Light is the raw ingredient in photography, and many photographers forget how important it is in creating great pictures. Understanding the technical aspects of photography is essential, but if you fail to appreciate the impact of light on an image you will never master the creative art. Whether you shoot landscapes, portraits, still life or wildlife, understanding and controlling light will give you your photography a creative edge.
Shooting into the sun with an OMD-EM5 and 9mm, f8, bodycap lens to capture long shadows.
If you are shooting outdoors, the time of day has a huge influence on photographs. The direction of the light, the color temperature and the strength of the light all vary as the day passes. Each of these factors results in a very different mood and picture quality. Choosing the best time of day to take a photograph can make the difference between a dull, uninspiring shot and a potential award-winner.
Photographs taken at sunrise and sunset have a romantic quality which can improve any scenery or landscape. The rich and vivid colors create a unique mood, and lengthy shadows can add definition and depth. The most dramatic shots can be captured after the sun has passed the horizon when the sky is almost black. The light is soft and incredibly warm at this time of day, and it’s always worth waiting to see how this changes the landscape.
Although it’s worth waiting for specific times of the day to take pictures, the creative photographer can work in any conditions. Taking control of your camera means you can adapt to whatever lighting conditions prevail. So long as you have light you can shoot a photograph. Changing weather conditions have as much impact on the landscape as the time of day, and the photographer can also exploit this to his creative advantage. Cloudy skies diffuse sunlight and produce soft light. Landscapes can look flat and dull in these conditions, but they are perfect for portrait photography.
On overcast days, you may need to adjust your camera settings for the best results. Increasing the ISO setting is the easiest way to do this, but always consider how well your camera’s sensor will cope. Noisy, murky pictures may result if you increase the ISO too much. Current professional level DSLRs and top mirrorless cameras can generally cope with high ISO settings, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Lowering the shutter speed and fixing the camera to a tripod is often a better way to deal with low lighting conditions. Of course, digital noise is often used to mimic the grain of film and many photographers add it.
Shooting in bright sunlight also presents challenges. Blue skies and bright conditions can enhance holiday and travel pictures, but bright sunlight produces harsh shadows and high contrast. If the light is particularly strong, you may need to use a neutral density filter to control the brightness. A polarizing filter is another option, and can be used to increase the intensity of a blue sky.
To understand the impact of light on a landscape, it’s a good idea to visit the same area throughout a month and take photographs at different times of day. This can become a project lasting a year or longer. You will be amazed at the variety of pictures which results from this exercise. Doing this will teach you many important lessons about the impact of light on your photographs.
Using reflectors is great way to control and influence light to your advantage. A simple white reflector can be used to bounce light back into shadows, and brings instant improvements to portrait shots. Silver and gold reflectors add some color to reflected light and are also very useful in portrait photography.
If you want to improve your photography, concentrate on understanding the impact of light on your pictures. Doing this will have greater benefits than thinking about lenses, technical settings and camera modes.