Let the Light Charm you : Windansea beach, San Diego

“Light is the first of the painters. There is no object so foul, that intense light will not make it beautiful”- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Isn’t light amazing in so many ways. Emerson’s quote really brings out what I’ve had in my head about the wondrous power of light. In photography, light is king. Without the right light, even the most beautiful object would look mundane and boring. Light has that magic touch which changes how anything looks, how you perceive the world around you and the emotional response that something evokes from within you. Composition is one thing and I’ve talked about that in my previous post. But you can have all the elements in your scene perfectly arranged, you could have the most amazing set of elements in the scene, but without the right light, the image would fall flat on its face.

When I first took up photography, I was very keen on getting a cool shot, one that had people stop and say “Wow! That’s awesome”. During this phase, what I didn’t notice was that the shots that people around me liked were the ones where the light was awesome. I didn’t know what constituted great light at that time, given that my intentions were solely on clicking away at anything that felt good inside. What really helped me was finding out why I felt that urge inside to take the picture at that precise moment. For me, it was (and still is) all about the light. To really understand light, you must first let the light charm you. I say this in no light sense (Pun unintended).

Ask any landscape photographer for a term that’s thrown about a lot these days and most of them will respond thus, “The Quality of Light”. So what is it then? In a very broad sense, it is the nature of the light in the scene that has a certain impact on the shot. The quality of light changes the emotions that you evoke from the viewer of your photograph. Therefore, the quality of light is just as important as composition when it comes to shooting. The Quality of light in the scene is defined by three attributes, namely, the direction of light, the size of the light, and the color of the light. Each of these characteristics have a significant impact on the final image.

Look at these two images. These were taken at the same location, using the same camera and lens, at about ten feet of each other and with the same camera settings. However I took these images 30 minutes from each other. Can you see how dramatically the light has changed over 30 minutes? Each image has a different emotional impact and evokes a different response from the viewer. In fact if you look closely, you will see the same ship in both images (though in different positions). Also note that by waiting for some time, I was able to bring in the moon into the composition. I like both these images just as much, but the impact that they have on me (and You as well I hope) is very very different.

While I will discuss these briefly here in this post, I will dwell more on each of these aspects in individual posts in the future. This is because there is so much to be said about each of them.

Direction of light: The first factor that affects your image is the direction of light. This decides which parts of your image fall into the shadows and where your highlights are. For example, the sun was setting to the right of these moss covered rocks. Consequently, parts of the rock on the right were illuminated more, which brought out the textures in those areas, while the other areas are more “hidden” so as to speak. A midday sun provides the harshest light while the sun positioned low on the horizon provides soft diffused light. Think about how you’d want the light to hit your subject the next time when you are out shooting.

The Size of the Light Source: How big or how small your light source is defines in some sense the transition between shadows and highlights in your image. A larger light source produces more even diffused light, while a smaller light source produces a “hard” focused light, which makes the transition between shadows and highlights more abrupt. For example, shooting at noon is something you’d do well to avoid, as it produces really harsh contrasts that are very hard to correct in post post-processing. Why? Because the sun is right overhead and is a small light source ( It’s millions of miles away from the earth). Therefore it produces focused beams which really don’t light up all parts of the scene in the same way. The same sunlight during the sunrise or sunset is more soft and diffused and lights the scene evenly.



The Color of the Light : The third characteristic is the color of light, which is how “warm” or how “cool” the light is. In fact a better term would be the temperature of the light source, but I feel “Color of light” is easier to grasp. The warmness or coolness of a light source is actually not the literal temperature, but a measure of the dominant colors and tones that the light produces. For example, red, orange and yellow are warm colors and these are characteristic of a “warm” light source. Typically, you encounter these colors during sunrise or sunset. Blues and violets are characteristic of cooler light sources. One can see these tones in the blue hour ( duh!) after the sun has set or during midday. In the two shots shown here, you can see how much variation there is in terms of color temperature. One of the shots was taken at sunset and another after sunset.

It’s really good to know what kind of light to expect when you are going out for a shoot. So here’s an exercise that you can try out to get a better grip of how light affects your picture. Pick a place/object outside your home and shoot the same composition during the following times:

  • 30 minutes before sunrise.
  • At Sunrise.
  • 30 minutes after sunrise.
  • Middle of the day.
  • 30 minutes before sunset.
  • At sunset.
  • 30 minutes after sunset.
Use the same camera settings as much as possible ( it’s practically not possible), use the same camera and lens combination. Once you’ve shot these images, look at them side by side. You will see an incredible difference between them. Also pick your favorites among these shots. If you are like most people, you’d pick the ones closer to sunrise and sunset. This period of time is called the “Golden hour” when the light makes everything look magical. That’s why so many photographers line up during the wee hours of the morning or during sunset. It’s an incredible experience to see how quickly the light changes and how this change makes your pictures almost surreal. Remember, let the light charm you, and your pictures will charm others!

Comments, Questions or Suggestions? Feel free to drop a note below!


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