Photograph, derived from the original Greek φῶς (phos) meaning “light” and γραφή (graphê) meaning drawing, painting or writing. Together meaning “drawing with light”, a term named by British chemist, mathematician, astronomer & inventor, Sir John Herschel in the late 1830’s (unless you’re reading the notes of French Brazilian painter and inventor Hercules Florence, who referred to his own photographic process, a few years earlier than John Herschel, as photographie).
Light is just as important to modern photography as it was when the term was named and even much before that, when the principles of the pinhole camera and camera obscura were discussed in the time of Aristotle. With digital photography, it’s sometimes easy to forget just how important light is to the process, especially now that we have cameras that are capable of producing fantastic results in very low light situations.
Lighting is almost always the element that makes or breaks a good photograph. You don’t have to have an expensive camera or fancy artificial lighting equipment to be able to light your photographs well, finding the light is something that comes with practice. Think about your own house and how the light falls through different windows at different times of day. Think about how different the light is on different days, bright sunny days often have harsh light that can be difficult to control, overcast days have a soft, even light.
You can take photographs under each of these conditions and see how the light works with the subject, look at the shadows and exposure on your photograph and think about how the light and shadow work together. A photograph of a person taken with them facing the light source will not only have the subject squinting but you’ll also lose some definition in their face, because no shadows are falling to define their features. The same goes for backlit photos, the entire face will be in shadow because the sun is behind and they will lose the definition of their features. Of course, absolutely nothing is wrong with taking front or backlit photographs so long as you’re aware of the effect the light will have and adjust other elements of the photograph accordingly, or manipulate the light in other ways.
You can manipulate natural light with the use of reflectors and diffusers. A diffuser will even out harsh sunlight on a bright day, on overcast days the clouds act as giant diffusers. With reflectors you can reduce shadows or bring light to part of the scene that would not usually be lit by natural light. You can make your own version of these things at home. A piece of cardboard covered with foil can act as a reflector, or a piece of white foam core. A thin white curtain or a translucent shower curtain can be diffusers.
I feel as though it was my camera that first taught me to notice lighting. I shoot with the Nikon D3000, which performs poorly under low light conditions. I always keep my ISO set at less than 400, but commonly shoot at around 200. Anything more than 400ISO gives me what I consider to be unusable noise in my photograph. This brings up something I mentioned in my last post, Embrace Frustration and is a case in point of working around a problem. In this case, working around my problem, the limitations of my equipment, helped me to be very sensitive to where and how light is falling because I need good light to be able to take any photograph at the low ISO that I use.
I have been known to yell and stop when I see good light, telling my husband “the light is fantastic here, wait for me a minute”.
This is just a quick overview of the importance of light and I urge you to go out and practice, or read more on the subject of light relating to photography. Even reading about artificial lighting will help you to understand how to manipulate natural lighting for your own photographs.
As always, please have a look at the main page for the [How to Take a Photograph] series if there’s anything you have missed. The themes we’ve covered so far are:
3. The Stage
The theme for the crazy days of summer photo challenge hosted by Alicia at Project Alicia and Kristi at Live and Love Out Loud this week is “Light”. I’m linking up there and I hope that you will head over and take a look at the entries for the theme, even if you don’t have a photograph to enter yourself.