8. The importance of understanding light

Light, as you will have understood from previous classes in this course, is one of the six essentials for photography, and understanding light and paying attention to it is one of the quickest ways to improve your photography.

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman, founder of Kodak

One of the most important elements of creativity in photography, light is what allows us to convey information and, more importantly, emotion in an image. Once you understand light, you’ll have the knowledge to create a wide variety of creative images.

location fashion photography

Interested in fashion photography? Click here.

The best light for photography

All around us, light comes from a variety of sources, both natural and man-made, and we can use it in a number of different ways to create different moods and atmospheres in our images.

There are four main categories of light. These are:

1. Transmitted light — Transmitted light is light that you can see emitted from its source. This means that we can see the light source directly in the picture. Examples of this could be a candle or even the sun. It is also light that has passed through something before reaching the subject. This could be glass, water or even the atmosphere.

2. Reflected light Reflected light occurs when light reflects off your subject. Almost all of the photographs we take make use of reflected light. Occassionally, transmitted light can also be visible in the same scene.

For example, a landscape image featuring the setting sun visible would include both transmitted and reflected light. However, if the sun was not visible in the frame, it would only be reflected light.

3. Hard light — Hard light is light that is from a small apparent light source, such as a light bulb or sun on a clear day. It often results in very dark, sharp shadows. Hard light can be a good choice for revealing textures in objects (when used correctly).

4. Soft light — Soft light, which comes from any apparently large light source (from your subject's perspective), produces light that is low in contrast with minimal shadows. The sun on an overcast day provides soft light because the clouds serve to diffuse the light, spreading it over a much larger area and therefore making it a large apparent light source.

Types of light for photography

TIP: To better understand light and how it works, try look at it in different situations and try to figure out what type of light it is. This will allow you to see what effect different types of light have and how they work with different subjects. Be aware that you can also mix different types of light in the same image, which can produce very interesting results.

Types of light in photography

Many photographers will tell you that the best light for photography is ‘the magic hour’. This is the hour just before and just after sunset or sunrise. This is because there is a combination of both hard and soft light, which can produce much nicer results than just hard or just soft light.

Natural light portrait photography
An example of combined hard and soft light, which you commonly see during sunset or sunrise. © Karl Taylor

However, the magic hour is not the only time to photograph. As you’ll have seen in the video, once you understand the different types of light, you’ll have a better understanding of how to control light and how you can get the best results shooting at any time of day — even at midday.

Indoor natural light portrait photography
Both soft and transmitted light can be seen in this portrait. © Karl Taylor

Ways to use light in photography

When it comes to using light, there are a number of different ways it can be used in photography.

The direction, hardness or softness and temperature of light can all have an impact on the mood and feeling of an image. Side light, for example, evokes feelings of romance and nostalgia, whereas light from below creates a sense of terror. Hard shadows create more of a sense of drama than soft shadows, and cool colour tones convey more negative emotions than warm light.

Natural light couples portrait photography

Interested in photographing couples? Click here.

Dramatic fashion photography

Interested in fashion photography? Click here.

How to control natural light

As photographers, there are a number of different ways we can control light to help us get the result we want.

One of these ways is planning. By planning ahead, you’ll be able to get the best type of light for your shot. For example, if you want warm, golden light with long shadows, then sunrise or sunset is when you should be shooting. If you’re wanting a more subtle light with softer shadows, try and wait for a cloudy day (or, you can work indoors, like I did in the video).

Another way to control natural light is through the use of reflectors (as you also see me demonstrate in this video). These simple accessories can be great for adding more light to your subject (or, if you use a dark reflector, darkening your scene).

Understanding light in photography - Three reflector positions on model compared

© Karl Taylor Education

There’s also the option to use flash. By using simple lighting like speedlites, you can get quite creative results. Diffusion material is another useful tool for controlling light. This spreads your light and softens the shadow, very similar to clouds on an overcast day.

White balance

When working with different types of light, it’s important to keep your white balance in mind because different types of light all produce very different colours.

To compensate for different colour temperates, you can use the different colour balance settings on your camera. Auto white balance automatically corrects the colour cast caused by different colour temperatures, though there are other presets such as daylight, shade, tungsten or flash, for example.

You can also control white balance manually using the Kelvin scale, which ranges from 1000K to 10,000K. Quite simply, Kelvin is the unit of measurement used to describe colour temperature. The higher the Kelvin value, the bluer the light, and vice versa. So, for example, if you’re shooting on an overcast day, using a lower Kelvin value will help make your image appear bluer. Therefore, to make your image appear more neutral, you'll need to use a Kelvin value of around 7000 - 9000K.

Types of light in photograph - White Balance infographic and Kelvin Color Scale

Light, and how to control light, is a vast subject that is too great to cover completely in this single chapter. We look at this in far greater detail throughout our platform and recommend that you take a look at some of our other courses to learn more.

All content © Copyright Karl Taylor Education.