Understanding natural light

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If you want to be a great cook, you need to know your ingredients, your spices and your seasoning. If we were to compare photography to cooking, then the spice of the art is in the word. PHOTOGRAPHY. Two Greek words Phos and grafo, light and to write. So photography (fotografia) is literally writing or painting with light.

Light then is your most important ingredient, your raw material, and one thing we promise at LSP is that once you understand light, how it works and how different types of light affect your photo, then you will truly take a step to becoming a master of photography. You will finally be making pictures not taking pictures.

The first thing we need to consider when thinking about light is our light source, and that’s the sun. And even thought it is the only source of natural light that we have, you might have noticed that the, direction, colour and quality of that light vary throughout the day.

By taking advantage of these different variations, we can use them in the type of photography we are shooting, like landscape photography for instance.

So let’s take a close look at these different variations:


Direction of Light: We all know that our shadows get shorter and longer throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky, so when we photograph our subject we need to pay attention at the direction of the light. Is it hitting our subject from the front, from behind, from the side, or from above or below, and how will that affect our photo?

In order to create depth we need to take advantage of the available light and shadow, because shadows are just as important.

The Colour of Light: Daylight also comes in a variety of colours we can use in different types of photography. In the early hours of the morning as well as late afternoon we get more reddish-orange tones, giving us a warm light favoured by many photographers. That’s why we call these times the Golden Hours. Twilight gives us more of a bluish tone, allowing us to create more moody photos, and at midday the light from the sun is at its most neutral, or white.

The Quality of Light: Simply put, is our light leaving strong, hard shadows or soft and even non-existent ones? On a clear bright day we get a harsh light or specular light that leaves long dark shadows. That’s because the sun is shining like a massive pinpoint of light on the earth. If however we put a massive blanket of cloud between the sun and the earth, then we get a much softer or diffused light, with little or no shadows.

Now that we understood the types of light lets see how we can combine them to achieve the desired effect. Landscape photographers love a low direction of specular light to help create depth by separating light and shadow. Shooting at the golden hour also gives that beautiful warm tone we mentioned above.

We can also use side light for portrait photography, placing our subject next to a window, or even bouncing our flash from a side wall close to the subject. As for the type of light (soft or specular) it really is up to the photographer. We may want to create hard shadows to give more depth to our subject, or use diffused light to show more detail. Finding out what suits you, and the style that you want to create is part of the fun in being a photographer.

We always hear how we should keep the light in front of our subject. But if you have already done a course with us at LSP, you will know that rules are made to be broken. We can create beautiful, stunning photos of people by having the sun (or our light source behind the subject). This trick is used by many photojournalists today.

Of course we can re-create all these types of lighting conditions in a studio, or using our flash guns. If you want to know more about our lighting, studio and portrait photography workshops have a look at the availability and prices on our website.


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