A couple of weeks ago, we studied what makes a well-composed image by a few great American photographers, like Callahan, Gowin, and Mary Ellen Mark. Having only focused on the area of composition, we weren’t paying attention to the effects of lighting in our composition assignment. Perhaps, it would have been too much to accomplish if we were asked to look at composition and lighting.
Our third lesson in photography detailed lighting and metering to create a well lit and composed image. I’m sharing some notes and photos that might help you think about lighting when you are taking a photo on your smartphone or camera.
Three Principles of Light
1. Light travels in straight lines.
Although it’s a basic principle, it is worth mentioning because without light, we could not see objects before our eyes. Thus, this principle is an important one since it easily helps us to trace the source of light.
Here are a couple of science projects to test the effects of light, geared toward your budding scientist (3rd and 4th graders) at home:
– Dade County School’s “How Does Light Travel” Assignment
– Mr. Collinson.ca’s “Light Travels in Straight Lines” Assignment
Piano Man and I may have to try this at home sometime.
2. The angle of incidence is equal to and opposite from the angle of reflection.
This principle is useful to know as one thinks about how light bounces off an object and is projected onto your subject(s). For example, when you see a reflection of a photo behind glass because of the light source, you move because it inhibits your view of the photo.
3. The Inverse Square Law: Light from a source changes in intensity proportional to the inverse of the square of the relative distance from the source.
While this principle seems like a difficult concept to understand, according to Digital Camera World, it means that you don’t want to get too close or too far from a subject when using flash. Have you ever noticed someone taking a photograph of Niagara Falls with flash? If the scene at Niagara Falls is your subject, then using flash will offer no help to lighten your image because you are physically too far from the Falls. On the other hand, if you take a family photo in front of Niagara Falls, then your subject becomes your family. Stand at the appropriate distance away, and you will be able to lighten the faces of your family for a nice snapshot photo.
Four Types of Light
Now that we know some basic principles of light, we can think about four different types of light: direct, reflected, diffused, and radiant light.
1. Direct Light
Coming from an unimpeded light source, in the example below, the sun directly hitting Zampela’s Art Museum in Nicosia, Cyprus, strikes some dark shadows. You’ll notice that the image quality is clear and bright, and contrast levels are also high. But the museum sign is difficult to read due to the harsh shadows hitting at noon day.
2. Reflected Light
Light bounces off a surface and then it is projected onto the subject in reflected lighting. It can bounce on anything, such as pebbles on a lake or aluminum foil. In class, we were asked to place a piece of paper under our chins, then instructed to look at one another. Because the lighting in the classroom was directly above us, the light hit the paper and bounced under our chins. You can change the color of the piece of paper (say pink), and you’ll notice how light bounces onto pink paper, and it is then reflected onto our skin tones.
3. Diffused Light
Diffused lighting is best used in portraits. The clearest example is this beautifully composed image from the point of view of this little guy. In this photo, the clouds are creating a diffused barrier between the sun and the subject. Compared to direct lighting, the lighting on the subject is softer.
If you like to see more photos of this cutie pie, check out Dae Jeong’s Instagram feed.
The best example of radiant light would come from an LED source, computer screen, tv, or neon screen. It creates an enveloping light around the subject. Although it is difficult to see in the photo of this pristine white Apple Store in Amsterdam, lighting from a computer screen is hitting the face of the Apple employee in the background.
Six Directions of Light
There are six directions of light to consider when photographing an image. I’ll highlight a few with some images found from the Internet and my personal archive.
If you place a light on the axis of the camera lens, it creates thin, flattening shadows, which does not show space or highlight texture.
2. Side (or Hatchet)
Using side or Hatchet lighting, it causes the light to hit half of the subject’s face.
From a 45° angle from the top side hitting down on the subject, this type of lighting gives dimension and creates more pleasing shadows. Although the example below of Linus isn’t quite at an exact 45° angle, it gives you an idea of how angling the light down on the subject, almost makes this subject look angelic. (Don’t you agree?)
This is probably one of the worst angles to shine light, typically at 12 noon, on your subject. Like playing outside in the sun at high noon, doctor’s don’t recommend it and neither do professional photographers.
You’ll see a lot of this type of lighting in horror movies. It’s the most unnatural form of lighting as light doesn’t usually come from the ground.
Back lighting is a great tool in portraiture for those with dark hair to highlight, so that the subject doesn’t blend into a dark background. However, in the landscape photo below, the sun setting behind the trees darken the images seen in front of you.
The Role of Light
As we arm ourselves with the principles, types, and directions of light, we can now consider the different roles of light. My professor discussed two roles: 1) descriptive, passive light and 2) transformative, active light. In descriptive, passive light, think of diffused lighting. It creates a softer light on your subject, while transformative light is more active becoming part of the subject.
After listening and taking copious notes, I have to say this was one intense lecture on lighting, but it really helped each of us to consider how lighting can improve our images, either passively or actively enhancing the subject(s). Finally, once we looked at everyone’s photos, our level of work improved remarkably. When you’re out taking a photo of your family, you’re probably intuitively thinking about how light effects the subject(s) of your image. Next time, try a different angle or changing the direction of light to create a different image that you’ll enjoy for years to come.
– How to Fine Tune a Black & White Photo Image
– Putting Composition Theory into Practice
– Learning About Composition
– Taking Intro to Analog (Film) Photography
– American History of Photography, the Darkroom, and the Unintended Photogram
From my hometown to yours,