The Amount of Light
The Color of Light
The Direction of Light
The Intensity of Light
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Just as the “real” world is the perception of what your 5 senses register on your brain, the scenes, objects and subjects you photograph are the reflection of the light from them onto your camera’s sensor, not the scenes, objects and subjects themselves. To control the photographic process requires that you understand the 4 basic qualities of light: the amount, its color, its direction and its intensity.
The human eye can adjust to the difference in light levels, as you move from an exterior to an interior location or vice versa, or if the light level changes outside or inside. Although camera technology is wonderful, it isn’t as good as the human eye, so it must make a “conscious” adjustment to the amount of light. That adjustment relates to exposure; and a digital camera’s auto-exposure function will make the adjustment and set the three parts of the exposure formula—ISO, aperture and shutter speed—or you can select them manually. This is a very good skill to acquire because the auto-exposure function is not always accurate under certain situations.
As noted in many PhotographyTalk articles, ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to light; aperture is the physical size of the lens opening, which allow more or less light to enter the camera; and shutter speed is the amount of time the light is allowed to register on the sensor. Although it’s important to understand how ISO and aperture affect the amount of light, shutter speed is the determining factor of the level of light that exposes an image correctly, without the use of an additional light source, such as the light from a window or a flash. If the light is very low, then the exposure formula may require a very slow shutter speed, which will cause blurry images if you try to shoot hand holding the camera. Either you must use a tripod to steady the camera or change ISO and/or aperture to increase the shutter speed. Of course, a higher ISO setting may add graininess or digital noise to your image and a larger aperture may reduce the sharpness of your photos or cause you to lose control of depth of field.
Light consists of various colors, as you can see when light passes through a prism. The Kelvin scale measures the light in terms of whether it trends towards the orange or blue end of the scale. It’s difficult for your eyes and mind to distinguish the various levels of blue or orange as accurately as your camera will, meaning the color in your digital photos may look different than you thought they would. For example, on a typical day, the light starts as quite orange at sunrise, progresses through various shades of blue, depending on cloud cover, and then becomes orange again at sunset; in fact, so orange, it becomes red. Indoor lighting or street lamps, signage lights, etc. will trend toward orange, but it won’t be visible to you.
Typically, this can be corrected on your computer with editing software; however, the color of light is critical when you are using multiple light sources of different color light. For example, many people like to shoot indoor portrait photos using the light from a window as well as an artificial source. The window light will be blue, but the interior light will be yellow. Either you must use one light source or the other, so the color of the light is constant, adjust the artificial light source to match the blue light entering the window, or even use gels on the window to change its light to match the yellow of interior light.
Although light always travels in a straight line, most light rays bounce off various surfaces within any setting, causing a multiplicity of light sources. A shiny or highly reflective surface bounces the light at the same angle it hits that surface. A less-reflective surface will diffuse the light, so the incoming rays are scattered in all directions. Taking the time to discern the directions of light within a scene or on a subject before you start taking pictures is one of the important differences between a beginner photographer and a more accomplished, creative image maker.
The intensity of the light source is directly related to the direction and the surfaces from which it is reflected. A strong, narrowly cast light, such as the sun or a flash, is considered hard light and will create intense shadows. This is often an important creative element when establishing a balance of contrast in a photo: the bright areas balanced with the dark shadows. Soft light is diffused light. Again, the light rays are reflected off a dull surface in all directions. That is why a cloudy day is often a better day for many types of photos, including outdoors portraits, because there are no harsh shadows, but nice, soft even light.
Observing, understanding and taking control of these 4 qualities of light will do more to advance your photography skills and your results than any technical prowess with a camera and lens.
Photo copyright PhotographyTalk member Adukho Pucho
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