Freed from the constraints of film-based photography—its costs and the time and effort required to develop and print images—digital photographers can experiment and learn, taking large numbers of images that they can view immediately on the camera itself or on a tablet device or computer. Along with sharpening your sense of what makes a great scenic composition, you can improve the quality of your work by studying the effects of light and lighting techniques.
Based on the time of day and weather conditions, natural light creates an enormous range of effects that influence how the subject of a photograph looks and the emotional connection a viewer develops with the image. In the "golden hour" just after dawn and before twilight, sunlight casts a romantic, directional glow that warms up skin tones, enhances natural scenes and elevates the appearance of buildings and other structures.
At high noon, the sun's overhead position can cause harsh shadows, which may suit a photo that strives to convey a sense of equally harsh or demanding subject matter. On a cloudy day, the character of light cools and the sky appears flat gray. The ideal light depends on the shot, its mood and its message.
Shooting photography indoors poses the additional challenge of mixed lighting sources. Fluorescent lights add a greenish character to the scenes they illuminate. Tungsten bulbs produce an orange-yellow glow. Judicious use of flash and added light sources can cancel out many of the effects of artificial and mixed lighting.
In some cases, you may find it easier to turn off lamps and overhead lighting, substituting your flash and fill lights so you control the scene. In other situations, including portraits, you may prefer to seat your subject next to a window that receives indirect sunlight, pull aside a curtain or shade and allow natural light to take over.
The width of a light source determines much of its character. Narrow, focused beams produce hard shadows. Broad, diffused lights create soft illumination. Along with beam width, distance also influences illumination. A light set up next to a subject casts potentially harsh, direct light.
A distant source produces a diffuse glow. Softening a hard light requires diffusion, which you can add by bouncing it off something that reflects light, such as a white piece of cardboard. The reflected rays scatter more broadly than the original beam, especially if your reflector features a dull rather than a shiny surface. To counteract a harsh light source on one side of a portrait subject's face, add light coming from the opposite direction. This fill light balances the scene.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Photographing the same scene or person under a wide range of lighting conditions helps you understand light's behavior and its impact on what you photograph. It also helps you discover that even the lighting conditions that photographers describe as harsh or unflattering may have their place in conveying a unique image. For example, light coming from directly behind a subject produces an overexposure because of the immediacy of the illumination pouring into the lens.
In some cases, however, that backlit condition may produce an interesting silhouette. Because digital cameras automatically record the conditions under which you capture a scene—including exposure characteristics, lens settings and flash—you can fill up memory cards with photographic experiments that help you understand the results you achieve.
Photo Credits: Heather Milward/Demand Media
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