The Creative Mama » inspiring art, encouraging women

Seeing the Light

Photo = light
Graph = writing
Photo + graph = light writing
[a literal translation from the gree
k]

Understanding light in photography is so important, powerful and…essential (when going beyond point and shoot photography)! The lighting in a scene can easily (and often will) make or break a photograph. It’s one of the basics in photography that requires knowledge, understanding, practice and…lots of patience, to learn.

There’s different kinds of light — available, artificial, soft, harsh, cool, warm, etc. There’s quality of light. There’s quantity of light. There’s different positioning of camera to the light source — backlit, front-lit, side-lit, etc. And it ALL factors into the making of a great photograph.

Let’s talk about a few common lighting positions:

Front-lighting
The light source is in front of your subject (behind the camera). This type of lighting results in an evenly lit, low contrast image.  If not careful, this type of lighting can look flat.

Side-lighting
The light source is to the side of your subject. Side-lighting often results in deep shadows and high contrast.

Back-lighting
The light source is behind your subject (in front of your camera). This is probably the toughest of lighting conditions to master (but the light I personally enjoy most). Back-lighting is the type of lighting used when creating silhouettes and flare.  With a lack of understanding, this type of lighting often results in an incorrect exposure.

Open shade
I want to talk a second about open shade.  Open shade can be your best friend on bright, sunny days, to avoid harsh light, unwanted shadows, squinting, etc. Open shade is simply an area of outdoor shade, caused by some object — a tree, a building, an overhang, shrubs, etc.
A few things to remember, when photographing in open shade:

  • you can still get all of the above lighting positions, while shooting in open shade.
  • be on the look-out for natural reflectors (a light colored wall, the sidewalk, the sand, etc.).
  • be cautious of dabbled, spotty lighting, especially when in the shade of a tree or shrub.
  • be cautious of going too deep into the shade and losing light.

If you don’t feel you have a good grasp of photographic light or you want to improve your understanding, I encourage you to get a book or find an online tutorial that explains photographic lighting. I also encourage you to practice, practice and then practice some more. Find a (cooperative) subject and take her to a location, where you can study the light on her face. Have the subject stand in one place and keep turning as you walk in a circle around her. Look at how the light changes as you and your subject’s position changes. Now take your subject to a different location and repeat the exercise. Look at where the light is coming from and why it’s changing.  Shoot throughout the exercise, looking at how the light looks on the subject and how that same light looks in the photograph.

Here are a few recent lighting examples, from when I was photographing two clients in Utah:

I was shooting this backlit maternity. The light was low (almost sunset).  The light (sun) was behind her, although slightly to the side.


50mm, f/2.0, 1/3200, ISO 320

Then I turned and and saw my other client, in the most beautiful front-lit end-of-day light.


50mm. f/2.0. 1/2500, ISO 320

Another example:

I knew that I wanted to do some rim type of lighting with my maternity client, something that would outline her most incredibly beautiful belly. We were in a warehouse and I was trying to find light that I thought might work. There was a large, dark room with one glass door and I saw this magical bit of light there. But once I got to it, I had to do lots of trial and error to get things right — to get her in the right place, to have her lit correctly and the brick wall (right behind her) to darken out as much as possible. Her positioning to the light was crucial because if she moved her face the wrong way, i would lose it completely.
lensbaby composer, double glass optic, 1/125, ISO 2000

Understanding light is not easy, but absolutely essential, when taking photography to the next level.  If you don’t have a great grasp on photographic light already, I hope that you’ll take the time to study and practice.  It’s AMAZING what light can (and will) do for you!!

Please note that I am an available light photographer and shoot in manual mode.

After graduating college, Deb Schwedhelm spent 10 years as a Registered Nurse in the Air Force. It wasn’t until she left the military that her career as a photographer began. In 2006, Deb decided to pursue her dream — she purchased a DSLR camera, began teaching herself photography and never looked back. Whether commissioned portrait sessions, commercial assignments or her ongoing personal projects, Deb always remains true to herself and her artistic vision. Deb is married to a U.S. Naval Officer and is the mother to three incredible children, who are often the subjects of her photographic work. She is currently based in Tampa, Florida. Her work can be viewed on her website, and her inspirational photoblog can be found here as well.

About Deb


After graduating college, Deb spent 10 years as a Registered Nurse in the Air Force. It wasn’t until she left the military that her career as a photographer began. In 2006, Deb decided to pursue her dream — she purchased a DSLR camera, began teaching herself photography and never looked back. Whether commissioned portrait sessions, commercial assignments or her ongoing personal projects, Deb always remains true to herself and her artistic vision. Deb is married to a U.S. Naval Officer and is the mother to three incredible children, who are often the subjects of her photographic work. She is currently based in Tampa, Florida.

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  • Jessica Marchetti

    deb – that last shot in the dark with the glimmer of light is STUNNING. like fall out of my chair, blow it up in a canvas, sell it to a magazine stunning. i’m always so afraid to take risks in my shoots and get the same result over and over. hopefully one day i’ll get the nerve to try something as innovative as this.

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  • Donna

    Thank you so much for the excellent tutorial! Your explanation is very easy to follow and so helpful. Your images are lovely. I will be shooting a large group this afternoon outdoors and I will keep all this in mind.

  • Cynthia

    Deb, you rock. Great article. Thanks!