Lessons in Light: Part one
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Explore how light defines the very essence of eye-catching black & white photographs. Learn the essential building blocks of light and use them to express your vision.
Light & Vision
Imagine walking into a room devoid of light. If you take a photograph, the resulting image would be pure black. Now picture finding a dimmer switch. Turning it up slowly introduces light into the room.
As the intensity increases, you begin to make out the size and contents of the space. When the light reaches full power, you take another picture.
Unlike the first image, this one reveals a realistic representation of the scene with a full range of tones, from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights.
The interpretation of light is the basis of visual perception. Objects in the world reveal themselves to us by either emitting light directly or reflecting it from another source.
When light enters our eye, it’s focused onto a light-sensitive layer of tissue known as the retina and converted into electrical signals to be decoded by our brain.
A modern camera works essentially the same as our biological visual system. Just exchange the eye, retina, and brain for the lens, sensor, and your camera or smartphone’s processor.
But, of course, we don’t photograph objects in the world as much as we record the light received from them.
In some cultures, a room lit only by candlelight can invoke feelings of romance, while one lit by flickering fluorescent tubes can feel cold and sterile. Once we understand how light reveals the world to us, we’re empowered to use it to express our vision.
Light, by its presence or absence, its quality, or direction, allows you to create a mood or feeling for the viewer to experience. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are no photographs without light.
Types of Light
The first aspect of light to consider is the type, natural or artificial. Both do the same job, light a subject or scene, but each has benefits and challenges to consider when choosing which to use.
The primary natural light source we’re all familiar with is the sun. Other sources to consider in the natural world include moonlight, lightning, bioluminescent animals such as fireflies, and even light emanating from distant stars in the night sky.
When working with daylight, the first thing to understand is that you are primarily at its mercy. Visualization (imagining the final image) and planning (time of day, location, camera equipment) are essential for natural light photography.
Planning is particularly relevant if photographing large, immovable subjects, such as buildings or landscapes. For example, the deep crevasses that define a cliff face are more visible when the sun rakes across the surface in the early morning or late afternoon.
Choosing the appropriate time of day or weather conditions in these situations is essential to increase the likelihood of creating outstanding pictures.
However, even the best planning can't ensure that weather and lighting conditions will align with the expectations of the day. That doesn't mean all is lost.
Continuing with the cliff face example, if you arrive and it is raining, consider focusing on details like glistening rocks, leaves dripping with fresh rainfall, or the moody weather. Being flexible and creative is an essential step to being a successful photographer.
The possibilities are almost limitless with smaller, moveable subjects. For example, if you'd planned for a moody portrait on an overcast day but find yourself in full sun, see if moving into the shade gives you a better result.
If repositioning the scene isn't an option, try shaping the light instead. A white wall makes an excellent stand-in for a soft reflector, and a picnic umbrella can make harsh lighting more flattering. Find opportunities in the unexpected to achieve your vision.
In contrast to natural light, artificial light comes from human-made sources. The most common form of this light is the humble light bulb. Two types of artificial sources are used in photography: flash and continuous.
A photographic flash behaves precisely as its name implies; it illuminates your subject with a burst of light lasting only a fraction of a second. This brief moment of exposure is what the camera records.
Continuous light, on the other hand, emits a constant intensity of light that doesn't change. Artificial lighting enables you to create light explicitly designed to achieve your creative vision regardless of the type you choose.
When working with artificial sources, you typically start in darkness and light the scene by adding one source after another. The dominant light is called a key light.
Like the sun, the key light is typically a single source that defines a photograph's overall structure.
However, unlike natural light, when using artificial light in a controlled setting like a home or studio, nothing will change unless you explicitly decide to change it.
On your own
Observe the Light
On a bright day, ask a friend to sit or stand in front of a window.
Move to the left of the window, and ask your friend to turn with you. Observe how the light and shadows change on their face as the direction of the light hitting them changes.
Move to the right of the window, and ask your friend to turn with you. Observe how the light and shadows change on their face as the direction of the light hitting them changes.
Notice how the changes in light direction impact mood and feeling. Is there a direction of light that is most appealing?