14 Jan 2008

How to use the direction of Light

Good light is the photographer’s most vital yet least understood ingredient - more important than a whole bagful of expensive gear. Let’s face it, you can’t take photographs without light, so the more you get to grips with it, and understand what it can and can’t do, the better. A sound understanding of light will transform the way you see and enable you to express yourself visually. It will help you highlight the vibrancy of colours, create visual mood, pick out the textures of everything from stone walls to wrinkly faces; hide blemishes in younger faces, and capture the outline shapes of almost any subject you choose.

Oddly, you don’t need a camera in your hands to practise ‘seeing the light’. Start by observing the way it falls on everything around you; people’s faces, buildings, trees, water. You can do this any time, anywhere, no matter what you are doing; walking to work, sitting by a window, out shopping. This is part of a process that will enable you to be objective about your photography and to start seeing the way the camera sees.

Only by understanding and seeing the way the camera sees will you be able to express your visual ideas with certainty.

Observing light soon becomes a habit – a way of seeing - and you won’t be able to stop seeing it once you start – I tell my students it’s like the Chinese curse of having a monkey on your back – you can never get rid of the habit once you’ve got it. However, our Light Monkey is a helpful soul and he is always there to help… although he may give you a sharp poke in the ear if you stop listening to him.

Good, and appropriate, light can enhance you photographs in so may ways. Just one of those ways is to accentuate the illusion of depth within your two-dimensional image. Think of yourself as an illusionist – one of the most powerful illusions you can create is that illusion of depth – the third dimension. Composition is one way to achieve this, the other is intelligent use of light direction and quality.

I’m going to be looking at the different directions of light and how they can transform and enhance your photographs. First, let’s talk about side light – it’s perhaps the star of the show.

With the light to one side of your subject (almost any subject), you will create the illusion of depth, texture, shape, form, substance, on your two-dimensional photograph. This can be powerful stuff. Side light can transform everything from portraits or landscape into strongly textured images with the illusion of that third dimension. Beware, though, with portraiture it shows every imperfection of a model’s complexion, some subjects hate it as it shows the texture of their skin (wrinkles), so it’s not the way to disguise those ‘laughter lines’. In townscapes it can make buildings appear as 3D cubes. In landscapes, sidelight makes tree trunks look round, and brings out the contours and textures of hillsides and fields – and all because the light is on one side and shadows are on the other.

Top photograph

Side light gives the illusion of the third dimension, by emphasizing texture and form – just look at that red table cloth and the roughness of the white wall. But it has another trick up its sleeve; it can create strong shadows, like that of the man projected on the wall. These shadows can be used as compositional devices. They become an integral part of the image and can, as in this case, help convey more information to the viewer. At first glance it is not entirely clear what the man is doing, he might be playing a tin whistle, although the cigarette packet on the table is a clue - but the shadow on the wall tells the story instantly and gives the information that he is lighting a cigarette.
Next, I'll be looking at frontlight, backlight and toplight

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