“Most amateur photographers think of landscapes simply as objects to be photographed. They tend to forget that they are never photographing an object, but rather light itself. Where there is no light, they will have no picture; where there is remarkable light, they may have a remarkable picture.” -Galen Rowell
It’s true, without light, there is no photography. A camera is essentially a box with an opening (aperture) at one end and a light sensitive media (film, digital sensor, etc.) on the inside of the other. It is the passage of light into the box that renders a picture upon the media. Simple really. The word “photography”, from greek, means “to write or draw with light”, and it was coined by Sir John Herschel, based upon what he understood of the process. That was waaay back in the 1840’s, and the process has sure gotten complicated (just look at all of the buttons and menus on a digital slr), but essentially it is the same idea.
In any case, there are two types of light:
1. Natural Light (aka “existing” or “available” light), which is light that exists in a given location without much interference by the photographer. Some examples of this type of light include the sun, room lighting, candlelight, etc. Here two examples of photographs taken in natural light:
2. Artificial Light, which is that produced by what the photographer introduces to the scene (ie. speedlights, studio strobes, reflectors, etc.). Here are two examples of photographs taken using artificial lighting:
Light, unfortunately, is not as easy to master as knowing where you can get it. In fact, of all of the processes involved in getting photographs the way that you want them, learning how to bend and manipulate light is probably the most frustrating. It will take a lot of practice.
Anyway, both natural and artificial light share certain core characteristics that makes wielding either easier to understand. Those three characteristics are intensity, color, and direction.
1. Intensity- the quantity or “brightness” of a light. Intensity is determined by its lighting ratio, or the perceived difference in drop off between areas of highlight and areas of lowlight within the composition.
A High Lighting Ratio may produce images that are sharply defined, with strong contrasts between light and dark tones; this sort of ratio can intensify drama and/or tension in the photograph.
A Low Lighting Ratio can result in pictures that are soft with a wide gamut of medium tones. This type of image sometimes is used to make portraits and still-lifes look more natural.
2. Color- the color of light varies according to its source (relatable to its temperature in Kelvins; the higher the K, the bluer, or “cooler”, the color). Unless you want a particular color cast throughout your image, it is the photographer’s job to “correct” the color of light present by either adjusting their white balance, redirecting the light by reflection, or using one or more warming/cooling filters or gels. Metering and white balancing are complex topics, and will be covered more in depth at a later date. Here are examples of different light sources and their apparent color of associated light.
Morning Sunlight= Blue Light
Noon Sunlight= White Light
Dusk Sunlight= Pink Light
Incandescent Light Bulbs= Red Light
Fluorescent Lights= variable upon make and type, ranges from Blue-Green to Yellow Light
Speedlights and Strobes= White Light
3. Direction- as in, from which direction that light strikes an object. There are traditionally four directions of lighting used in photography, and they can originate from natural or artificial sources. They are:
Front Lighting- originates from a source near or behind the camera. Although this is the most common type of artificial light administered (after all, it is what comes built into your camera), it is generally considered the least flattering for people because of issues with the “red eye effect” (light on or originating from near the focal plane, generally its atop the lens, that reflects off of the blood vessels in the back of the human eye), squinting, and the fact that it often casts harsh, high-contrast shadows. However, this type of lighting is also often used pleasingly by photojournalists covering a range of events, and by wedding/event photographers who choose it likewise because of its extreme portability and efficiency. Don’t get me wrong, the speedlight that comes built into your camera is a very usable piece of equipment, and with all of the adjustments over exposure available to you with modern DSLRs, you shouldn’t hesitate using it if that’s all that you’ve got; just realize that it has some important limitations.
Back Lighting- has its genesis at a source behind the subject. There are a lot of applications for this lighting beyond what you’d expect. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a number of images that you’ve seen flipping through fashion mags, that have surprised you, are either backlit or utilize back lighting within their lighting sequence. Not to mention, the most iconic backlit pose of all is the one of the couple against a sunset (and its a trickier shot than you might imagine). Generally, a back light casts a shadow over the front of your subject, and because of this, it is often used in cooperation with a “fill” (fill in the shadows) light that can originate from any of the other three lighting directions.
3. Side Lighting- as you might expect, has its origin from one or both sides of the subject. This is the second most common form of lighting, and the one that is likely to give the beginner the greatest single step-up in their game, after having mastered it. If you are directing light from one or the other sides, the result is that shadows fall on the side of the subject opposite the direction of the light source, creating a strong impression of depth, shape and space. This is the single most powerful weapon in an arsenal of dynamic lighting effects. With it, the photographer can achieve a huge range of effects, which of course, can all be dampened or controlled by a little fill light. Using a side light on both sides simultaneously creates a very even coverage of light.
4. Top Lighting- is when the light source is directly overhead of the subject. Top lighting is more of a special circumstances tool, and generally used a lot in regular photography. This is because it cast fairly unflattering shadows of the nose and brow. In general practice, top lighting is a technique that enables the photographer to light an object that would produce glare if shot from any of the other lighting directions (like sculptural objects in a case at a museum, or photographs behind glass, or items in a shop window, etc.).
Unfortunately, I don’t have any examples of top lighting to show, but hopefully you’ve gotten the gist of it.