Photography is Light

Steiner blog

There is an elusive light that photographers chase their entire life. Without it we can not be great photographers. As a matter of fact, the term photography comes from the Greek word “phos” meaning light and “graph” meaning to write or draw. We now so often call pictures “photos” that we have completely forgotten that without light there can be no picture. All light is not created equal though. Good light is a fickle creature. It can sometimes appear and disappear faster than you can get your camera ready. Knowing what kind of light is best for different types of photography can greatly increase your chance of catching it at its best in your photos.

Arches bad sun

Window Arch – Midday Sun


Arches good sun 1

Window Arch – Just befor sunset

As you can see with the above two photos, most landscapes look better when shot near sunset or sunrise. When the sun is near the horizon, sunlight travels through a greater depth of atmosphere, reducing the intensity of the direct light, so that more of the illumination comes from the indirect light of the sky. This time just before sunset and just after sunrise is called the “Golden hour” or the “Magic hour”. Not only because it gives your subject a nice golden glow, but also it can create a magical glow you just can’t get with the sun higher in the sky. Compare how dull the upper photo shot at midday looks compared to the lower photo shot just before sunset. The lower photo is shot with “front light” meaning the light is shining on the front of the subject or behind the camera. Sunset is a great time to use front light. See the nice glow front light gives the flowers on the lower photo compared to the upper photo

Midday harsh light

Midday harsh light


Early morning diffused light

Early morning diffused light

Compare the above two photos shot of the same river in roughly the same location, but at different times of the day. The top photo was shot in the middle of the day on a non cloudy day. The bright direct light creates harsh light especially on sections of the water and the top rock. The photo also has a lot of deep shadows. Deep shadows can add soul and intrigue to a moody photo, but can really ruin a photo like this one. Harsh light can also really suck the color out of a landscape. Have you ever taken a photo of some impressive place you have been to, only to get home to see the photo and say “I guess you had to be there”?  It was probably shot in middle of a cloudless sunny day.

The lower photo was shot early morning on a cloudy overcast day. The nice even “diffuse light” really evens out the photo and helps pull out all the colors in the rocks and forest. There are no blown out spots in the water or on the rocks. You can see back into the forest giving the photo more depth. Having less light also allowed me to shoot a longer shutter speed creating the nice smooth flow of the river. When shooting people outside it is especially important that the light is diffused. Deep shadows around the eyes and under the chin and nose can really wreck a photo. Diffuse lighting will also keep people from squinting.

Many photographers will only shoot outside during the Golden hour. Although I agree this is usually the best time to get a great photo, it is not always practical. Many times you cannot control the time you are at a place you want to take photos.  Go ahead and shoot even if the lighting isn’t perfect, just realize your best photos are going to come with great lighting.

I only talked about two the the eight types of light, front light and diffuse light. I will discuss back light, side light, reflected light, dramatic light, twilight and night in future blogs.

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