Learn to Light

Why learn to light?

Well, in a nutshell, to make you a better photographer, no matter what sort of photography you’re into! With a good understanding of how light works, you’ll immediately start to see an improvement in how your photographs look. If you’re trying to make a living from your photography in any way, knowing how to use light will help you stand out from the vast crowd of people who just take snaps, and therefore allow you to charge more money.

One of the great things about light is that it obeys basic principles no matter what it’s source. Daylight from the sun, the light from a flashgun, an LED panel, or a car headlight, all have the same 4 characteristics of light. What this means in practice is that once you understand these basics, you can, in a sense, light anything with anything.

Getting good at lighting involves more than just learning some technique. To really create memorable work, you’ll do well to look around you more, and start observing good light whenever you see it. Start to keep a log of lighting imagery that inspires you, snap interesting lighting whenever you see it, and create your own library of great light you want to emulate. Later in the course I’ll teach you to do something called “Reverse Engineering” whereby you’ll be able to look at an image and work out how it was lit, so that you can then recreate it yourself.

The nuts and bolts of light can be learnt very quickly nowadays. It’s a simple matter to take a picture, look at the back of the camera, then move or change the light in some way, take another picture, and instantly see what difference the change has made. You’ve got the perfect excuse to muck about and play with any light you can find in your quest to discover how light works, and once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll have a vital skill that will improve your photography forever.

Learn to Light – The 4 Characteristics of light

All light, no matter what it’s source, will have 4 characteristics:

  • Direction
  • Quality
  • Quantity
  • Colour    

You may hear these terms referred to differently – quantity can sometimes be called “intensity” for example, but they amount to the same thing.

The key concept to take on board is that these 4 characteristics are the same no matter the source of the light Рthe sun, a headtorch, a £5000 flash head, a table lamp Рeach will have a direction, quality, quantity and colour as they relate to your photograph.

Now let’s look at each of these facets in turn, starting with direction.

Direction of Light

The direction of a light source is so obvious it’s easily overlooked. We take it for granted that a light source must be SOMEWHERE but where it is in relation to the subject you’re photographing is vital.

It’s vital because the direction the light is falling onto your subject will affect how the shot will look. Again, this can be so obvious that we often just take it for granted, but think about why light from overhead looks natural to us. The sun spends most of it’s time above us (apart from the start and end of the day) and we’ve got used to that, so we take it as natural when we walk into a room, and the lights are mostly in the ceiling, rather than the floor. Think how unnatural someone looks when they’re lit from below, and you’ll see what I mean.

Since the direction of the light matters so much, we need to consider if it’s right for the shot we’re trying to create. If we’re using existing light of some sort (daylight, the light in a room etc) and it’s not doing what we want, do we need to move the subject, or come back and shoot at a different time of day? Of course, in the case of a light we introduce to the scene ourselves, the direction is totally up to us, and we can place it anywhere we choose to get the look we want.

Direction will affect 2 of the other characteristics too – quantity and quality. Think of the sun on a cloudless day. It has a very hard quality, and casts very strong, well defined shadows. The sun is of course very big, but it’s very far away, as distance is part of direction. Because the sun is now small in relation to our subject, that makes it’s quality very hard. Quantity is affected by distance too – the further away a light source is, the more of the light gets scattered, and the less light will reach your subject. It may help in this instance to remember that light is also heat – picture a roaring fire, and if you stand right next to it, you’ll be burnt, but stand several metres away, and the heat will barely reach you.

Quality of Light

The quality of a light source exists on a sliding scale from soft and diffuse at one end, to hard and focused at the other. That’s all there is to it, despite the photographic industry making a fortune from trying to sell you thousands of different ways of achieving this! A light can only be at one point on this scale – it can’t simultaneously be hard AND soft.

As with direction, there are certain conventions we’ve got used to when it comes to quality. A very soft light tends to be more flattering, and as such, is often used for beauty shots, whilst a harder light is more revealing, with deeper, harder shadows, and shows texture more. Like any code of convention, this is worth learning so you know when to employ it, and when to bend or even break it.

Quality can be changed and altered in all sorts of ways. You can alter the hard quality of the midday sun for example, by moving into the shade of a tree. You can make a soft light harder by blocking off parts of it so that only a tiny amount reaches your subject. Quality is generally a function of a light source’s size in relation to the subject – and here’s where it ties into distance. A large light source (in relation to the subject) will create a soft light, and a small source will create a hard one. You can alter this by diffusing or focusing the light more, or simply by altering the distance between your light and the subject.

Quantity of Light

Like direction, the quantity of light is something we often overlook because it’s so obvious. Of course there’s lots of light outside on a bright sunny day, and much less indoors with just a 60 watt bulb! Quantity matters though, because it will affect our exposure choice.

Think back to the technical course, and the basics of how shutter speed, aperture and ISO combine to create an exposure. The amount of light there is will determine what this combination will be. Whilst you can adjust these up to a point, and choose a combination that suits you, quantity of light will affect your ability to achieve certain things. As an example, think about how fast your shutter speed will need to be if you’re trying to freeze movement in your image. Combine that with an aperture that will give you enough depth of field, and an ISO low enough to keep noise down, and you’ll realise that you need quite a lot of light!

If you’re adding the light yourself, rather than just using the existing, ambient light, then the quantity of light will manifest itself in the choices you make here too. Lights like flashguns are very portable, and for their size pack a decent amount of quantity. If you’re mixing them in with mains powered flashes though, you may find they’re not enough, as the power from the mains units will be much higher. As another example, if you’re using continuous lights, like the 2kw tungsten I’m using in the video, they give a lot of light in relation to your average household 60w bulb, but very little in relation to the midday sun. Worse, they’re mains powered, so have only a limited use outside!

Essentially, the quantity of light ties into getting the exposure you want to create the shot you want.

Colour of Light

All light has a colour on the kelvin scale – check my technical course if you need a refresher on this. 

Light can only be one colour, and your camera can only be set to one colour temperature at a time. If you’re shooting with just one light source, then this isn’t a problem, just set your camera to the correct white balance and colour temperature, and your images should be free of any weird colour casts and odd tones. If you’re shooting with mixed sources, things get more complex. Unless you can alter the colour of your light sources with something like sheets of coloured gels (to be explained later!) you’re going to have areas of your image that are different colours. You might be able to use this creatively, but it’s just as likely that you need to control this in order to represent your subject accurately.

That’s the 4 basics covered in the quickest way possible. Now, I’ll go into more detail on each. Before I do, I shall repeat the basic premise – these 4 characteristics are the bedrock principles – get your head around direction, quality, quantity and colour, and you’ll be set for life.


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