Wednesday, May 25, 2011


The word photography is based on the greek words φῶς  (light) and γραφή (drawingtogether meaning drawing with light. In everyday use the word light is used instead of radiation which is what we are actually record on paper or card. 

Photography is the art and science of creating pictures by recording radiation on a radiation-sensitive medium, such as photographic film or electronic image sensor. It is widely believed that Sir John Herschel in a lecture before the Royal Society of London on March 14 1839 is the person who made the word photography known to the world. Although on February 25 of the same year in a German newspaper, a Berlin astronomer had used the word photography already.

This posting is not about the history of photography. What I have written is just a little information that I thought you might find interesting. I did when I first read this information years ago.

This posting will be about the practical application of light in your photography. It will be about the natural light, not the manipulation of light using flashes or even reflectors. This is the light that we all see when we are outside in our environment. It is always here  (North America) in some form roughly between the hours of 6AM until 8PM give or take depending on location and the season. I realize that I have many readers outside of North America. But that is where I am right now which means that is what I can photograph   to get examples to use here.

Photographers have two periods of day that they would rather photograph. Before I get comments telling me that you like to shoot at high noon because you love shadows or you like to shoot at 1AM in complete darkness because umm you like complete darkness, I am speaking of a vast majority of photographers; especially nature and portraiture photographers. Those two times are generally referred to as the 'golden hours' and are the first and last hours of sunlight in the day. That is when the quality of the light is thought to be the best by many photographers. 

Typically lighting is softer (more diffused) and warmer in hue and the shadows are longer. When the sun is near the horizon, sunlight travels through more of the atmosphere, reducing the intensity of the direct light, so that more of the illumination comes from indirect light from the sky. More blue light is scattered, so that light from the sun appears more reddish. In addition, the sun's small angle with the horizon produces longer shadows. I could go more in depth with this but I am guessing many of you would then be going over to read what Aaron is writing about today. 

What I will try to show today is the difference in light at different times of the day. In order to show you the differences, I have taken an image from the same spot, focusing on a small area with palm trees and bushes, at about eight different hours of the same day. This is not an exciting image but it does help show the difference in the light and it is right outside my backyard. To do this I needed somewhere close by.

I started out at 6:30 AM (by the end of the day I cannot imagine what my neighbors were thinking). 

This first image was taken at around 6:30 am and you can see the light is very low and indirect. The sun is not high enough in the sky to provide a good quality of light. While there is light, it is very flat. Another thing is that I shot all these images at F4.5 with an ISO of 200 in aperture priority mode. Normally I would have changed to manual, raised my ISO and changed the f stop to 2.8, giving me more light to shoot. For this posting I did not want to do that. This post is showing how the light quality changed during the day and keeping those two settings constant is a better way. One of the other problems with shooting in low light is speed, I was hand holding at a 10th of a second. Not a great chance of getting a sharp picture. I didn't. If you look closely, there is a softness to the image.

Second image taken at 8 am right in the golden hours.

 You can see how much more light and how much warmer the light quality is, also longer shadows flowing away from the subject. You can see the shadows behind the trees and in the foreground. With the higher light I am now shooting at 1000th of a second. The image is sharp and clean. If I photographed a person in this light I would not need to use a flash. I would get a great light on their face and no shadows under their eyes.

Third image taken at 11AM

You can see the light is not as warm and getting harsher. Notice the shadows are shorter, the sun is almost directly overhead, causing shorter shadows. If I was photographing someone in this light and I did not use a flash they would have raccoon eyes. These are heavy shadows under their eyes caused by the shadow from the ridge over their eyes. In people with deep set eyes the shadows are worse. I would not even try and take an image of someone facing me in this scene in the sunlight. I would look for shade and use a flash to add a touch of fill light to add to the light. I am still shooting at 1000th second.

Fourth image shot at 1PM

 I think the light is even worse now. You will have bad hotspots and those short shadows. In the harsh light of this and the previous image you even lose saturation. Your greens and reds will lack saturation, looking dull. Another indication of the strength of the light is that I am now at 2000th of  a second.

Fifth image shot at 5PM

The light is warmer again as the sun lowers in the sky. This is really great light to shoot in, nature or portraiture. The light will soften the angles of the face causing a more flattering look. The colors are once again saturated. I am still at 2000th of a second. Why is the light not so harsh? One reason is that the light is now coming from the left side and back. On a portrait you might need to use fill flash depending on where you place the person relative to the sun.

Sixth image at 6:15 PM

It's still warm light, longer shadows but now the shadows are coming toward the camera. In landscape photography, this is not necessarily a bad thing; in portraiture it would depend where you pose them. With the light coming from the side then you can have a great image. I'm still at 2000th second, getting close to back lit.

 Seventh image at 7:30 PM

Okay now we are backlit; not good light for obvious reasons. The speed's down to 100th of a second. Most of that is coming from the sky. If you want to keep shooting, you will need to move to the right or use a flash.

Eighth image shot at 7:32PM

I moved a few hundred feet to camera right. There's really great light on the palm trees in the center of the image; warm and bright with really long shadows. You could still get great images here; either of the palms (you would need to move much closer or use a zoom) or place your person right in front of the palm. 

This is a simple explanation of the quality of light and how to see it. Most photographers who consistently get poor images usually do not "see" the light. It is the most important part of photography. Learn your light, learn to see it and learn how to work with it. I cannot give you better advise on how to go from someone who takes pictures to someone who makes images.


Techmaker said...

Absolutely great info for all the photographer community. Two minute different can make a huge change in quality and the nature of photos. I never thought about this..... I knew there is a change of the quality with the lightening, but I never thought a huge difference within few hours... Great..

Nelietah said...

This is excellent info Jim! I love to take photos at sunset or sunrise. The worse time for me to take photos is at noon. There is always have too much light and my photos look horrible.

Thank you for sharing with examples.

Abhisek Panda said...

Great information Jim.I love nature photography but sometime suffer because of improper light.Will keep these tips in mind the next time I go out for photography.Thanks Jim :D
CG Magic

Aaron said...

Hey Jim,
Thanks for the shoutout :) This was a great post on natural light. It is my favorite light to use, well that and a fast prime to take advantage of it. You are so right about the light at midday, it is so harsh and takes away all colour saturation that most times I don't even bother to go during that it is hotter and lugging that camera equipment becomes a chore in the sun :)
I do most of my day shooting between 3-5 so I can get some nice shadows and contrasts.

lakwatsera de primera said...

Thank you for sharing this Jim, I usually can't choose much about the lighting while travelling. You don't have the luxury of time to wait for the golden hour especially if you have to move to another place. Good thing there is a Polarising Filter, you can still shoot at noontime especially on the beach :)

fantacy in practicality said...

hi Jim, for the first time i am learning some technical part of photography, i am not so well at clicking. but hope to master soon by reading your posts. thank you for your tips. looking forward to more like these.

Kerry-Ann said...

Your practical explaination of lighting in photography has given me a lot of food for thought. I have always like the golden hours - but didn't really know why. Unfortunately travelling doesn't always present the opportunity to take images of the place in the best light. But seeing this does give me an understanding of how to compensate for time of day. Thanks

Ravenmyth said...

Jim it is amazing how much difference the space between time makes. You illustrated this beautifully. The lesson becomes imprinte with the example of the photo..will not forget that. Very well explained. I will be able to hear your words in my head the next time I go to click...thank you!

melissa said...

so far, the best i've seen was that of 8am...oh, i looked at it again, and you wrote the golden hours :P... so that does it...

i also like the last seems softer... the first was a blur...

of great interest to me more than anything is the play of lights and shadows and how they would appear if and when i draw them...

yes, the image wasn't as exciting but it resembles a place in north africa... so it seems close to home... and my heart...


you are a very patient person as i've mentioned earlier... taking photos at different hours...

so the post is really worth my time...

meraviglioso!grazie tanto ;)

JP Brandano Photography said...

Thank you everyone.. I thought I would get back to this type post a teaching post. The next one is also a teaching post

Thank you for all your encouragement


Debbie said...

Wow I loved how u captured the way the lighting changed the whole scene.