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Seeing the light; Part 1

David Hayden Photography

Seeing the light; Part 1

In three previous articles I have presented some rudimentary information about the exposure triangle, specifically:

Controlling exposure is how photographers regulate the amount of light that the film, light sensitive media, and digital sensors have to use to create our images. But just as important as having the desired exposure is preparing for and / or controlling the light on our subjects so we can create stunning images.

Photography, after all, literally means drawing with light. So, this is the first of series of articles that will discuss some basic principle of light that never change and that we can use to our advantage.

There is only light, good or bad, depends on what you are trying to do.

You often hear photographers say, “man the light just wasn’t good.” Or, “I’ve got to get up early to catch that great mooning light.” And so on. This is particularly true of landscape photographers.

The thing is, whether light is good or bad is entirely dependent on what we are trying to photograph and our artistic intent. The job of the photographer is to seek out or create light that is suitable for the image they are trying to create.

The good news is that light has several properties or, dare I say, behaviors that never change. They are:

  • Direction

  • Color

  • Size relative to the subject

  • Distance from the subject

Notice I didn’t say intensity. In the world of photography, we determine the intensity of light in our image through controlling exposure.

All light behaves the same.

It is very convenient for photographers that all light, whether it is from the sun, a speedlight, a car headlight, a lamp, or even reflected light from the moon or a wall will behave in exactly the same way. What this means is the photographer can with a little ingenuity, planning and practice create about any lighting effect you want.

The key to creating perfect lighting for your photos starts with mastering those few principals mentioned above.

So, what’s your angle?

To get started on this subject, I thought it would be best to start by discussing angles of light.

The angle of light hitting our subject is probably the easiest thing to notice. Just look at the shadows.

When we see something, we instinctively know where the light is coming from. We know that by moving the light or moving our subject we can control what is illuminated and what is in the shadow. It is obvious to us that light travels in straight lines, but it is important to know that light does not travel in parallel lines.

Light spreads out from the source. This is one of the reasons the illumination of our subject weakens as the light source moves away, something we will discuss later. For this lesson focus on the notion that although light rays do not travel in parallel lines, they do travel in straight lines, and they reflect in straight lines.

And light reflects in straight lines . . .

You might have had a science class in school and maybe saw a graphic similar to the one above and heard learned that angle of incidence equals angle of reflection.

This simple principle applies to many things, like playing pool. The angle your cue ball approaches the side rail is the same angle it bounces away from the side rail.

So how is this useful to us? Imagine you are shooting a shiny object, maybe a picture on a wall, or a fish in an aquarium. If you use a flash mounted on your camera, you will probably just get a bright glare where your subject ought to be. But, by knowing the angle of approach equals the angle of departure, you can easily figure out where to place your light, so it lights the subject but does not directly bounce back into the lens.

By knowing how light reflects, you know you can place a reflector (white card, cloth little mirror) in a that the angle of light hitting it reflects directly into a shadow you want to soften.

Then by slightly adjusting the card, you can control the strength of the reflection. Similarly if you have a bright area that you want to tone down, you can place a dark card in just the right spot, not necessarily to block incoming light, but to give the subject something dark to reflect.

Not all reflections are created equal.

It helps to understand reflected light a bit more. For example, reflected light off a shiny object will result in a reflection exactly like the source. Imagine looking at a reflection on a shiny black car or bright chrome bumper. You don’t just see light; you see exactly what is providing the light.

Compare that with looking at a white wall in a sunny room. The light coming off the wall has been diffused / scattered by the rough surface of the wall.

This is important, if you are trying to photograph a shiny object, it is generally better to light what the object is going to reflect, not the object itself.

Here is an example of what I am talking about.

When I set up this picture. I wanted the light to accentuate the cheesecake but didn't want harsh shadows under the plates or silverware. I wanted just enough shadow to give dimension to the subject but not so much as to distract the viewer's eye. So, once I had the key light set up, I adjusted a white card to reflect light in a way to soften the shadows under the china. The bottom of the dishes are shiny so they are bouncing the reflected light from the white card back down onto the table cloth.

Another thing you need to stay mindful of is the color of the reflective surface.

Imagine you are shooting a portrait in a park. Your subject is sitting on the grass looking comfortable, happy and relaxed. You seize the moment and take the shot.

But wait! The sunlight is bouncing off the grass. What you’ll find out is the model's beautiful white outfit has a green tint, as does her face.

Your remedy for this is to spread a white cloth out in front of the model, but out of the frame of the picture allowing you to soften unattractive shadows without the green color cast.

Coming next Sunday:

The second article in this series will be about the color of the light source and how to use it to set a mood, of blend with ambient light.

May the images in your mind become your inspired creations!

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