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Light and The Photographer: A Beginners Guide


The word “Photography” has Greek origins, which can loosely be translated to “writing with light”.

A photographer writes with light and his camera as the pen. Even the best camera is useless in complete darkness. To master photography, it is imperative that you understand light and how it works. But lighting can be more complex than any photography camera. It reflects off some objects and passes through others, creates small or large shadows and also alters and influences the colours of an image. The way you capture it has a dramatic effect on your final image-it’s the difference between a professional portrait and an amateur picture.


The Main Sources of Lighting

Daylight: Freely available, often breathtaking, but infinitely variable. If you observe a single location over the course of a day, the lighting shifts constantly with the weather and the time of day. There is a huge difference between a brilliant sunset and a stormy, overcast evening.

Continuous artificial light: This can be a common light bulb or produced by specially made photoflood lights. The properties of various light sources vary. For example, fluorescent lighting and incandescent lighting produce different results and will require different treatment.

Photographic flash: The lighting is produced from a brief flash of light from either a single location very close to the camera or in a photography studio, from multiple locations.

There are other sources that can be used for special purposes. For example, lightning or moonlight can be captured by a skilful photographer to produce a unique photograph.


Positioning Your Light Source

Front lighting: Placing your subject directly in front of your light source. This position brings out a high amount of detail. Why? Because the light is coming from directly in front of the person or objects being photographed, any shadows will fall behind the object to conceal any details. It is the simplest position to shoot. You cannot go wrong taking your wedding photos or stock photography.

Side lighting: Placing the light source or subject in such a way that the light hits from the side. This adds shadows and depth to your photography prints, creating a look that can be adjusted with the help of lighting gear such as reflectors. How you adjust your light can develop into your own signature look for your photos. It is still fairly simple to shoot-you just need a good eye to watch and change the way the shadows fall. Small adjustments in the position of the subject can make more fascinating or satisfying shadows. For example, if you want to define the jaw of the person you are shooting, you can raise the light up extra high to cast a greater degree of shadow under the chin. This highlights the jawline and can hide details like a double chin. Techniques like this are an integral part of professional headshots, as it can be used to show off the best features of a person’s face while hiding less flattering details.

Backlighting: This is the trickiest of the bunch and takes practice to use well. However, it is worth the effort. Backlighting can create spectacular images, making things appear to glow and producing a halo effect. This can be used to great effect in newborn photos to give the baby that extra angelic look.  However, since your light is hitting the subject from behind all the shadows will fall in front of your subject, which can turn them into an unattractive dark silhouette. However, using manual adjustment, you can tweak the exposure to properly expose the subject. This must be done carefully, as it can lead to leaving your background overexposed. This can be prevented by placing a reflector in front of the subject. This will improve the exposure of your subject without losing that special backlit glow.


Soft Light Versus Hard Light

The position of your light source changes where the shadows will fall, but not the quality of those shadows. How light or dark those shadows are an integral part of the photograph. This is controlled by the light source as well as any light modifiers you may choose to use.

Hard light: A hard light source will produce shadows with a minimal transition being apparent between the light areas and dark areas of the photograph. Hard light creates a greater degree of contrast. This allows you to create deeper, darker shadows which can be used to great dramatic effect.

Soft light: Soft light sources create a much more subtle effect. The transition between the light areas and dark areas of the photograph. Using soft light is not as dramatic but creates a smoother shadow that prevents details from being lost in the dark areas of the photograph.

What makes your light source hard or soft? Larger light sources produce a soft light while smaller light sources produce hard light. But, distance plays an important role too. Closer light sources are softer. For example, the sun is the largest light source, but due to its distance from us, it acts as a hard light source

Hopefully, this guide can help you on the journey to be a portrait pro photographer!

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