Photo Lighting: Things You Should Know

Light. We can’t take photos without it, and yet it seems
poorly understood by many photographers. Something that has such
influence on our photos deserves an understanding of its basic
characteristics. When you think about what light is and isn’t, you can
use it to create more interesting photos.
photo lighting
“Catch the sun” captured by Ornela Pagani

Light is Light

Some photographers get hung up on the difference between natural
light and artificial light. The problem is that there’s no such thing as
artificial light. It’s all electromagnetic radiation. Light is just the
part of electromagnetic radiation that is within the visible spectrum,
but it behaves the same as any other radiation. There are only two ways
to create it. Atoms create incandescent light when they release thermal
vibrations as electromagnetic radiation after being heated. Electrons
create luminescence when they release energy as electromagnetic
radiation. Both of these types of light happen in nature—from fire,
sunlight, fireflies, or even algae.
You don’t need to think about these things when creating photographs.
Just don’t let misinformation and myths sway you against a type of
light because of its source. Light is light.



Rather than being concerned about the source of the light, pay more
attention to the quality of the light. Photographers talk about light
being hard or soft, as an indication of the shadows cast on our subject.
It really has more to do with the direction of light and how it
Light travels in a straight line until it hits something that causes
it to reflect. Direct light from a single source can produce dark
shadows and shiny, specular reflections. A specular reflection happens
when light hits a flat surface and bounces off at the same angle of
incidence (meaning if it hit the surface at a 45 degree angle, it will
reflect at a 45 degree angle). Direct light is hard light.
lighting in photography
Photo captured by Ekivoi Diangson

A diffuse reflection happens when light hits an uneven subject. The
light still reflects at the angle of incident, but the uneven surface
introduces more angles to cause reflection in different directions.
That’s why soft boxes have a diffuser in front to spread the light
around. As light hits the diffuser, the rough surface changes the
direction of some light particles, preventing shiny surfaces and filling
in areas in shadow to create soft light.


Size Matters

The size of your light source, relative to your subject, determines
how hard or soft the light is on your subject. The sun is a large source
of light, but its distance reduces its size relative to your subject.
In comparison, a soft box next to your subject is a much larger source
of light relative to your subject.
That’s why a diffuser must be close to your subject to create soft
light. As you move the diffused light source farther away from your
subject, less diffused light hits your subject. Why? Because that light
is traveling in different directions. That leaves you with the direct
light traveling toward your subject, even from a soft box. If you want
soft light, use a large, diffused source. If you want hard light, use a
small, direct source.



We’re used to perceiving light coming from above. The sun spends most
of its time overhead. Many buildings have overhead lighting. It’s
natural for us. Maybe that’s why we have such a strong reaction to
sidelight. It’s unexpected and may have dramatic results. Perhaps that’s
why we love seeing the sunrise or sunset. It’s a brief period of day
that signals change. Illumination from below seems unnatural, though,
invoking a sense of dread or fear. Under-lighting creates strange
shadows where we aren’t used to seeing them.
The direction can greatly influence the mood of your scene.
light color picture
Photo captured by William J. Johnston


Temperature affects the color of light, and therefore, how we
perceive it. In nature, incandescent luminance changes color from red to
orange, and then to yellow, as temperature increases. We respond
instinctively to color—cool blue or warm orange glow. We can make a
person seem sickly by using a green cast, or the picture of health using
daylight. Color affects how the human mind perceives a scene. That’s
why theatrical productions use color on stage to set a mood for a scene.
It’s in our nature to respond to color.


The Biggest Influence

Everything we see is a reflection of light. By understanding and
using these basic characteristics of light, we can dramatically improve
the results of our photos.