So you have a flash, you know how to use it (at least in a basic sense), and you know what it does. But what about the question of when to use it. What are the things that should inform your decision to add light to a photograph? In the first of two posts on this topic, today we’ll focus on adding light to solve problems.
Category: Understanding light
They say that practice makes perfect, and that’s certainly true when it comes to learning how to shoot creatively and effectively in low light situations. The reality, though, is that you’re not always going to easily find yourself in a situation where you have a suitable location, a willing subject, and sufficient time – save, perhaps, organising practice shoots with friends or family where you can push the limits of what you think you know. However those times where you’re not shooting need not be times where you’re not learning how to deal with low light or indeed bad light.
There is a real benefit to learning to see light beyond the occasional possibility of making an award-winning or portfolio image, because let’s face it, even for the best of us such images are just a small percentage of the images we create day to day. No, even for those day-to-day photos, learning to see light is a worthwhile thing to do. Whenever we raise our camera to our eye, there is literally an infinite number of possible images we could create. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those possibilities. Letting light drive what shot you take, while sounding hard, actually makes things much easier.
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.
An often-overlooked aspect of light is its colour – it is something that photographers 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). Understanding colour, is key to making or finding good light.
The quantity of light is probably the easiest concept for people to grasp. Essentially it determines what exposure settings you need in your camera, and – if adding light – how much power you need from your flash or added light source. But don’t fall into the trap that many photographers fall into, when learning about light.
When talking about the quality of the light, often what people mean is whether the light is hard or soft. What does this mean, how do you create it, and is soft light really the only type of light you should aspire to?
If we want to talk about light in a photo – especially for the purposes of understanding it and learning it – we really need to divide that light into what the photographer creates and what the photographer doesn’t create. We also need terms to talk about those two types of light, regardless of what their actual source is.
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. So before going any further, it’s time for some definitions.