Sooner or later, it’s the light you’re shooting.
This week, we’re going to attempt to make that sooner.
A lot of people who pick up photography as a hobby start out by shooting content. What does that mean? Shooting content means focusing more on what is in the image while taking a photo. Interesting stuff, like cats or other examples of cuteness, shapes and lines, people in action, beautiful flowers. This is perfectly fine to do; when you shoot content, you are documenting your world. Your photos report what you see.
But as photographers mature in their skills, they might begin to see differently. This seeing differently usually means they not only see the design elements in a composition, but they also see how light changes how those things look.
“The moment you take the leap of understanding to realize you are not photographing a subject but are photographing light is when you have control over the medium” says Daryl Benson. I would revise this to say that that moment Benson’s talking about is when you begin to have control over your photography. It’s a long and challenging journey, and the learning is steep. So we’re going to break it down into smaller bits that are easier to handle in a week’s module.
In this week’s module, our main topics are: what is the difference between the light in different parts of the day, what is directional light and how can I go get some, and a few camera settings that can affect the way you produce an image in different types of light. You can choose which part you would like to focus on for the week, and make the module as easy or difficult as you want it to be. If you learn how to spot different lighting conditions and how the light changes the way your subject looks, you’ve got something pretty good out of this week.
Breaking the Day into Different Lighting Conditions
I learned this by shooting a lot, usually when I travel, from dawn to dusk. Light has different qualities at different times of the day. In the pre-sunrise hour, light is soft, and usually has a bluish cast.
Sunrise introduces the warm parts of the spectrum. Early morning light is usually soft and puts a light yellow cast on things.
As the run rises higher and the day gets warmer, the colors also become warmer. The photo from Siem Reap was taken less than an hour after the sunrise. You can see the light is very yellow, very golden.
In the middle of the morning, you will find two things happening: the light is becoming more “white”—it’s no longer got that orange tinge in it. One of the tricks I have to keep shooting all day is to find an indoor or roofed area and shoot subjects with light coming in from one side. This is called side lighting and is one of my favorite types of lighting. Side lighting is also called “Rembrandt lighting” because the master used it in his paintings. The effect of side lighting is to light one side of the subject and put the other side in shadow. This creates a 3D effect on the subject.
Midday light is of course harsh and considered bad light since if you use it for portraits, you will not be able to avoid unsightly shadows under the subject’s eyes. But you can actually shoot other things in this midday, high-contrast light. Silhouettes, for example. (Please do not look at the sun directly through your lens as this damages your eyes. I used the LCD of the camera for this composition below to avoid staring straight at sunlight.)
Mid-afternoon light is beginning to lose its harshness and becoming directional again. Since the sun moved, it is now coming from a direction and you can find shadows and light tracing the contours of subjects, again.
Late afternoon light, of course, is golden. Sunsets, if the sun comes out and isn’t hiding behind cloud cover, are some of the most beautiful light we’ll ever photograph. Mundane subjects can look fantastic in this light. Below is a video from PhotoClassPro about photographing sunrises and sunsets. (You will find that this lesson also reviews what you learned about exposure compensation from Module 2.)
Artificial light at night is something you can explore, too. Streetlamps, shops, car headlights and city lights can all bathe our subjects in interesting light. Even a garden lamp and the screen of an outdoor movie can help you render an image.
Camera Settings and Types of Lighting Conditions
Aperture Priority (A or AV Mode) is a great mode to use when you are photographing different lighting conditions. Aperture Priority Mode allows you to open up or close down the opening of the lens when you take your photos. This means if there is a lot of light (say midday), you can close down to a small aperture like f/11 or f/16. If you are shooting at pre-sunrise, you don’t have a lot of light, so you can open up your aperture to something like f/2.8 or f/3.5.
Here is a list of aperture that film manufacturers used to print inside the box of film you bought at stores. Low light: f/3.5 or lower. Medium to low light: f/4.5 or lower. Midday bright light: f/8 to f/11. Really bright light: f/16.
Here’s expertvillage talking about aperture settings when shooting outdoors. He also talks about the camera settings and how you can use them to get a good exposure.
Digital cameras rock because you can change ISO settings from shot to shot, unlike sticking to one ISO setting in the case of film. ISO is the sensitivity of the ‘film’ or sensor to light. The higher the number of the ISO, the more sensitive the sensor, and the better it can see in the dark.
If you are shooting in bright conditions and holding the camera, you might want to use a low ISO like 100 or 200. If you are shooting in low light conditions, such as the pre-sunrise hour or after sunset, a high ISO like 800 or more will help your camera make an exposure.
Note: if you are going to use a tripod to steady your camera during a shot, you can use a low ISO even if the light is low. The camera will take longer to take the photo, but it will be steady on the tripod, and your photo will come out sharp. If you handhold the camera at shutter speeds less than say 1/30 seconds, chances are just the fact that you are breathing will create a bit of camera shake, and your photo might come out somewhat blurry.
For this module, your assignment is to shoot the light. Take a photowalk or two this week, and find some beautiful light. It doesn’t matter what your subject is, but make sure you use only found light (you found it lighting the scene, didn’t make it using flash or other light source you own)—whether it is the dramatic sunrise or sunset, or light from a window on a still life scene you created. What you will learn from looking for the light will amaze you forever.
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