Monday, December 17, 2007

Technique and Composition - Drawing with Light

Light is one of the most important aspects of photography. Light falling directly on a subject, casting it into shadows from backlighting, shining through a transparent or thin object, and in other ways will change what the camera “sees.” Warm light during a sunset or sunrise or cool light of a subject under the trees or dark overcast sky will make the same subject appear differently. The photographer must understand how the subject is lit in order to make proper decisions about how he is going to portray it.

There are entire books about the subject of light and lighting, not just in photography. I’m not going to try to duplicate them in a short posting about this all important subject. What I’m going to try is to teach some basic ideas about seeing the light that falls on a subject. If you are a beginner, I urge you first to practice some of the things I suggest without taking your camera out of the bag. Just observe what is happening. Then use your camera to record them and study how it sees the object. For one of these, affects of season, it will require taking photos since you will not remember the differences. Remember to record information about what you are photographing, such as your experiment (I'm trying to determine how light at different times of the day affect my subject- this picture is taken at 8:00 a.m.), your exposure settings (aperature and shutter speed- see next posting), etc. The more you record the more you will learn. But remember, these first set of experiments are to see how light is affecting the subject. So, record what is lighting the subject (such as the sun), where it was relative to the subject (for example, to the left side or directly overhead), was anything causing the light to change (it was shining through light clouds), what the object was siting on (this surface may be absorbing or reflecting light- see below) and similar information. Once you take the picture, look how these various factors affected the lighting of the object (for example, it was siting on a tan table and the bottom of the object where the light was brightest had hints of the tan color in it).

There are many things that affect how light will strike the subject. Just a few of these are as follows:

1. If you are using natural light from the sun, the time of day will affect the lighting of your subject. Morning and evening light are warm (that is, tend to be dominated by oranges, reds, and yellows) and directional (it is coming from the east or west and lights the appropriate side of the subject). Thus, it will make subjects look warmer in color and cast long shadows. As the sun moves higher in the sky the light gets less warm and becomes “neutral” in color. Shadows generally get shorter. There are exceptions, such as around the eyes. Directional light directly hitting the face will light around the eyes. However, look at someone’s eye area at noon and you will see shadows around these organs because the eyes are recessed and the light does not reach them. Objects normally loose details because the shadows that created the look of depth are gone. Watch the same object at different times of a sunny day to see what happens to its colors and details.

2. The time of year will affect the type of lighting. During winter in the northern hemisphere, the sun has moved to the southern hemisphere (OK, for you folks that need everything accurate, actually the earth has moved in its orbit such that the sun is more directly striking the southern hemisphere). The light must travel further to reach the northern hemisphere and the quality of the light changes. Some of the best sunrises and sunsets occur at this time of year because the cooler colors are filtered out by the dust in the air, thus making the light warmer.

3. Clouds have an impact on the light. Light clouds or cloud banks diffuse the light, sending it in many directions. This type of light is some of the best for taking photos of outdoor subjects. Note when you get a portrait taken at a studio that there may be a light, somewhat transparent material in front of the flash. This produces diffuse light. Look at your photo and see what it did to the lighting of your face. However, dark clouds over a subject will remove a lot of the light, including the warmer colors. The blues and greens tend to dominate. Look at a subject in both types of light (under light clouds and dark clouds) and compare it to the same object at different times of a sunny day. Again, use a stationary subject that is not changing by itself.

4. Light bounces off objects or is absorbed by them. Light colored objects reflect light and dark objects absorb it. One way to light the shadows of a subject is to place a light colored object in a way that reflects the sun’s light (or light from a flash) into the shadows. You may have seen a photographer taking pictures of a model on the beach and an assistant is holding a big, flat or curving light colored object (called a reflector) near the model. It was reflecting the sun’s light onto the model, usually the side opposite the sun because the reflector helps fill the side of the model in the shadow (note- be sure not to place the reflector where it will be included in the photo unless you want it to be part of the subject). Many photographers that take peoples’ portraits have flash units directed away from the subject but into an umbrella lined with white, bronze or silver. They are using the reflecting capability of the light colored interior of the umbrella to reflect the light back onto the subject. Of course, a mirror reflects much of the light coming from the sun or flash and this can be very powerful. Ponds with dark bottoms can act like mirrors, reflecting light away from the pond. Interesting lighting can be reflected onto an object when the water moves because the waves reflect the light in different directions.

Want to make a red or orange object look really red or orange? Take a picture of it in early morning or late afternoon sunlight on a winter day.

A flash is normally made to try to reproduce a light similar to that of sunlight reaching the earth. Like the sun’s light, it can be modified. I mentioned reflecting it onto a subject to light it. A light colored, thin material can be placed over the flash to act like a thin, white cloud. It will diffuse the light and make more pleasing pictures (unless, of course, you are trying to get the effect of the more harsh light directly coming from the flash- such as trying to put a highlight in someone’s eyes).

Now that you know how these factors affect light, let’s begin to experiment with how the camera sees this light. Take pictures of an object in which the light is varying due to the factors described above. For instance, take pictures of the same stationary object from the same location (preferably the camera is left in the same location on a tripod) at different times of the day. Take a picture of the same subject, one that doesn’t change physically (doesn't move, change colors except by the light falling on it, doesn't lose it's leaves, etc.) at the same time during different parts of the year- spring, summer, fall, and winter. Notice the differences. Bounce light from a white napkin into the shadows of a small object (basically hold the napkin so the light is being reflected onto the portion of the object that is in the shadow) and see what happens. Now try a different colored napkin. How does the subject change? These experiments help you learn how lighting and the variables that change it also change your subject. You can continue to hope the light is going to be right when you take a picture or learn how to use the light or modify it so it it makes the subject look the way you prefer it to appear. The creative photographer uses or manipulates light to his advantage.

Note that these lighting effects on the subject will likely require changing your exposure since the amount of light entering your lens will also be affected. I will address this in a later posting, after you learn more about exposure. My next posting will begin to address another one of the important keys to photography, proper exposure.

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