It’s All Greek To Me

Written by stuestler on December 20th, 2010

There’s an ongoing debate amongst experienced photographers about which is more important to photography – light or composition. I side with the camp that says it all begins with light.

Light is the fundamental element in photography. The word itself is a combination of the Greek “photos” – light – and “graphos” – draw. Photography is drawing with light. Without light there is no photograph.

And how you use light in your photos makes all the difference in your results.

Light has four characteristics – quality, direction, color and quantity or intensity. All are part of the creative process in making your pictures, whether you use them intentionally or ignore them and hope for the best. Obviously, learning these characteristics and giving them some thought in crafting your images will yield the best results.

Front lighting is, as the name suggests, light that is coming from in front of the subject. It will usually illuminate all of the subject evenly, but this can cause a “flat” look, without a sense of depth.

Back lighting is light coming from behind the subject. It will light the areas around the subject but leave the subject itself dark – this is how you make a silhouette – or, if you expose for the subject, the surrounding areas will be overexposed.

Side lighting is essentially any light coming from a direction other than directly in front of or directly behind the subject. Side lighting gives the greatest sense of depth as it lights some part of the subject while leaving others in shadow. Shadows help our brains recognize dimension and give a three-dimensional sense to a two-dimensional object like a photo.

The quality of the light is determined by the type of source – whether it comes from a small point, creating a hard light with deep shadows, all the way to an even, overcast type of illumination where the light is coming from every direction, softening or eliminating shadows.

Color of light ranges from warm to cool, depending on the time of day and sky conditions for sunlight, and on the type of light with artificial lighting.  Your camera typically “white balances” to give as neutral a color cast as possible, but you can control your white balance to get the kind of effect and mood you want in your pictures.

While quantity is usually determined by getting the “correct” exposure, using over- or under-exposure creatively to emphasize a certain element in your subject can dramatically affect the mood of your photo.

Becoming a student of light causes you to see your world more vibrantly and helps gives your photos life. There’s obviously much more to the subject of light than the brief introduction here – on fact, learning about light is a big part of our introductory classes and continues to be a significant element in all of the Photo Mentor classes and workshops, as well as the information you discover on our Premier Photo Tours.

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