Talking about light

My own journey to learn about light started about 10 years ago, before I started photographing weddings, but at a time when I was attending a lot of friends’ weddings, and every now and then coming away with nice photographs.  When I’d look at what made a photograph appeal to me, it would often be the light.  And often not the primary light, but the accent light added by a lamp, or a flash, or an open doorway.   I realised that light had the potential to make or break a photograph, and I wanted to understand that.  I also realised that there would be times when you’d need to create your own light, and I wanted to know how to do that.

The photograph above was taken very early on in this quest to understand light, and that alone makes the photo a good candidate for the first post on this blog, it being one that was created at the start of my own journey as a photographer.  But it’s a good place to start for another reason too.  The lighting in this photo really couldn’t be simpler.  In terms of gear, it’s as minimal as it gets: one camera, one lens, one hotshoe flash, no modifier of any sort.  In terms of skill, it’s even more minimal: it was, if not quite a mistake, at least pure luck.

I’ll get back to that at the end of this post, but the main reason I’m kicking off the blog with this photo is because it – and the circumstances of it – really accelerated my desire to learn about light, and indeed to learn about creating light.  Prompted by the delight I had at seeing this image on the back of my Nikon D700, I dived deep into the internet and books and instructional videos to learn everything there is to know about light. All I had to do was learn how the light in this photo had come about, and I was going to be a lighting god. No situation would defeat me, I would make amazing award-winning photographs each time I pressed the shutter, and my future success as a wedding photographer was assured. A fool-proof plan!

The language of light

What I discovered pretty quickly was that there is a lot to learn about light: not just about available light that’s already there for you to use, but even more so when you want to craft your own light. And the thing that I realised more than anything was that to learn about light you need to understand how to talk about light – the words that people use when they talk about it, and when they teach it.  Light has its own lexicon, and not understanding the terminology makes learning it difficult.  Additionally, different people talk about the same things in different ways. I’m sure some of the ways I’ll talk about light will differ from the way you might. So before we get too far down this road, today we’re going to take time out and define a few terms I’ll be using so everyone is on the same page.  And then I’ll come back and break down the lighting of the first dance photo above, and explain how capturing it was pure luck.

The types of light

Ambient light only. All light was already in the scene. None added by the photographer.

There are two types of light source that a photographer can make use of.  Those that the photographer creates, and those that the photographer doesn’t create. Confusingly, though, even though there are only two types of light source, there are many actual possible sources, and the terms for them can often be confused with each other. For instance, available light is light that is already present in the scene. It’s not created by the photographer.

Many think of it as being natural light – i.e light created by nature.  Typically natural light is from the sun and it may be as direct as the sun in a clear blue sky, or as subtle as the sun behind a blanket of cloud on an overcast day.  It may be daylight coming in through a window, or the light at the end of a tunnel. But available light may also be artificial light: a lightbulb in the ceiling, the chandelier over a dance floor, the coloured disco lights of a band. They are all artificial light sources, but are also available light for the photographer.

Flash is also an artificial light source, but that’s not already in the scene – that needs to be initiated by the photographer, as distinct from those other artificial sources of light we’ve listed that the photographer doesn’t create.

Confused yet?

If we want to talk about light in a photo, and want to divide that light into what the photographer creates and what the photographer doesn’t create, we need a term that factors in all of the above with no confusion.  Rather than use the term available light for light the photographer doesn’t create, I prefer to use the term ambient light.  Here’s how I will define it.

Ambient light – light that the photographer doesn’t create, but which is present and impacting the scene they are photographing.

For light that the photographer does creates, rather that call it artifical light or even flash light, I will use the term added light.  Most of the time it will be artificial light but it could be natural light (e.g. a reflector placed on the shadow side of someone’s face).  And generally for me the source of that added light is a hotshoe flash (i.e. a flash that can be mounted in the hotshoe of your camera, although it’s often used off the camera also), but it may be a studio light (sometimes called a big light) or a continuous light source such as a video light.

So regardless of the type of light, where it is deployed specifically for the purposes of creating a photograph, I will call that added light:

Added light – light that the photographer creates and adds to the scene they are photographing it in a way that is entirely under their control.

Added light only. The exposure meant that without this light added by the photographer the frame would be black.

The reason we want to divide light into two sources is that it helps us to be able to think about how we expose for each aspect separately.

More often than not the secret to making a well lit photo is to think about the ambient light and the added light separately, and to balance how they interact.  Many times where an image uses added light, it also makes use of the ambient light, especially in a wedding situation.  That’s true of the dancing photo at the top of this post, for instance – the bride and groom are lit by a combination of flash (added) and room lights (ambient), the room itself is lit by artificial wall and ceiling lights and candle light. What’s important is that all of those elements balance well with each other.

Regardless of the source of the light, there are other terms we need to use when we talk about light.  The most common ones are the quality of the light and the quantity of light. But also important is the colour of the light, and of critical importance is the direction of the light.

Quality

When talking about the quality of the light, often what people mean is whether the light is hard or soft. Specifically this relates to what happens in the transition between areas that are lit and areas that are not lit by the light – how gradual a transition is there between a highlight from a light, and a shadow due to the lack of a light.

Soft light has a very gradual transition – it’s hard to say where the highlights end and the shadows begin. Hard light, on the other hand, has a very defined edge to the shadow it creates.  The actual source is not what determines if light is hard or soft though – it’s how it appears relative to the subject.

Think of your own shadow on a bright sunny day – it’s well defined and has a clear edge to it. The source of light is the sun, and that’s hard light.  But on a cloudy day it’s hard to find the edge of your shadow, because the cloudy sky is a soft light source.  The source of light again is the sun, but this time there are clouds between it and you.

Equally, stick a flash on your camera, fire it directly at your subject and examine the the shadow it creates on their face and you’ll see that it’s a hard light source.  Bounce that same flash off the ceiling, and the edge of those shadows gets harder to define, so now that flash is a soft light source.

Time for two more definitions:

A hard light source is one which the subject perceives as small, relative to the size of subject.

(The sun is enormous, but it’s very far away so when there are no clouds in the sky, that sun appears small to us on earth.)

A soft light source is one which the subject perceives as large, relative to the size of the subject.

(Your hot shoe flash is a small source of light, but use it to photograph a ladybird from 3 inches away and it appears big to the ladybird.)

Hard added light mixed with soft ambient light

When it comes to hard light and soft light, you’ll find people think soft light is prettier light, but one thing I’ve learned is that hard light can be wonderful, if used well. That’s good because it’s not always easy to create soft light, especially at a wedding, and especially outdoors.  So if we can learn to work with hard light, things definitely get easier.

Quantity

The quantity of light is an easier concept for people to grasp.  Essentially it determines what exposure settings you need in your camera.  How much light is there, versus how much light do you want to let fall on your sensor.  For a wedding photographer in Ireland, it’s rare to have too much light, but it can happen, especially when adding light yourself.  More common is a sense of there being too little light, but what I hope to convey over the coming months in this blog is that there is rarely actually too little light. Given a choice, I’d often opt for too little light rather than too much, because it can be really hard to take light away, but it’s often possible to add light.

When we create light we will endeavour to independently control the quantity of ambient light versus the quantity of added light. Learning how to do this is the key to creating your own light, and will be a major focus of this blog.

Colour

An often-overlooked aspect of light is its colour – it is something that photographers often can underestimate.  When someone talks about bad light, or muddy light, or indeed nice light or beautiful light, they usually mean both the quality of the light and the colour of the light – or more specifically, the colours (plural) of the lights (plural).  Different sources of light (even though nominally white) have different colours.  Often those colours don’t play well together.  If they don’t, we can think of it as bad light.

Multiple light sources, each of different colours, light the subject and the background

A flourescent bulb, for example, casts a green colour, while a cloudy day casts a blue colour, and a tungsten bulb casts an orange colour.  Your flash is balanced to match the colour of the midday sun, which is warmer than a cloudy day but cooler than a sunrise.  And if you’ve come here to learn anything at all, it should be to understand the impact of the colour of light on photographs – both ambient light and added light – and how to make that work for you rather than against you.  Colour will be a focus in lots of photos we discuss. The reason it’s so important for low light photography especially, is because when we deal with darker exposures, generally colours get more saturated.  And if the colours don’t work well together, very quickly you find yourself cursing “horrible light”.

For light, colour is measured as a temperature in units of Kelvin.  We don’t need to know the actual values, just how they interact.  Midday sun is typically the reference point, and is about 5,500 Kelvin, and that’s what a hot shoe flash or a studio light is typically calibrated to.

Direction

Last of all we come to the direction of the light.  We may know the light’s source, its quantity, its quality, and its colour.  But where does it come from?  What does it light, what doesn’t it light, and most important of all, how does it light it?  All things considered, the direction of the light is the single most influential aspect on the “look” of your photograph.  Get the direction wrong and even the most beautiful subject in the most beautiful light can fail to work as an image.

Personally I have a soft spot for back light.  It creates depth, it can separate a subject from the background, and it can add interest and mystery, depending on what type of light is elsewhere in the picture.  Depth is important to me, because typically we are photographing three dimensional subjects to be represented in a two dimensional medium.

Equally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ll go out of my way to ensure that I’m not lighting the subject from the front, if at all possible.  Front light is generally flat, it can be unflattering, and a little boring.  But there are times when it is appropriate – for instance if I’m photographing a table plan, I may want to simply record it with no distractions, and have the light as flat as possible.

Split the difference with side light and you have definition again, and it’s especially useful for bringing out textures in things like wedding dresses.  But you need to be careful with how it falls off as it travels across the frame, and that’s all to do with how far away from your light source the subject is.  But we’ll get to all that in future posts.

When we talk about direction, we always mean where is the light relative to the camera, not relative to the subject.

The subject may be facing the light, but if she is looking to the right from the photographer’s perspective, then from the camera’s point of view she is side lit.  That brings us neatly back to the first dance photo at the very top of this post, and that happy accident that caused it to be lit as it is.

Back to where we started

Here’s the photo again to save you scrolling up.

Twirling Bride during the First dance

I mentioned the gear earlier – one camera, one lens, one flash. What I didn’t mention is that not only was the flash not mine, I didn’t even trigger it. It was a flash on top of another guest’s camera over to my right, and at the instant that Sara did a twirl in her dress, both I and that guest took a photo.  Their flash fired as my shutter opened and the result is what you see above.  Lucky eh?  Well, kind of.

The luck had come a couple of years earlier, at another friends wedding, when my camera had picked up someone else’s flash completely by accident and I had been intrigued by the result – but I hadn’t thought much more about it.  On this occasion I hadn’t brought a flash to the wedding – wanting to enjoy the day as a guest – but when time came for the first dance, and with Sara and John’s official photographer long gone, I thought that maybe the same trick from a few years earlier might work again, especially if I shot at 7 frames per second.

Once Sara started twirling, I knew I had a good chance of picking up someone’s flash, since lots of people were taking photos anyway, and all of them clicked their shutter when the bride twirled.  I just needed one to do so at the same instant as me.  My luck came good.

Analyzing the light

The camera exposure was ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/160th of a second – I can’t claim any intent over that other than to say it was a dark room and I didn’t want too slow a shutter speed, but knowing what I now know, that exposure was pretty important to the photo working out.  In reality I was underexposing the ambient light, and we’ll talk in a future post about the merits of that when dealing with low light.  But it meant that when that other flash did pop, rather than overexposing my photo, it lifted the exposure on the subjects to a good level.

In fact you can see how underexposed it is by looking at the people in the background.  They are only being lit by the ambient light, and are completely missed by the cone of light coming from the guest’s flash.  The ambient light on the dance floor was more than on those observers too.

In terms of the quality of the added light, that flash is bare and the light falling on Sara is hard light – you can see where it lights her and doesn’t light her quite clearly – but the harshness of that light is offset by the ambient light which fills the shadows such that nothing is pure black.  The light on John’s torso is, I believe, reflected light from Sara’s dress which bounces some of the flash light back at him.

The direction of the light is from camera right, so Sara is side-lit, and you can see how that highlights the folds in the dress as she twirls.  It does feel like there’s some light coming from the opposite side – back camera left – and I’m not sure if this was a videographer’s light, or the band’s lights.  It is unlikely it was another guest’s flash, and back then people didn’t take photos with their phones, so it wasn’t the little phone flash that illuminates for longer than a normal flash.

In terms of the colour of the light, there’s a lovely contrast caused by the two different light sources.  The room was generally lit blue, which explains the blue tint in the darker areas of the dress that aren’t picking up light from the guest’s flash.  That flash is warm relative to the blue ambient light, and the warm wooden floor is a nice contrast also that ties everything together.

Of course, lest we convince ourselves that the light is the most important thing in the photo, what really makes it is the expressions, the movement of the dress, and the moment in general.

So lots fell into place for this photo, and most of it stuff that was outside of my control (and even not necessarily my intent).  What’s different between then and now, though, is this: now I know how to bring more of those elements under my control, such that I’m not reverse-engineering photos like this, but can foresee what the light will look like, and just need the moment to make the image work.

How do you get from reverse engineering the light to foreseeing the light?  It starts, funnily enough, with learning to see ambient light. And that’s what we’re going to do next.

Next: Learning to see light

6 Comments

  1. Paul Timon
    February 7, 2018
    Reply

    I remember this shot well and the explanation at the time of how it was achieved but I hadn’t realised (or maybe remembered) that it was the result of an ‘educated guess’. Very cool.

  2. Rory O'Toole
    February 8, 2018
    Reply

    Great blog post Ronan, very well explained

  3. Pat
    February 9, 2018
    Reply

    Great post. Looking forward to the next one!

  4. February 14, 2018
    Reply

    Great introduction Ronan, looking forward to reading more.

  5. July 19, 2018
    Reply

    Hello Ronan,
    Ehorabuena for your work and your post, is the best I’ve known, really.
    I would love to know what your editing process is, I just moved to Fuji from Nikon and I am delighted with the change but I am still a bit lost in the editing process.
    Your photos are fantastic and very clean in terms of grain, I would love you to share how you get it.
    A hug and thanks again !
    Departed from Spain.

  6. Claire Savage
    February 16, 2020
    Reply

    Super lession on composition last week at DCC. I’m enjoying this blog too. Great ideas and inspiration for lighting. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archives

Subscribe

Enter your email address here to be notified when a new post is published