I was teaching a class recently and someone asked me how they could have made a particular set of landscape images better. Should they have used a different aperture, shutter speed, etc.? “You couldn’t have made those photos any better because the light was terrible.” I explained. You must learn to see and photograph light to take better photos.
There are times when interesting photos can be made in bad light. But I will unequivocally say that in most cases (as there are always exceptions to the rules, right?) when you have boring light you will have boring photos.
Interesting light transforms any subject. It reveals and enhances the subject’s natural qualities. In many ways, it brings your subject to life. If you follow only one piece of advice in photography it should be this:
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman.
In this article, I am going to explore light in many forms, but it’s not a technical article. This is about the how you compose with light, how its different forms affect your subject, the emotions that light communicates, and how when you really chase light you’ll learn to create more compelling and memorable images.
In every single one of these photos, I will say that the subject is the light. The light might be subtle, or very obvious, but what compelled me to snap that shutter was what the light was doing. Here are some tips to get you more involved with capturing the mesmerizing qualities of light.
1) Notice light
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau
This first step seems like a stupidly simple piece of advice right? I mean who doesn’t notice light? Most people notice the obvious aspects of light – it’s a sunny day, it’s stormy, it’s twilight. There is so much more to light, though. It’s a rich, varied and complex entity. Light is creating hundreds of different effects all around us all the time.
The first piece of advice I always give to all my students is – look for what the light is doing and look for light sources. You’re out and you see a beautiful shaft of light on a wall. Ask yourself – where is it coming from? Is it direct or is it being reflected off of something? Is it bouncing off the wall and doing something else?
As you move around light alters – as you enter a square, go under a tree, move behind a building – it’s bouncing and reflecting off so many things. Light is being filtered through leaves, through different urban and natural materials. It’s this constantly changing aspect that you need to become very familiar and intimate with. Light is always changing – as clouds drift across the sun, as the hours pass, as weather systems move.
Become a light detective
There are, of course, many times when the light is super flat. We have many days in London where cloud cover is very dense and the light is very flat and gray. Or back in California, where I grew up, in the height of summer at midday the light is hard and almost flat in its piercing white intensity. Then you have to work harder to look for alterations in light. But like life itself, change is something we can consistently rely on.
You’ll also start to notice that when the light outside changes, it also changes the light inside. A drop in the vibrancy of the light outside will make the light inside seem warmer and stronger.
Becoming a good photographer is like becoming a light detective. What is light doing to your subject? What is it revealing about your subject?
2) Use light to create emotion in your images
“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” Ansel Adams
For me, light always creates an emotion, a feeling, or a sense of mood. It doesn’t have to be a strong feeling or even a positive one, but it does have to create an impact with me that goes beyond the initial pleasingness to the eye. I am constantly searching to capture a feeling in my images. Light is a very powerful way to communicate emotions.
So I want you to look at the light in the following photos and ask yourself – how do they make me feel? Light can be a powerful and dramatic element in your photos, creating a deep feeling of awe, about the grand beauty of the world.
Light enhances the subject
Of course, the photo above would have been interesting without the dramatic sunrise, after all, it is Venice and the subject is incredible. What the beautiful light adds, though, is a big pop of color, adding a layer of depth and enhancing the awe-inspiring feeling of these amazing buildings. The dramatic color and light matches and enhances the dramatic subject.
It doesn’t have to be big subjects, though. This simple shot of pretty flowers would be quite boring if it didn’t have this lovely dappled light on it. It’s simple but very evocative. If you are starting out, or trying to refresh your basic skills, focusing on detailed shots like this, and what light is doing to the elements in the world around you, is a fantastic way to start playing with, and capturing the magic of light.
I have mentioned interesting and beautiful light. So what is interesting light? Well, to me it’s any light that communicates an emotion, a feeling, or a mood. It’s light that makes you feel something. Even if that’s melancholy.
I shot the photo above on a cloudy autumnal morning. The light was very diffuse, very subtle, but it was still pretty and interesting to me. It matched the location I was in – the wild heathers and grass along with the stark leafless tree standing alone.
Can you see how the light emphasizes the natural qualities of the tree? How the amazing wild branches, stripped bare, almost like someone’s mind going crazy, are enhanced by the soft light?
In the photo below, to me, the light is offering an amazing feelingof foreboding.
3) What is the color of light?
“Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of this world through color.” Johannes Itten
Color from light is produced when white light is split by a prism into the colors of the rainbow. You also get artificial effects created by the myriad of things that light reflects onto and bounces off.
For me, color is the second most powerful force in my photography, and getting a sense of the color of light is a great way to start using light and color in your compositions.
Compare the color of the light in the following three images.
Light is always full of color – even if it’s piercing white. And it’s doing something to the color of your subject.
4) Light can make even dull and boring subjects interesting
“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.” – Aaron Rose
Interesting light doesn’t have to just be natural, or even beautiful. Light of all kinds creates mood and feeling within a photo. Your aim is to ensure that the light helps to create a story of some kind for your image, that it tells you something about what it’s like to stand right there, where you were.
Above is a great example of harsh light that usually I wouldn’t go near – but it works in this photo because it works well for the subject. I rarely take photos using such unflattering hard lighting. But in a grim hotel room in Madrid, it enhances the feeling of loneliness that the twin (disconnected) beds give off, with the bleak looking paint color. That burst of light wraps up the photo into a nice melancholy package. See, even horrible light can be interesting (in the right circumstances)!
Then you also have the issue of beautiful, gorgeous light making rather dull subjects suddenly quite interesting.
Without the rich blue light, this would not be an interesting photo. Plus what gives it another layer of interest are the pops of artificial light.
This following photo has a fascinating subject. But imagine this scene on a gray, drab Parisian morning, when all you want to do is dive into a cafe and eat several pains au chocolat?
The light is bringing everything to life – the gray stone buildings, the grayish-green water, the black and browns of the boats. This would be a totally boring photo without that magical light and sky.
5) Use light to tell a story
“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas
I think photographs are at their strongest when they enhance the inherent qualities of the subject you are photographing when they add another layer of story to the photo.
What story do you want to tell?
I photograph a lot of cities at dawn; it’s my main subject at the moment. Dawn, though, becomes very repetitive to photograph. It’s often so pretty, but just how many epic sunrises can you photograph? So one of my favorite things to do is to juxtapose that beautiful, ethereal light of dawn with the broken, used or decaying elements of our cities.
I think it says so much. The hopeful light of dawn, with the heavy feeling you get from the urban scene, and feeling of human impact.
I also love to photograph dawn when the street lights are still on. That mix of the best light nature produces, with that hard functional light we humans create for our cities, is a very interesting thing to play with. The light is telling you more about what it’s like to be exactly where you are – it’s helping to tell the story of your subject.
In the photo above I was in this graveyard on a winter’s afternoon. I noticed that the sun was starting to set and realized that if I waited, the sun would fall perfectly between the trees, lighting up the gravestones. This stream of light through the trees only lasted a minute or two, but it shows that when you really pay attention to light you can start to anticipate what it’s going to do, and how it will affect your photos. Without that stream of beautiful light the scene would have been really boring.
6) Chasing light is an adventure
“Photography is a love affair with life.” – Burk Uzzle
Photography is such an amazing creative pursuit. I love how it connects me so much more to the world around me. Learning to pay attention to light and how to capture it is one of the best ways to elevate your photography. Becoming intimate and familiar with light will help you become really present with the beauty and wildness of this amazing world.
I would encourage you to photograph light – just for the sake of it. It’s a wonderful, thrilling adventure to always be chasing the light.
I’d love to know if you how you go about capturing light and use it in your photos. Please comment below, I love hearing your ideas.
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