Illuminating Your Vision: Light, Shadow, and Your Photography

From it’s very conception photography has been all about light. When it was first invented, Joseph Niepce was looking for a way to create accurate copies of lithographs by "drawing with light". He accomplished this by creating a light sensitive compound that when properly processed created a perfect black and white duplicate.  

From the very beginning light was at the heart of photography. Today, despite all of the advances photography has made since Niepce's time, light still has the greatest impact on how a photograph turns out: not only in a physical sense, but in an artistic one as well. 

The Light...

Unlike the other elements of a photograph that I have covered so far, we as photographers have little control over the thing our art relies on. 

It‘s like a painter that had a constantly changing color pallet. They would only be able to paint at certain times, waiting for the appropriate pallet for them to achieve their desired results.  

Like this hypothetical painter, we too are resolved to create our intent despite this uncontrollable force. Some people go as far as to describe themselves as "light chasers" because they go to where the light is in pursuit of their ideal image.

Even though so much of our art is tied to the weather (unless you are a studio photographer), the final image is still a product of our vision. By choosing the exposure, the perspective, the position of the camera, and the exact moment the image is exposed, we are able to impose our creative will on our images. 

We can choose the time of day to go out, whether or not to shoot in certain conditions, and we can decide to make the image brighter or darker all to create the mood that best fits our intention.

And The Dark

As the saying goes, where there is light, there is shadow. They are both an inherent part of our world, and they are both necessary to understand for photographers.

Shadow is what gives an object dimension. When an photo is taken midday with almost no shadow, it will turn out very flat. 

Returning to the painter analogy, think of some of the greatest paintings of all time. Many of them relied on a technique called chiaroscuro, or a strong contrast between light and dark, to create a dramatic image that has depth to it. 

Not every photograph has to have this intense contrast, in fact I’d argue most shouldn’t, but it gives you an idea of how shadow can be used to create mood and a sense of physical space. 

Quality Of Light

As I mentioned above, the light we have available as photographers changes day to day, minute to minute. As conditions fluctuate, so does the quality of the light. By quality, I’m not referring to how good it is, but instead the characteristics the light takes on and how it can change your photograph. 

As the sun moves across the sky, it’s light goes through a predictable pattern. Before the sun rises above the horizon, a period known as the blue hour, the world is cast in a cool blue tone. 

The next few hours after sunrise are known as the golden hour. It is called this because of the soft golden hue the light takes on. Objects cast long dramatic shadows that can be used as interesting composition elements. 

As the sun approaches it’s apex, the light and shadows become more harsh. It's frequently recommended to not shoot during midday. It can be done, but it's much harder to do. 

After noon, the pattern reverses. The harsh shadows begin to lengthen, then the light begins to turn yellow gold, and finally after sunset the world returns to the blue hour. 

Knowing this cycle can help you plan your shoots. These effects are most prominent during clear, and partly cloudy days, but various conditions impact how the light manifests. 

Atmospheric conditions like haze and humidity will change the way objects in the distance appear, overcast skies cause reduced contrast and soft shadows, and rainy conditions will make colors appearing more saturated. And just to throw one more wrench into the mix, all of this is also affected by the time of year, and your latitude. 

On the lookout

There is no one best kind of light, it all depends on what you want your final image to look like. Knowing how the time of day and the weather affects light allows you to choose the best conditions to achieve your vision. 

Each condition can be used for differing effects, but I have found that some of the best images are made while conditions are changing: as a storm is breaking up, or while the light rays from openings in the clouds pass over. 

A deep appreciation for light is inherent for a great photographer. As your skills grow, so will your understanding of light, and you will most likely begin to notice the way light and shadow play with your environment. While I am driving I almost always see a scene being beautifully illuminated.Even though I can’t stop to photograph the moment, it fills my heads with ideas for future photographs. 

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