Beginning Photography Lighting

Learning to See Light

Written by Will Moneymaker

Photography is the art of painting with light. It is essential to learn how to see the light to create effective images. Here are thoughts that may help!

    Photography is the art of light, the art of capturing light in all of its shades and colors. What this means is that it is essential for photographers to learn how to see in the light. In other words, a photographer must look at a scene and analyze it not just for artistic value, composition, meaning, and other factors but also for the different colors of light and where that light will fall or where light might angle so as to leave a shadow.

    As you learn to see that light, it becomes vital to learn how you can manipulate it, with tools or without. To that end, I’d like to take a moment to talk about learning how to see light in all of its various forms, including artificial light, and learning how you can put that light to work in any way you so desire.

    Learning to See Natural Lighting

    It is a strange thing to say, but I think that natural lighting can be one of the hardest types of lighting to learn to really see. Why? When you work with flashes and other light modifiers, you come to expect that things will look different once the bulbs flash or once your filters are in place. You know that positioning flashes in certain ways will cause harsh shadows and a diffuser or additional lights can help you soften shadows or eliminate them completely.

    Natural lighting, on the other hand, is something that we take for granted. We walk around in it, going about our business, going shopping, going to work, attending to chores, each and every day. Because of this, I think that it is easy to become a bit numb, a bit blind to how natural light falls. That is why I think it is helpful to pay extra careful attention when you work with natural lighting.

    Each time you go out photographing, ask yourself a few questions. What highlights do you see? What dark spots do you see? Are you noticing each highlight, dark spot, and mid-tone or are there some that you are overlooking as you glance around your surroundings? Fully analyze the scene, not just for interesting elements, pretty colors, or nice compositions but also for the lighting. The color, quality, and brightness of the lighting, the harshness, the angle, and where shadows and highlights happen to fall. You may even want to make a checklist to help you remember what key lighting factors you want to search for. When you are good at analyzing the available lighting in great detail, then you can move on to the next step.

    That next step is figuring out what you can do with the things that you see. Can you create striking contrasts? Do you want to create an image that is deliberately overexposed, deliberately underexposed or perfectly balanced? Contrasts can often add interest to images or they can serve as a way to lead a viewer through an image as he or she focuses on highlights first, then the darker areas. Deliberate overexposure, when done well, can have an ethereal quality and deliberate underexposure can lend a sense of mystery. Perfectly balanced images, of course, are not so much meant to show of unique lighting conditions or lend a general mood as they are to portray colors, details, and composition with great clarity.

    No matter what flavor of lighting you’d like to work with, always be mindful of the lighting that is available and the things that you might be able to do with it.

    Learning to Modify the Light that You See

    There will always come a time when the light that you can see just isn’t ideal for whatever image that you’d like to create. Perhaps a foreground object is shadowed because of backlighting or maybe the sky is just so bright that everything under the horizon line will appear dark. Of course, many corrections can be made with simple adjustments to camera and lens settings but sometimes you may need a few extra tools on hand.

    Lens hoods, for instance, are helpful to prevent sun flares from sunlight that is at an angle to your lens. If shadows are the issue, perhaps a simple reflector is all you need to bounce some of the ambient light into the shadows to help fill them in. Just make sure that you are mindful of the color temperature of your lighting and use silver reflectors for cool toned lighting or gold for warm lighting. Polarizers are another tool that can help. In bright skies, they can help you enhance the look of clouds and they can also remove some highlights from photos by helping you to remove reflections from shiny surfaces like glass or water.

    Finally, there is the neutral density filter, a handy tool that helps you balance exposures. They come in several different strengths and also graduated varieties if you only need to tone down the lighting in part of the frame.

    Learning to See Light that Isn’t There

    Next, comes working with artificial lighting. Continuous lighting is, of course, the easiest to work with — always on, so you can always see how it will affect the image before you take it. That isn’t the case with flashes. When you work with flashes, you’ll need to know not only how the flash will affect the scene when it fires but also how it will interact with available lighting. This is largely a process of experimentation, so don’t hesitate to read up on various lighting configurations and then test them out for yourself. After a while, you’ll begin to get a sense of how the flashes will light the scene before you take the image.

    With this knowledge, you can begin to think about modifying those flashes. Umbrellas, for instance, or other types of diffusers to soften shadows. Snoots are handy to create spotlighting effects and gel filters for flashes can help you alter the flash’s color to create special effects or simply to bring the tone of the lighting closer to the available ambient lighting in the area. Make sure you have plenty of spare batteries on hand and spend time practicing and before too long, you’ll begin to see the lighting before the flashes fire.

    Why is it so important that you learn to really see lighting? With flashes, it can save you time in the field. You won’t spend extra time setting up and tearing down lighting configurations until you arrive at the effect that you want. Most importantly, however, when you begin to see the light, then you’ll start to see all of the possibilities, all of the things that can be done with that light. Those possibilities will open the path to a wide variety of creative uses.

    About the author

    Will Moneymaker

    Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.