Light is the primary ingredient in photography. While most photographers know that logically, they still go on a photo shoot thinking of what subject they want to shoot rather than the conditions under which they will be shooting. This is why photographers often turn away from a scene because the light isn’t right.
This is the first in a series of articles about natural light. This article describes 8 types of natural light and shows the different results that can be achieved. In the coming weeks I will discuss each of these 8 types in more detail including techniques, gear, examples and exercises.
The direction of light is named for how the light hits your subject, not where it is in relation to your camera. When the sun is in front of you, lighting your subject from behind, is it called backlight. The tricky part of backlight is getting the exposure right. If your subject is translucent, like a flower, the light will shine through it. Otherwise you can meter for the sky and throw your subject into complete silhouette. I love using backlight at sunset by positioning myself so an object with a distinct shape is between my camera and the sun.
When the light hits the side of your subject casting a long shadow on one side, it is called sidelight. Sidelight can range from somewhat subtle when the sun is low in the sky to creating deep shadows and hard edges when the sun is high in the sky. Either way, the high contrast that results from sidelight can add dimension and depth to your photographs. This is especially dramatic on subjects with texture.
When the sun is behind you and is hitting the front of your subject, it is called frontlight. Frontlight can be great for saturating colour, but if it is too intense it can wipe out texture and have a washed out dull look. Front light works best when the sun is not high in the sky and too harsh. When the sun is lower in the sky it is warmer and less intense.
4. Reflected light
Light can be reflected from one surface to another. It can reflect off of water, glass, rock and just about anything else. Reflected light tends to be soft and takes on the colour of the material it has bounced off of.
5. Diffused light
Overcast days don’t mean you have to stay inside! While a white sky does nothing for grand landscape scenes, the lack of shadows present in diffused light is an opportunity to crop the sky out of your composition and move in closer to photograph the details. The result will be a soft low contrast scene. Diffused light can also take the form of a shady spot on a sunny day.
6. Dramatic light
Storms and bad weather, bring it on! While going out in bad weather can sometimes result in coming home empty handed feeling tired and cold the opportunity for a dramatic photograph is much greater than if you stayed inside. Being in the right location just as a storm clears can have great rewards.
One thing that has always surprised me when I am out photographing a sunset is that as soon as the sun dips below the horizon all the photographers pack up their gear and go home. They miss out on my favourite time to shoot: twilight. It happens about 20 minutes after the sun goes down or 20 minutes before the sun comes up. In the period between day and night, there is plenty of usable light rich in colour. While our eyes will often see black, our camera’s sensor will see deep cobalt blues and rich pinks.
Night is an exciting time to photograph, and not just because of the odd people that mill about. City lights, the moon and stars all provide a great source of dramatic light. You need to be able to set your camera to keep the shutter open for long exposures. I have done exposures up to an hour long!
To continually improve your photography, become a student of light. Even when you do not have your camera, be aware of the type of light in your surroundings and how the light changes. Take notice when sun changes to shade or, even better, when shade turns to sun.
With a heightened awareness of light, not only can you seek out the best quality of light for your subject, but you can decide what subject to shoot based on the quality of light that is present.
The next time you go out to photograph, instead of looking for subjects, look for light. Let the light that is available to you tell you what kind of photograph to make.
Paul Conrad says
Nice work Anne.
Great learning materials, even for us “old dogs.”
Thanks for posting.
Henry Lee says
Anne, thanks for your article. I’ve always known about the different kinds of light you’ve described, but you described each kind so succinctly and so well.
I saved this one in my Evernote! Thanks Anne 🙂
Eric Leslie says
I see this all of these scenarios all the time, but never really had them organized well like you have. It really makes you think. You should do a counter post with bad kinds of light to avoid 🙂
Jason St. Petersburg Photographer says
Very good photo examples provided for each type of light, especially backlighting and sidelighting. Retweeted.
Russ Bishop says
Great post Anne and wonderful images to illustrate it!
I have read, discussed, researched, & studied near about everything there is dealing with LIGHT, but none have hit the nail on the head as you have your above article. Your illustrated selections are excellent examples. TY for opening my eyes to the LIGHT that is available & how to dramatically capture a subject in the light that surrounds it! Please continue to illustrate the photography basics, a truly sensational lesson! How do i research your archives?
Anne McKinnell says
Thank you very much for your very kind comment Angieroper, I am glad you found the article useful. I am working on a series that takes each of these 8 types of light and discusses them in more depth. You can find them by clicking on the “tutorials” links in the header.
thank you very much for posting excellent photographs on reflection by natural light.
Anne McKinnell says
I’m very glad you enjoyed it. I have a free ebook out on this topic now. If you haven’t seen it, click “ebooks” in the menu and you can download it. I appreciate your kind comment.