Inspiration Photography

How to see the quality of light and make your photos pop with awesomeness

Learn to see the quality of light for your next photo.

On a dark night, you can take a several-hour exposure and get a photo.

Your camera needs light, no matter how little, to make an exposure.

So knowing that light is the most important ingredient for you to create awesome photos, it’s important to know some things about the behavior of light. You can learn to see how light affects your subject, and use that knowledge to make your photos pop. Here are ten things about light that can help you see the light and make your photos pop.

Light on a subject can be direct light.

There are almost no shadows in the faces of these Balinese going to a temple festival.

Light from a source directly shining on your subject is called direct light. Say you make your subject face the sun. The whole subject will be lit, creating no shadows.

Light on a subject can be reflected light.

You can also have reflected light on a subject. This is when the light source hits a surface which does not allow the light to pass through it. That light will bounce off the surface and hit the subject.

Child with thanaka face powder patterns in Myanmar
This child’s face is lit by light reflected off other surfaces in the surroundings.

Light is directional.

Light is like water in that it spreads as far as the space it hits. But if the light source moves, that light will also move. You can choose different directions for a subject’s light source depending on the effect you want to achieve. Sometimes, you might want backlit photos. Other times, you might want side lighting, where the light is coming from one side of the subject.

Side lighting.

Light produces shadows when it hits a solid object.

If you use a light source that is shining on one side of your subject, that side lighting will create shadows on the opposite side of the subject if your subject is solid.

Huntington Beach, California sunset creates shadows of two surfers walking on the sand.
Shadows created when light hits a solid object.

Shadows produced by light define your subject’s shape.

Shadows create the illusion of shape in a two-dimensional photograph because shadows help to define shape. Without a contrast between light and shadow, all you’ve got is something like this:

No shadows? No shape.

Light is softer when it’s far away.

Light that is far away from the subject is softer because it loses intensity as it moves through space to hit the subject. (There’s a mathematical way to compute how distance affects the intensity of the light, but that’s another tutorial.)

Faraway light can create a ‘soft’ quality.

Light is harsh when it’s close to the subject.

When the light is close to the subject, its intensity increases. So if you place a light very close to a subject, the light on the subject will be very bright.

Soft light produces soft shadows.

Because shadows are direct products of light hitting solid objects, soft light also produces soft shadows. So in the early morning when the light is soft, shadows are soft.

Girls with offerings in Bali
Soft shadows and harsh shadows from mixed light.

Harsh light produces harsh shadows.

Conversely, as we increase the intensity of the light, the intensity of the shadows will also increase. At noon when the light is directly over us, shadows are normally harsher than they are in the early morning.

 Reflected light carries the color of the surface on which it bounces.

If you reflect a light on a surface that reflects one color, the light will take on the color of that reflective surface. That means if you stand close to a red car and we take your photo, the parts of you that are lit by the light reflected off the red car will have a red tinge. This is partly the reason why it is so exciting to shoot during the times when light has a lot of yellows, such as early morning. The hues in the sunlight bounce off everything and there is a glow in the things that you photograph.

Sunset on Huntington Beach, California.
Reflected light on the shore and water at Huntington Beach.

Seeing the light and understand how it affects your image is something that you can learn. Try this last tip—go out without your camera with the goal of finding direct light or reflected light. Without the pressure of having to take a photo, your eyes will learn how light behaves on different things and how it looks from different directions.

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