At the core of every photograph that you take, from the brightest to the darkest, is the all-important element of light, the light which makes photography possible. Here are a few simple tips for using it.
Light is responsible for most of the energy in the universe, which is a big job. As a sideline, light is also responsible for every photograph that you take. Even the origin of the word photography comes from the Greek, literally translated as “light writing.” Technically, light is electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength that is visible to the human eye (in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm). In physics, the term light refers to electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength, whether visible or not.
Artistically, light is what powers the beauty of the sunsets that we capture, the element that drives the basic moods of our images, and the moods that we capture in our images, all reflected from our subjects. This is not, of course, a set of facts that applies only to today’s digital cameras. All cameras, from the simplest pinhole camera through the most complex of film cameras, have used light as their most essential medium.
Although most modern digital cameras can be used in a simple point-and-shoot mode, most also have a manual or semi-manual mode which allows you to deal directly with the amount of light being let into your camera. You may want to consider some experimentation with this “manual” mode of camera operation while thinking about or practicing with the various qualities of light as they relate to taking photographs. Here are a few things to consider:
Light angle- The angle at which the light strikes your subject, whether it is a person or a building, is important. Think of how different a face looks when lit from the bottom, the top, or straight on, or even from one side. You can control this through artificial lighting, by taking your photo at different times of the day, or by changing the position of your subject or your camera. Bear in mind that the light angle can drastically change the details of the exposure of your subject.
Shadows- Consider the famous case of the photos of camels on sand dunes from aloft; almost all you can see is sand and the shadows. Without playing that important a role, shadows can add important elements of contrast to your photos. Again, the light angle is important in controlling the characteristics of shadow, as is the intensity of the light.
Silhouettes- These can produce striking photographs. All that is necessary is that you photograph your subject against a bright background, perhaps bright sun or a sunset. You will need to use the lighter background to get the exposure settings in order for this to work properly. If necessary, you can move the subject out of the middle of the frame to get the camera to show (and take) a silhouette.
Actual light rays- Sometimes, it is possible to capture perceptible rays of light with your camera. These occur naturally most often, perhaps, when taking pictures of sunsets and clouds, both of which tend to refract light in such a way that you can see large rays of light. You can also do this inside, with things such as dust motes floating in a beam of light or even rays coming from lamps or bulbs at night. This is a place where manual mode is helpful; use a high f/stop and a slow shutter speed.
Experiment with these techniques, and with the manual controls on your camera, and you will soon find that you are taking more interesting, and more varied shots. Light is the single element in photography that you cannot afford to ignore.