Beginning Photography: 4 Things to Know about Light

Photography is dependent upon light in order to create exposure. Here are some things that you should know about light in order to produce the photos you want.

1. The Difference between Hard and Soft Light

Light rays travel in straight lines. The easiest way to understand this concept is by looking at the difference between a sunny and overcast day. On a sunny day, light travels from the sun to the earth unobstructed. You get very harsh shadows because all the light is traveling in the same direction. This is hard light.

On overcast days, the light from the sun needs to pass through the clouds in order to reach us. The clouds have a strange effect on the sunlight; it gets broken up and scattered in all directions. That's why you rarely see any shadows on an overcast day. This is soft light.

2. Soft Light Is Easy to Create

Whether you prefer soft or hard light is a personal preference. You get hard light by turning on a lamp and aiming it at your subject. Soft light requires a little more effort to create, but it's still easy. There are two ways to get soft light. You can diffuse it, which is shining the light through a material that creates diffusion. Or, you can bounce the light, which is literally shining the light into a white material that bounces it back onto the subject.

Anything white can be used as a bounce board. Professional photographers use bead board as their bounce card. Bead board is a Styrofoam material used in construction for insulation. Virtually anything can be used for diffusion as long as some light can pass through it. There is a material you can buy in a camera shop called heavy frost. It's the same thing as a shower curtain you could buy in a dollar store.

3. Color Temperatures

Believe it or not, light has a color that depends on its source. You don't realize this because your eyes automatically adjust, but you camera won't. Light from your lamps (tungsten) at home look orange, daylight looks blue, and fluorescent lights appear green. This is why you should always white balance. White balancing compensates for the variations in light and let's the camera know what color scheme it should follow.

But, if you're in a spot with a mix of tungsten and daylight, you need to do one of three things to have the color temperatures balanced:

  • You can block out the day light source.
  • You can place color correcting orange gel on the windows to change it to tungsten.
  • You can use color correcting blue gel on the lights to balance them with the daylight.

4. Cutting Light

You can shape your light with flags and cutters to remove unwanted spill. Just remember that if you want a soft shadow for the cut, then place the flag close to the lamp. If you want a hard and distinct cut, then move the flag away from the lamp.

Ultimately, the only way you're going to get good is by practicing. These 4 steps will make sure you have the right start.

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