Light as a Subject in Photography

Many photographers would say something like portraits or landscapes are their favourite subjects for photography, and light itself is often ignored as a subject. Photography is dependent on light to form an image on the film, and developing a deeper understanding of it can enhance the work of any photographer.

Colour, the pattern of highlight and shadow and the brightness of a scene all have a major impact on a photograph. Considering the impact of light and learning to see its impact are essential skills for a photographer. As sound is to music, light is to creative photography.

Picture: “Under The Sun” By Helio Duarte ©

The time of day is one of the first main considerations when it comes to the impact of light on a scene. Evening and morning light are generally the most effective, and can bathe a scene in a beautiful warm glow. Sunsets and sunrises make fantastic subjects for photographs, and a view changes by the minute as the light intensity alters. Patience is required, but it’s often rewarded with stunning photographs.

“Sunlight” By Helio Duarte ©

Shape is a powerful element of design in pictures, and one of the richest sources of shapes is shadows. Bold shadows can create a picture of their own, but also give clues about the objects that create them. Many photographers use reflectors and flashguns to remove shadows, but the creative photographer often chooses to work with them. For example, dramatic shadows in a portrait can create a truly striking image.

When working indoors, many photographers choose to work with flashguns or other artificial lights, but natural daylight is usually a more effective option. Light entering a window is usually soft and flattering. Portraits and still-life photographs taken in natural daylight are particularly appealing. Classic paintings were always of scenes lit by natural light, and we can emulate this in photography.

Some of the very first photographs were silhouettes of leaves and insect wings. The simplicity of a silhouette can make a bold image, and by using backlight and exposing correctly a photographer can create this effect easily. Strong colours are particularly effective with silhouettes. For example, the silhouette of a boat against an orange sky at sunset is a highly evocative image.

Photographers who take a technical approach go to great lengths to expose a scene correctly. They will not rely on a camera’s automatic metering, and will use external meters to take more accurate readings. The creative photographer takes a different approach, and accepts that rules are often made to be broken. A scene which loses its detail due to under-exposure may create a more dramatic photograph.

Lens flare created by strong light directly entering a lens is often seen as a fault in photographs, and many photographers adapt their lenses to avoid it. Flare can actually be very effective and add mood to an image. It can create starburst effects which look particularly effective in sunset photographs.

Many photographers concern themselves too much with their equipment and the technical aspects of their art. Photography is essentially about light, and by working with it you may find a new level of creativity in your images.


One thought on “Light as a Subject in Photography

  1. Pingback: Light and Movement

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