No, You Can’t Take Great Pictures Without Knowing Light

Without light, there is no picture. Knowing how to use light to your advantage can help you in any genre of photography, from landscape to portrait.

What does photography mean in the simplest terms? Well, the Greek roots of the word suggest painting with light. Many photographers seem to forget that fundamental, they are capturing how light interacts with the world.

Knowing what to capture, and more importantly how to capture it, can do wonders to your photography. In fact, many great photographers have said to focus strongly on light, some have even made it into a style.

Light Is Key to Creative Freedom

When most photographers first pick up a camera, they get confused. You may remember that feeling of being unsure what each dial does and what shutter speed is. For that, there are tutorials that tell you exactly what to do. When it comes to creative choices, YouTube does a great job at teaching you the basic rules such as the rule of thirds.

I have a problem with that, though: those are not rules, they are simply arbitrary suggestions you may (not must) follow. You can take a great photo and have it blurred, underexposed, and composed by your own rules. The key to creative freedom in photography is deep, nuanced, sophisticated knowledge of light.

Learning Light Requires Practice, but It Is Rewarding

Learning light is not an easy process, nor is it a straightforward one. Perhaps for that reason, popular photography tutorials tend to focus more on simple easy-to-execute rules. For the ones that find it within themselves to practice and learn light, a reward awaits.

The opportunities that you will uncover just by knowing light will progress your photography to a truly new level that you couldn’t’ve even imagined. The good news is that these conventions become intuitive given enough practice. Inevitably, some of you will ask about the physics side of light. If you’re interested in it, explore that area for sure, but in most cases, you don’t have to dive into too much science to be able to light a portrait.

Learning light is not about the theory, it’s about practice and intuition.

Lights Are Not Only for Portraits and Fashion

Needless to say, practiced intuitive light technique is critical to any sort of portrait or fashion work. I am a portrait & fashion photographer. Lights come out on every job, regardless of what the job is. Knowing how to use different lights is part of the skillset any portrait and fashion photographer must-have. However, other photographers such as landscape photographers or street photographers may also want to know how light works. They may not have to know how light works with different fabrics and surfaces, but knowing how light interacts with the wider scene is crucial to success.

In landscape photography, for example, the focus should be on the composition, right? For street photography, it should often be about the most unusual or striking scene you can find? While both could get a yes as an answer, it is important to realize that regardless of the specifics of each genre, there are light phenomena you must understand. Here are some genres you perhaps didn’t associate with light shaping, and how I use light to take images in them:

Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is quite appealing to many beginners. It requires minimal gear and results can be awe-inspiring. While the subject is important, the way you show it to the viewer is a lot more crucial to the success of the photo. Many photographers, myself included, started with landscapes. However, a large percentage seems to neglect important lighting considerations in their work. Whenever I get out to take landscape photos, I tend to pay close attention to the sky and the time of day.

When it comes to the sky, I am not concerned by the shape of clouds, but instead by their presence. If the sky is clear, the sunlight is hitting the scene. This results in stark contrast with bright highlights and dark shadows. The scene often will look jagged and uneven. Contrast can be used to your benefit if you’re trying to convey a feeling of distress or attempting to draw the eye to a subject within the frame. If the sky is covered in clouds, it will produce a very soft light, and create a much more peaceful, relaxed scene.

Speaking of the time of day, I don’t mean sunrise or sunset; I find those quite boring to photograph. What is important is the location of the sun in the sky. The direction of your light is crucial.

For example, a scene with rocks could use a morning direct light shining into the camera. That way, the rocks would create shadow/highlight contrast which would make them stand out. A different scene may only look good for a duration of an hour, while the sun illuminates it in a particular way. A great exercise in studying what the sun does is photographing the same scene in set intervals throughout the day.

Street Photography

There are two common types of street photographers: the first walks around and hunts, and the second finds good light and waits. Some of the best street photographs combine the two. I recommend being the second type if you’re starting out. Again, here you should pay attention to the type of light and the direction. If you live in a city, look for pockets of light. A well-placed subject in a pocket of light can make for an interesting photo.

You Should Know Off-Camera Flash, Even if You Won’t Use It

Off-camera flash is something commonly used by fashion and portrait photographers. Landscape photographer usually don’t bring strobes to light a mountain up, nor does a street photographer bring a fleet of light shaping tools to create light pockets in the city. However, knowing how off-camera flash works can help you progress in understanding the sun.

For example, if you are shooting with flash in a green room, the photo will look green because of the light that is reflected. Applied to street photography, you may get colored shadows when shooting a vibrant scene.

As you can see, light is a topic I am passionate about, and I strongly believe that all photographers should receive some sort of guidance on using studio lighting. The process of learning light itself will help you be a better painter that uses it — a photographer. The knowledge of light will help you paint emotions and speak to your audience using just one picture.

Photography is just painting with light.

Image credits: Header photo licensed from Depositphotos