Photo Talk: Lighting

I recently presented a class to a group about photography.  As I was gathering notes & ideas I realized maybe this would be something interesting to share on my blog.  (Or not, I guess you can decide!)  I’ll pop a “Photo Talk” post up from time to time and see how it goes.  For today I thought I’d talk a little bit about lighting.  One definition of photography is “the process of recording images on sensitized material by the action of light” so without light, there would actually be no photography!  There are many different types of light sources, both natural & artificial, that can influence the outcome of your photos – for better or worse!  The most natural source of light for a photo is from the sun and that’s what we’ll talk about today.  The sun’s light can vary due to the time of day, the season, and the weather.  Using these different variations can give you a wide option of outcomes.  Photographers talk of the “sweet light” that comes just as the sun is rising and again as the sun is lower in the evening sky.  It normally has a warm glow to it and will light your subject without casing harsh shadows or making bright highlights.  In landscape and nature photography some very beautiful and dramatic images can be created, you know the type that make us say “ooh” and “aah!”

sunrise image (c) Lynne Medsker
sunrise image (c) Lynne Medsker
sunset/moonrise (c) Lynne Medsker
sunset/moonrise (c) Lynne Medsker
sunset image (c) Lynne Medsker
sunset image (c) Lynne Medsker

Yes, I’m a sucker for those sunrise & sunset photos just like everyone else! I’ve attended many photography workshops where we rose in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours to travel to our photography location, captured images until the sun was full then did the reverse in the evening as the sun would set.  Meals, instruction and other agendas were scheduled during the “off time” when the sun was high in the sky or gone for the day.  That works wonderfully for workshops but, in real life, our activities and schedule tend to include the mid-day hours!   One idea for working with the sun is to use indirect or diffused lighting.  This can be achieved in many different ways.  Days that are cloud-filled (but not too dark!) make for naturally diffused light. Other elements that might be available are trees & buildings.  By placing your subject in the shade of a tree or building in what is termed “open shade” you are blocking the direct light but still have enough of the sun’s rays being reflected and filtered to light your subject.

Portrait sample with diffused lighting on a sunny day (c) Lynne Medsker
Portrait sample with diffused lighting on a sunny day (c) Lynne Medsker

This works well with portraits, not so well with objects that can’t be “placed” somewhere!   With plants, trees, architecture and other “permanent” objects there are other methods of gaining the light you want to have.  Obviously the first is just to wait for the sun to lower, but that’s not always practical.  Sometimes moving to a different side of your subject will give you different lighting that is more agreeable.  Backlighting can make for an interesting and dramatic presentation!

backlighting on a bright sunny day (c) Lynne Medsker
backlighting on a bright sunny day (c) Lynne Medsker
backlight/silhouette image (c) Lynne Medsker
backlight/silhouette image (c) Lynne Medsker

Another trick is to just “make” a little shade for your subject!  You can use your body to block the path of the sun’s rays, a jacket, an umbrella or there are “professional” diffusers that you can purchase as well. This is easier with small items and close up shots unless you have a willing assistant that can help.  Here are two versions of sunflowers where you can see the difference diffused light makes!

Sunflower, full sun/hard light (c) Lynne Medsker
Sunflower, full sun/hard light (c) Lynne Medsker
Sunflower, shade/diffused light (c) Lynne Medsker
Sunflower, shade/diffused light (c) Lynne Medsker

If you can adjust the amount of light that hits your subject you can also use natural light to highlight a specific part of your photo for greater emphasis.  These images show how light can make a part of your photo “pop” –

highlighted flower (c) Lynne Medsker
highlighted flower (c) Lynne Medsker
highlighted spider & web (c) Lynne Medsker
highlighted spider & web (c) Lynne Medsker

When none of the ideas listed above work then it’s time to think about how you can make the sun and hard shadows work for you instead of against you.  There are times that I purposely use the bright rays to highlight and emphasize the texture, contour and depth of my subject.  This details in this cactus wouldn’t look nearly as dramatic without the shadows!

Cactus in hard light (c) Lynne Medsker
Cactus in "hard" light (c) Lynne Medsker

The shadows on this metal sculpture add to the interest of the composition and highlight the curves and shapes of the piece, it even shows details about the sculpture that aren’t shown in the photo.

Sculpture with hard lighting/shadows (c) Lynne Medsker
Sculpture with "hard" lighting/shadows (c) Lynne Medsker

For portrait images shadows can help tell stories.  Although this image doesn’t show their faces you know that this mother & daughter are spending some relaxed time outdoors taking a leisurely evening walk.  The highlights around their hair help separate them from the background and the long shadows emphasis the subjects as well as define the time of day.

evening stroll (c) Lynne Medsker
"evening stroll" (c) Lynne Medsker

This image tells the entire story with just the shadow!  I was out during a photo class one afternoon and saw my shadow cast on this wooden retaining wall.  Again, although it doesn’t show my face you can tell many things about me just by my shadow. Can you tell I like earrings that dangle?

self portrait (c) Lynne Medsker
"self portrait" (c) Lynne Medsker

One thing it may or may not tell you is that I prefer not to have my picture taken!  (I think that’s true of may of us who stay behind the camera instead of in front!) This was a fun way to indirectly capture my image.

Do you notice how the sun lights the objects in your world? How do you use the sun’s rays to add drama, interest, story-telling to your photos? Pay attention to these details and see if your photography skills improve!

Eyes wide open,

Lynne

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