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Understanding Light

The quality of light is the single most important factor influencing the aesthetic success of every picture you take.

The way light falls on an object totally dictates its physical appearance: how much texture and details is revealed, the strength and neutrality of its colour and whether it looks flat or three-dimension. This in turn influences the mood of your pictures and the way respond to them emotionally, so to get the most from your photography you must have a thorough understanding of light and how to use it to advantage.

The amazing thing about light - especially daylight - is it never stays the same for long. It can be hard or soft, strong or weak, warm or cold and all these permutations can be put to good use because they change the way the world appears.

If you look at a scene on a cold, misty morning, for example, it will look totally different than later in the day when the sun's higher in the sky, or last thing before sunset, or in dull overcast weather. By studying the way different forms of light work, you can decide when a scene will look at its most attractive before committing it to film.

The colour of light also needs to be considered because the film in your camera won't always see it in the way your eyes do. If you aren't aware of this all sorts of problems can be encountered.

Time of Day

The greatest factor influencing the quality of daylight is the time of day. As the sun arcs its way across the sky between dawn and dusk the colour, harshness and intensity of the light undergo a myriad of changes. Here's a breakdown of a typical day:

Finding the Sun

Being able to track the path of the sun so you know where it will be at different times throughout the day is a handy skill to have, especially if you specialise in landscape or architectural photography.

Most people assume that the sunrises in the east and sets in the west, but this is only true for a few days each year. The rest of the time these positions change, and so does its path across the sky.

In summer, for example, the sun rises slightly south of east and sets slightly south of west, while in winter it rises slightly north of east and sets slightly north of west. This may not sound like much difference, but in reality it means the sun may rise and set in a totally different position to where you expect. 

If you're out before sunrise you can usually gauge where the sun will come up by looking towards the brightest area on the horizon. Once the sun has risen, a compass comes in handy for identifying the positions of east and west. That way you can roughly predict the path of the sun during the rest of the day so you know more or less where it will be in relation to a particular scene or building, say, then return to capture it in the most attractive light.

There are tables and links to sites that can predict this for you on this page.

Weather or not

Variations in the weather have a profound effect on the quality of the light.

Direct sunlight, for example, is very harsh and intense. But as soon as a cloud obscures it the light is diffused and the hard edge is taken off the shadows. The thicker and larger the cloud, the more pronounced this effect is, until in overcast days the sky acts like an enormous diffuser so that shadows simply don't exist.

Many photographers think of dull, overcast days as boring and uninspiring, but the light is perfect for flattering portraits and moody landscapes. You'll need and 81A or 81B warm-up filter to combat the slight blueness in the light, but other than that it's wonderful.

Bad weather is worth pursuing too. There's nothing enjoyable about being soaked to the skin or blown to bits, but if the sun breaks through during or immediately after a storm the light can be stunning, with buildings and trees picked out by shafts of bright sunlight against the dark, threatening sky. Storm clouds also make for dramatic pictures, and if you're lucky you may have the chance to photography a rainbow, or even lightening.

Reading the weather

Although it takes years of experience to accurately predict changes in the weather, there are a few tips worth bearing in mind.

  • The crossed winds rule. The direction the wind is blowing can offer clues about likely weather changes. To do this, turn your back to the wind then turn 30 clockwise.
    If, from this position, the clouds appear to be moving left to right, weather conditions are likely to deteriorate. However, if they're moving right to left, the cold front is receding so conditions will improve.
  • Rainbows appear when the sun breaks during  a storm and shines through failing rain. If you turn away from the sun when this happens the rainbow will be in front of you.
    The centre of the bow is always as far beneath the horizon as the sun is above, so around midday it appears close to the ground, while during early morning or late afternoon it arcs overhead.