Beginner's Guide to Light: Appropriate Lighting

Mike Browne returns with a new series of beginner guides. This time his focus is on lighting.

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Article by Mike Browne from -

Mike BrowneFollowing on from my earlier series of beginners guides to photography (you can check out Part 1 here) ePHOTOzine’s very own Nikita and I put our heads together and decided to ask you all what you’d like help with through the forum. From the number of requests for help with lighting we thought that’s where we’d better go this time around. So let’s start at the beginning with available light from our lovely friend the sun.

All light has its own qualities and in my opinion there is no such thing as ‘bad’ light. You just have to recognize which light works with which subject. Light that’s perfect for landscape is often hopeless for people.

Take a look at this still from one of our photography training videos. I shot the image of the boats seconds before turning to camera so both the boats and I were shot in the same hard light. The boats look great – I look horrid. All hard shadows under my eyes and nose and every line and wrinkle stands out. I look like I need ironing!

Screen shot from Photography Courses.Biz video

So why did it work for the boats and not for me? Well, hard direct light makes hard shadows so with a hard angular subject it makes the shape and texture stand out nicely. The sun was low in the sky so the shadows on the boat emphasise the point of the bow and roundness of the masts by making one side much brighter than the other. But with a softer subject (which is how I like to see myself) strong shadows aren’t flattering.

In these shots, Natasha took only one step to her left from sunlight to shade, but the difference in quality of light (for the subject) is miles apart.

Same shot taken in the sun and shade

These beach huts however would look dull and lifeless without the shadows because the angles and shapes wouldn’t stand out as much.

Beach Huts

In normal everyday life we don’t really appreciate light very much. We only notice whether there’s enough of it to see or not. But quantity isn’t the same as quality and for most of us it takes a bit of work to start noticing the difference.

But what do I mean by quality, what is ‘soft’ and ‘hard angular’ light?

Think of light as water for a moment. Imagine you’ve got the garden hose in your hand and the tap turned full on. The stream of water coming from the end is like a rod. It’s a fully directional jet travelling in one direction. If you put your hand in front of it, it feels ‘hard’ as it crashes against your skin and very little of it gets past your hand because it’s deflected up, down and out to the sides. If it was light then this dry area behind your hand would be a shadow.

Direct Harsh Light

This is roughly like direct sunlight. OK sunlight doesn’t feel hard, but the side facing the sun will be hotter than the side facing away from it.

But – if you put a fine sprinkler on the end to diffuse it, it shatters that direct jet. Now when it hits your hand it’s much softer to the touch and more of it is dropping down behind softening the shadow. This is like the soft diffused light you’d get on a lightly overcast day when shadows are at a minimum and instead of being hot on one side – the warmth wraps itself around you.

Soft diffused light

These images are stills from one of our photography videos about light and hopefully they’ll help you to visualise the way light behaves.

Soft light comes from non direct sunlight which is either diffused by clouds or is ‘leaking’ into an area of shade. Hard light is just good old fashioned sunshine. The trick is to match the light you have available with a subject it will work for.

As a general rule a soft subject works best with softer light and a harder more angular subject works better with harder more angular light. When light is flowing across a landscape from the side it creates shadows which make features stand out which is why early and late in the day are the best times to shoot landscape.

Now - rules like this are a great starting point to begin with because they’ll help you shoot images you’re proud of so you’re inspired to get out and experiment. As you practice and gain experience you’ll start to notice times when you can break them.

Divi Divi Tree By Tom Mackie

You might have seen this image by my friend and colleague Tom Mackie who’s been professionally shooting landscape, architecture and running workshops for many years. It’s been on calendars and posters all over the world and Tom’s kindly allowed me to use it in this article to demonstrate a point.

Look at the shadows. This image was taken with the sun directly overhead in the middle of the day. So why does it work so brilliantly when ‘landscapes have to be shot morning and evening’?

The knurly texture of the tree trunk will give great texture at almost any time of day, provided the sun’s shining. But the shadow beneath the tree really tells you this place is HOT. And the clever bit is that by using a polarizing filter Tom removed the glare from the water turning it from silvery to this beautiful turquoise.

I guess what I’m saying is don’t be afraid to experiment. Photography is creative so don’t get hung up on rules all the time. Use them as a guide to gain experience but give your own ideas a try. But take time to think things through. If you keep practicing and thinking as you shoot you’ll soon be recognizing ways to shoot images that are different - and therefore noteworthy.

Next time we’ll take this light malarkey a step further.

Until then happy shooting…

Mike Browne, from -

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