Learning How to See The Light


Learning How to See The Light

Light is the very essence of photography! It can be magical, is often unpredictable, and the right light is crucial to successful photography.

Light has an important role for every photographic subject. It tells the story of the scene before our cameras by emphasizing the shapes and colors of our subject. It can set the mood for a scene and provide us information about ambient conditions.

Dark cloudy skies at the coast often create dark, muddy light that might suggest colder temperatures and threatening weather. Clear blue skies and harsh light in the desert might suggest the opposite: hot!

The word photography comes from the Greek words for photo and write. We know what photo means so it might be fair to guess the word ‘write’ references writing with light, something we do when looking at the best angle for the light hitting our subject.

We all want the perfect light at the perfect time and we rarely get exactly what we want. As noted landscape photographer Brenda Tharp said; “Rather than define light as ‘bad’ or ‘good’, think instead of ‘appropriate’ light.

There are three properties of light: Color, Quality, and Quantity. One of these ingredients: quality is controlled by time of day, weather, and atmospheric conditions and both quality and quantity help define a successful photo. Quality includes lighting angle, contrast, and the color of light in regards to warmth or coolness.

Quantity describes how much light is available. The hour after sunset results in a diminishing quantity of light while the light following sunrise provides an increasing quantity.

Plenty of light
Minimal light

We deal with quantity of light by using our exposure settings and that quantity dictates how we do it. Lack of quantity means longer exposures while an abundant quantity results in shorter exposures.  Here we rely on our cameras to deliver what would be considered a normal or accurate exposure. From there we can manipulate what the camera recommends into what we think is a better capture by changing our exposure to allow in more quantity or less quantity of light.

The camera however doesn’t have the ability to define the best quality of light. That determination is made solely by our brain. As we photograph in the field with our brains focused on finding subjects worthy of composing in our camera, what we really are doing in a lot of ways is looking for the light and for ways to photograph the light as it illuminates the scene.

Certainly there are subjects that work photographically in a variety of lighting conditions and also some that don’t. My preference is to avoid or at least be careful of shooting in an old growth forest on a bright blue sky day as an example. This is due to contrast, but does not mean that you cannot shoot in a forest on a sunny day. Consider on the other hand an overcast, foggy, or even drizzly day. Those conditions seem more favorable.

Lighting is to flat for the scene

A snow-capped peak on an overcast day – white on white – certainly presents challenges from the light being flat.  Here, a blue sky or sky with clouds and directional light could make for a more appealing image.

While I like to call the previous comparisons ‘stereotypical’ in regards to what conditions make for a better image, we all know there are no rules in photography and so there should not be any basis for right or wrong. The lighting either works or it doesn’t.

While it would be wonderful to be able to choose the appropriate light for the scene before us, it does not work that way. Instead, it is better to find the scene that works best in the light available at the time.


Perfect in flat light

Light quality: Soft versus contrast

Quality of light refers to how much contrast and color the available light is. Lighting low in contrast has a short dynamic range, that distance between highlights and shadows, or light and dark areas within the scene. A scene high in contrast has a longer dynamic range or distance between shadows and highlights. If this range is longer than the camera can capture, it results in a contrasty photo and potentially lost detail in blocked highlights and shadows.

Perfect early light that is hard

This brightness range varies depending on the sky above us. With a clear sky and the sun above the light shines down on our subject and casts a shadow in the opposite direction. This is often a hard edge shadow containing an amount of light that is only a fraction of the brightness when compared to the light on the sunlit side of the subject. The result is lots of contrast in the scene and in the digital image capture.

What we might deem to be the best light for a given scene is usually determined by the specific type of scene. Flat lighting places less emphasis on textures like rippled sand dunes as an example. This could in fact, depending on the scene, be considered a poor light quality for that subject. But the same flat light usually works well in the forest, with wildflowers, or any subject that benefit from a soft quality of light.


Overcast day in the Smoky’s

Overcast lighting, being flat or low in contrast, results in an image file low in dynamic range. These image files benefit from post processing where adding a little contrast can emphasize subtle tones and hues and provide the needed amounts of subtle contrast, making colors and textures pop a little more.

On an overcast day with a sky full of clouds the sun hits the clouds and then the light going through those clouds lights our subject. Since there is a direct relationship between the size of the light source and the contrast or quality of the light, then an overcast sky produces a light quality substantially softer than the light from a clear sky and the sun.

This concept holds true whether out in nature or in the studio. If you’re taking a portrait and you want a softer quality of light you put on a light box or an umbrella to soften the quality coming from your bare studio light or flash.

Diffused light in the Redwoods

Diffused light refers to light that is still soft but has more contrast. Examples might be the sun breaking through the clouds or fog or even hazy or smoggy days. The atmospheric conditions are diffusing the light which keeps lighting contrast in check. Here is a redwood forest shows the sun starting to break through the fog and creating a magnificent quality of light.

Full light from direct sun means there is nothing between the sun and the subject like clouds or tress or any objects. The subject is receiving the full force of the sun. The result is often lighting contrast; a lengthy dynamic range between the shadows of the scene and the lighter highlight areas.


Full sun with minimal shadows

While this quality of light works wonderfully for many subjects, it can be a killer for others. If this dynamic range exceeds what the cameras sensor can capture, the shadows will be very dark or black if the exposure favors the highlights.

Subjects like the previously mention sand dunes or any subject with minimal shadows and that can handle contrast will look good in full sun. However, if there are large shadows and detail within them is important, full sun could be a problem. Again, each scene will have a light quality that best defines it and it could require soft light or contrasty light.

Lighting angle: Time of day

Lighting angles change throughout the day and sometime during this progression comes a time that is perfect, or at least the best time, to shoot a given subject. Since each subject is different the best time could be early, midday, or late in the day. If you have the time and are not sure which time of day may be best to photograph a subject, consider shooting at different times of the day to grab the shot in the best light.

At the same time, it is often not difficult to determine whether early or late light is best when you observe where the sun has come from and where it is going. Often the lower light angles soften light quality and work much better for some subjects.

Midday is a poor time of day in the Badlands for this scene


Lighting that comes from the front or near the position of the camera often lacks the necessary highlights and shadows that define most subjects. It is generally flat with mostly highlights and few shadows creating a lower dynamic range. With front lighting you often need something else going on to make it work and it could be as simple as contrasting colors or tonal ranges within the subject.

Side lighting

Side lighting is probably the most widely used approach to lighting that most. Here the light comes from various angles on either side of the camera and emphasizes the shape of the subject by creating highlights and shadows effectively showing form and texture. The biggest drawback to side lighting of course is contrast so at all depends on the subject and how that light affects the subject.


Side lighting emphasizes the texture of the cracked mud


Back-lighting is another very useful lighting quality. Here the sun comes from behind the subject where the light is pointing towards the camera and can create a very dramatic effect. Backlighting works well for edge lighting, silhouettes, and creates lengthy shadows across the ground.

Back lighting adds a nice rim to the cactus

Another example of back-lighting could be photographing fall leaves on a tree. The first shots taken are with the sun behind the camera in a front-light approach. This has created very flat and boring lighting in most situations. But moving to the other side of the tree and capturing the leaves backlit making them translucent and this creates a much different effect that is visually more exciting.

High contrast back light

Back-lighting also works in flat lighting. The only difference between flat light and contrasty light is the contrast or the range between highlights and shadows. Flat light is still directional and usually comes from above, so you can still choose for example, to back light the leaves as previously described.

Low contrast back light

Color of light

The third property of light is its color, often referred to in color temperature. Midday light is often bluish and the temperature is around 5500k. Early or late light is often referred to as sweet light due to its warmer color temperature of around 2800 – 3400k.

The sweet light of sunrise

There is something about images captured in this warm light that evokes emotions and a sense of security. Could it be that warm light creates a warm and fuzzy feeling? Bluish light can feel cold and might create a sense that is less secure.

This 10 second exposure takes on a blue cast with daylight WB settings

The color of light is important to the landscape photographer seeking to create a mood that evokes any of these feelings in their photograph. There are warming filters and cooling filters that aid in creating that mood, but the ability to manipulate images to create that mood is easily done on the computer.

Finally, no matter what conditions exist when we photograph, we have powerful tools to manipulate lighting quality, quantity, and color to some degree. Photoshop masking and HDR processing allow control over dynamic range. The color tools can make cool light warmer and the ability to add contrast can make flat lighting have some pop to it.

Above flat light image after HDR and Topaz B&W Effects

But nothing on the computer can make up for the need to see light in the first place and while in the field photographing. Nature is the lighting master and the best at creating the light that defines the landscape. We as witnesses with a camera, can only improve so much what has been painted for a brief moment on the canvas in front of us.

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