With the human eye, the process of using light in seeing happens so intuitively that we rarely give it a second thought.
Cameras also use light in both “seeing” and capturing images. We learn about that in the study of the exposure triangle.
Yet even after we master the ability to nail exposure, we can still find something missing in our images. I experienced this in the first months of my journey into photography. I’d think to myself, the subject, emotion, exposure, and focus are all there, but something’s still lacking.
The answer was light. Not the presence of light, but the thoughtful use of light. With that realization, my ongoing study of light began.
The mastery of light, I discovered, isn’t complete without understanding the other half of the equation: shadow. With that realization came valuable lessons in how certain kinds of light plus the incorporation of shadow can vastly affect not only the appearance of an image but also the feeling and mood the image evokes.
I began to observe and study light all the time, mostly without my camera in hand, and years later I still do. In conversation with my youngest son, I’ll notice the catchlights in his eyes and how, in a particular light, his eyes are clear like a deep blue lake.
As I watch one of my sons reading in bed by flashlight, I’ll see how the shadows shift, expand and minimize with the tilt of his head and the movement of the flashlight.
I notice how shadows and highlights curve and spread throughout my home, varying with the time of the day. I notice the rim light around my husband as he chops firewood among the trees. I notice how the light in our basement quickly and beautifully falls off into the shadows.
No matter what I’m doing, I constantly contemplate how I could use the natural light that’s illuminating the scene.
Oftentimes, finding the right light is as simple as waiting until my subject’s face tilts just a bit more toward the light source or encouraging the subject to adjust his body this way or that, or simply repositioning myself; all the while I’m noting how the highlights and shadows change across the subject’s face.
A great thing for us students of light and shadow is that we’re able to study them wherever we are because they’re around us all the time. We recognize that some light is comfortable and intriguing, and some light is harsh and overpowering.
When we realize what we see with our eyes will be what we see through the lens, then incorporating that desirable mix of light and shadow into our images becomes much more instinctive.
The classic egg exercise
Try this simple exercise used by fine art students for centuries to deepen your understanding of how the direction of light in relation to a subject affects depth, dimension, and even mood in an image.
Stand an egg on end. Position a portable light, such as a small lamp or flashlight, directly to the side of the egg. Note the light and shadows. Reposition the light at a 45-degree angle to the egg and observe how the shadows change. Next, place the light directly above the egg, and note how the light and shadows shift yet again.
Continue moving the light around the egg, and experiment with moving it closer and farther away to affect its intensity. What does this egg show you about the direction and quality of the light falling on the subject? How will you deliberately use light as part of the mood and story in your images?
Shooting scenario 1: Following the light
Vision: The barn was a natural location for a series of images of my littlest boy to capture him in his favorite cowboy outfit. Because of the associations with cowboys that come to mind — solitude and living a simple yet hard life — I wanted to evoke those feelings by keeping the images more serious in tone.
Lighting: When I entered the large barn, I noticed the afternoon light shining in through the stall doors. This created a rather quick fall off of the light as it reached through the stable door because the light source was small compared to the wide, dark expanse of the rest of the barn. The split between light and shadow was literally right at the opening of the stable door as it led into the vastness of the barn.
How I worked with that light: I wanted that split of light to run down the center of Kaden’s face and body, so I simply centered him in the doorway with his back against the frame. Had I leaned my shoulder on the stable wall in front of him and shot straight down it, the split of highlight and shadow would have been traced down his nose.
However, since I stood at an angle to him from within the opening of the barn, I was shooting toward his shadow, leaving only a sliver of his lit face visible. Using short, hard light such as this is an effective way to add drama, intrigue and that feeling of solitude to an image.
Shooting scenario 2: Positioning myself
Vision: My goal for the cowboy images above was to make the location of the barn a stronger supporting character, which meant it needed to be a bit more identifiable. I wanted to keep the feelings of the set cohesive though, so shadows were still necessary.
Lighting: Seeing how much the quantity of light differed between the outside wall of the barn and inside the horse stall, I knew the interior of the barn would fall away into deep shadow through the doorway.
How I worked with that light: I exposed for the light illuminating my son along the exterior (Example A). To capture the image, I stood directly in front of him in the open field; even though he was essentially flatly lit, the image retains depth thanks to the shadows behind him inside the barn.
Then, to capture the presence of shadows on his face and body in the same location, I simply repositioned myself to stand next to the wall of the barn (Example B). That changed my perception of the direction of the light on Kaden from front-lit to side-lit; now the soft shadows become visible.
Shooting scenario 3: Manipulating light
Vision: My goal for this photograph was to capture the calm, focused, quiet nature of our nightly prayer time in the bedroom that two of my boys share. I wanted the light to help draw my viewer’s eye directly to Kaden as he sat on the floor.
Lighting: When my shooting scenario is lit solely by artificial light, I have the ability to control its direction.
I do my best to minimize the amount of light coming straight down on my subjects and maximize the amount coming toward them. This is often done by simply having them lift their gaze toward the light or by turning off any overhead lights and using the nearby lamp light.
How I worked with that light: One option in this situation was to turn on both of the lights in the room, specifically the overhead light, to maximize the amount of light in the room. However, filling the room with light in that way created too much visual distraction in the frame and would create unflattering overhead shadows on my subject.
Instead I used the light and shadows created by a single closet light across the room. This directional light toned down the mood of the room by creating soft shadows that gently cuddled my son and accentuated the contours of his face and entire body. This effect made him and his prayer the sole focus of the image.