject appear relatively soft and flat (right).

sunlight is scattered by clouds on an overcast day. In soft light, a portrait subject's face is more evenly illuminated and only generally defined, with softer edges and little difference between both sides of the face.

Direction. The direction of the light relative to the subject is yet another important factor to consider. Depending on the angle at which it strikes, light can flatten your subject's appearance, enhance texture, or create a dramatic effect.

Most of the time, you will want light to strike your subject more or less from the front. Frontal lighting illuminates what's important in the scene and often reveals the most information about it. However, different types of frontal lighting produce different effects. Lighting that strikes the subject directly flattens its appearance and obscures its textural qualities. Light striking the front at an angle can emphasize a subject's three-dimensional qualities and texture. On the other hand, backlighting, when light strikes the subject from behind, can create an interesting, silhouetted appearance.

You must consider all of these characteristics of light relative to your subject when taking a picture. While it may sound complicated, by paying more care-


If the primary light comes from behind, the subject is often in shadow. This silhouetted effect can be effective for some photographs, but usually you want light coming from the front or side to illuminate subject detail.

If the primary light comes from behind, the subject is often in shadow. This silhouetted effect can be effective for some photographs, but usually you want light coming from the front or side to illuminate subject detail.

ful attention to light, you will soon develop a more intuitive sense of what works best for a particular scene.

These lighting characteristics apply whether you are photographing outdoors or indoors. Outdoors, you have limited control over the light, short of moving yourself or your subject to change position relative to the light or moving from direct sunlight into the shade. Or, you can wait for the light to change, if you're patient enough, or come back to photograph at another time or on another day. For instance, if you are photographing a house and it's backlit in the morning, come back in the afternoon and it may be lit from the front or side. If it's cloudy, you can return and make your picture on a sunny day.

Of course, you may not be able to exercise any of these controls in natural light. If you must take a photograph in a specific place at a specific time, you have to make do with the light you find. That's partly why some photographers prefer to work with artificial light; they can exercise much more control over the look of the subject and get the picture they want, while circumventing the vagaries of natural light.

Artificial light is a general term that includes common household lamps or other interior illumination, as well as certain lights made especially for photog-On-camera flash: raphy. The most common is on-camera flash, but a lot of photographers use pages 120-26 various types of studio lighting equipment to create their pictures.

Studio Light

Photoflood with reflector on light stand

Photoflood with reflector on light stand

Clamp light

Many professional photographers work entirely with artificial light in a studio, usually an open room used for controlled picture taking. One of the biggest advantages of working in a studio is it allows you to set up the lighting exactly as you want it.

Good studio photography requires a high degree of craft and (often) expensive, specialized equipment. However, not all studio work takes place in a dedicated room. Often, photographers employ studio lighting and techniques when working on location, for subjects ranging from architecture to portraiture.

Many photographers also combine natural and artificial light. If you understand some simple rules about lighting and have a basic grip of some of the available tools, you can gain a measure of control over the final look of your pictures that you can't get when working only with natural light. And you might even learn more about the general principles and effects of lighting, which can serve you with whatever light you are using.

Keep in mind that working with artificial light can limit your ability to work spontaneously. It's difficult to photograph as freely or candidly when you have to set up lights and other equipment. For instance, your subjects may act self-conscious or mug for the camera when they know they are being photographed. Therefore, artificial lighting often works best for formal subjects, such as portraits, interiors, and still lifes.

Types of lights. There are two types of lights used in studios: hot lights and strobe lights. Hot lights are named for the heat they generate when turned on. They provide continuous illumination, like household light bulbs. In fact, the least expensive type, called photofloods (or simply "floods"), looks like an oversized light bulb. But at 250 or 500 watts or more it is much more powerful than an ordinary bulb. High-end professional hot lights also are available for stronger light and more consistent illumination, but they are more expensive and fit into a more elaborate housing.

A basic hot light consists of a bulb set inside a reflective housing that directs the light forward. Advanced models attach to a light stand that holds them in position, but you can buy a simple reflector with a clamp that attaches to the back of a chair, a countertop, or other such surface to hold the light steady. Such clamp lights are affordable and found in many camera stores, hardware stores, and stores selling household goods. They are rated according to the maximum power bulb (in watts) they will take; for safety's sake, make sure your bulb does not exceed this rating. Clamp lights from camera stores should take bright photofloods, but you will probably be limited to less powerful household bulbs with units from nonphotographic suppliers.

David Mussina, View of Grand Canyon Looking West, Grand Canyon National Park, 1992

Mussina's photographs portray the American landscape as a theme park organized for tourists, rather than pristine wilderness. To contrast the majesty of the Grand Canyon with this cluttered gift shop, Mussina used on-camera flash to illuminate the dark interior so the indoors is as brightly lit as the window view. © David Mussina; courtesy of the artist.

100 Photography Tips

100 Photography Tips

To begin with your career in photography at the right path, you need to gather more information about it first. Gathering information would provide you guidance on the right steps that you need to take. Researching can be done through the internet, talking to professional photographers, as well as reading some books about the subject. Get all the tips from the pros within this photography ebook.

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