How does light impact your photography?

How does light impact your photography?

Thanks for those of your that took the poll; 67 of your said you wanted to learn more about quality of light and 1 (one) said no so let’s discuss a bit about light and how it can be used to impact your photographs.

Light is often one of the most important elements of your photograph.    I always find it interesting when I hear comments like ‘wow you caught that at just the right moment’ or ‘he was really lucky to get that shot’.   Light, more specifically the quality of light, can have a profound effect on the mood of your pictures and really good photographers understand this and leverage this to their advantage.   Luck rarely plays a part.   First let’s talk about:

Types of Light

Hard Light

Hard light creates very bright and very dark areas in the same scene.  You can see this on a very bright and sunny day.   Often hard light can create very dark shadows.   You can also see this when people use a flash on someone against a dark background.    The result is often a very bright subject with a very dark background.    You can soften the shadows using a fill flash.

Soft light

Soft light is as it names implies – is soft.   It is diffused, smooth, consistent and has few shadows to confuse your camera.    Think of a large shaded area or what its like to be outside on a cloudy day.   There are no harsh shadows or extreme bright spots.

If you understand these properties you can then leverage them to create the effect you are looking for.   Let’s look at a couple of examples and see how light plays a role in the photograph.

Here is an example of high key lighting…   In this self portrait I am shooting two flashes through umbrellas on each site of my head.   The effect I wanted was a bit of an artistic shot with the light blowing out most of my features around the edges. This is a bit of an extreme example but shows that light does have creative uses.

ShootTokyo Dave

You can also use the harsh light to create a ‘caught in the act’ effect as I did with Danbo here ‘taking out’ the Amazon.co.jp box…

Danbo Caught in the act

As mentioned above the harsh light from a flash can often cause a blacked out background.  In this case I am in a bar and it is already a bit dark so I am under exposing the background and flashing the subject.   I am not carrying a lot of camera equipment with me when I am out so this is an effective approach for me.

Drinking in Jiyugaoka

Laughing in Jiyugaka

You can also use it to change how someone feels when they look at your photograph.  Domo looks much scarier coming out of the shadows than he would if there was even light across the scene.

Domo

Leveraging shadows is a great tool to bring a lot of impact to a photograph.  A lot of photographers shy away from shooting at night but I have learnt to embrace it.    I think the contrast between the properly exposed subject and the dark shadows can really make a photo.   A lot of people don’t want to have to carry a tripod but it is just a fact of life if you want to be able to take great night photos.   This year when Nakameguro announced that there won’t be lights up for the Cherry Blossom festival a lot of photographers were disappointed.  I just adjusted how I was going to shoot it…

Cherry Blossoms at night

Cherry Blossoms at night

Hot Dogs in Japan

Often one of the most effective lighting sources can be lighting coming in through a window.   Here my friend Jon initially had his back to the window.   If I took his photo that was the contrast would have been too great I would have had to use a fill flash to get his face properly exposed or risked having a blown out background.   I wanted to capture the calmness of the moment so a flash won’t have kept that feeling.   I simply moved so I was standing between him and the window so he would face the window when I took the shot.   I didn’t have him turn all the way so it creates a nice contrast with the ambient light.

Jon

Here is another example, where my wife Mayumi was taking my photo and I faced into an window.  The lighting from the window was much more pleasing than what the lighting in the house could produce.  I actually had a window in front of me as well as on my right so you can see there is more light on my right.   You also get great catch lights (the little glow in the eyes).

Dave in Sunlight

There is lots to learn about light and you can spend months and years learning to light.   The best website by far to learn about lighting is Strobist.  David Hobby is genius in lighting and really makes a lot of the concepts easy to understand.    He has bootcamps and tutorials you can follow if you really want to learn about lighting.  I play a little with flash from time to time but I tend to be more of a natural light shooter.   Partly because I like to travel light (now) and partly because I just don’t have the patience for setting up lighting.   Here are a couple of shots from some exercises I did while going through Strobist exercises so you can get a feeling for what you can learn.

Light has shape…look at the impact of moving the flash at different angles as I shot Ketchup Dunny.   It is a really fun exercise to go through to learn to control light and how to shape it around your subject.

Direction of light

Light can help you alter the size of something… as illustrated with my son’s toy car.

Blue Car

Dynamic Range

There is a difference between what your eye can see and what your camera can capture in terms of range of light.  Cameras have the ability to see 5-10 ‘stops’ of light, some more and some less depending on the cameras sensor and other factors but let’s just agree to 5-10 stops of light for the purpose of this illustration.  Now our eyes can see across 24 stops of light.   Your eye will look at different parts of the image, your pupil will dilate and record the brightness of a white t-shirt at ‘proper exposure’, then adjust to capture the the rich colors of the green grass at ‘proper exposure’ and the deep blue sky above all of it also at ‘proper exposure’ and present it as one imagine to your brain with each part properly exposed.     The issue is your camera lens can’t continue to ‘dilate’ to capture the varying ranges of light.  When you are shooting in this environment you can often get very dark shadows or blown out highlights.   Let me see if I can illustrate this with some images…

This is one of my favorite airport views…Hong Kong Airport.  The architecture is amazing. You can see people racing to their gates, the mountains and planes out the windows.   It is a great scene to me…but the issue is my camera can’t capture it as I see it.

Hong Kong Airport

The issue is my camera doesn’t have the ability to capture the dynamic range of light in the scene.     Let look at the scene above but let’s look at it across multiple exposures and see what details are actually available in the image.

I was trying to balance and get the details outside as well as inside.  You can see the result I got wasn’t very good.   The inside is simply too dark and the outside is simply too bright losing most of the color.    So let’s look at a series of bracketed shots with this one below being +/- 0.

Hong Kong Airport

Now if I under exposure 2 stops (-2) look at the detail outside that is brought in.  The red on the airplane is very strong now.   You can see details in the mountains but you can see next to nothing inside.

Hong Kong Airport

A -1 stop more details begin to appear.

Hong Kong Airport

Now at +1 you can see the inside is exposed well.   This is how I would have shot it if I was just shooting a single exposure, maybe bringing it down half a stop.   Personally, it really bothers me that the details outside are blown out.

Hong Kong Airport

and one final shot at +2 to bring out all of the details.

Hong Kong Airport

Now I have a couple of choices.  I can understand the dynamic range limitations of my camera and simply accept it.   I could photoshop the windows from the -2 exposure into the +/- o shot or I could blend these images together using software in a process called HDR or High Dynamic Range.    HDR is the process of taking multiple bracketed exposures (e.g. -2, -1, +/- 0, +1) and then blending these imagines together with software to bring out detailed you otherwise would not have been able to capture.  HDR when done right can create some amazing images.

HDR can often create some crazy colors and often gets a bad rap as people when people overuse it and make ‘cartoon’ colored images.    I believe a lot of control and restraint is required when using HDR.    For me it isn’t a tool I use often but I do use it when I want to capture something that my camera can’t otherwise capture due to the very dynamic range of light in a scene.   If this is something that interest you, make sure you check out Stuck in Customs as Trey Ratcliff is the master of HDR and an overall great guy.    He has a great tutorial on it and takes some amazing shots all over the world.

Hong Kong Airport

 Magic Hour

Also known as Golden Hour refers to the first and last hour of Sunlight each day.     You can achieve some pretty amazing photographs as the contrast is much less, shadows are less dark and the image is overall more pleasing.    You will find light in this period to be much warmer.    You will also find for city shooting that there is a much better balance to ambient light.   The problem with Magic Hour is it typically falls when you should be sleeping or having dinner.   This is just the price you pay for good photographs…

Here is a great shot of the neon in front of Yodobashi Camera.  The neon looks great but the sky is completely blown out which I think really takes away from the picture.

Neon in Tokyo

If I just waited a little longer, the sky would have become a nice rich blue as the sun faded away and the sky would balance nicely against the neon.   This was shot just 5 minutes past sunset.

Neon in Tokyo

Neon in Tokyo

Neon in Tokyo

Golden Hour passes quickly so you need to get your shots in while you can.   Neon against a black sky just doesn’t look as good…

Neon in Tokyo

This one was taken on a stormy night so the sky didn’t become blue but gray but waiting until the right time allowed me to capture some great detail in the sky vs. just a blown out sky.

Neon in Tokyo

This is also the right time to capture buildings and views of cities…

Shinjuku without Neon

I love capturing these lanterns in that are all over Tokyo in front of noodle and Yakitori shops.    Magic hour is the perfect time to find a natural balance between this light

Neon in Tokyo

Neon in Tokyo

Neon in Tokyo

Hopefully this was helpful and gave you a few things to about.   If you like what you saw today, please share it by clicking one of the links below.   If you are one of the lucky Google Plus users give it a +1!  Thanks and see you tomorrow!

 

9 Comments

  1. Good post, Dave. The light clearly plays a big role in photography. I get frustrated when my subject’s too dark. I can only adjust so much with a point and shoot, so I try to make do with whatever light that I have. :)

  2. This Blog is Great about Light and Esp the HK Airport as in Late Nov I’ll be Coming and Going through there and Hope I can get some Great Shots.

  3. Thanks, great post. Glad I found you on G+

  4. Thanks for this interesting blogpost Dave! Great!

  5. Very interesting post! I’m curious about your take on the Lytro experiments, that is, the light field camera software they are developing.

  6. Hi Len – It’s very interesting…. I am curious to see how it develops and what the final images will look like. It has the potential to significantly reduce the cost for people to get a certain level of bokeh, granted it will be software generated.

  7. Hi Dave,
    Thats for the great information. I am personally more interested with shooting building and city scapes. May I know what it the best exposure time for shooting city scapes at night or during the golden hours? I have shoot a Singapore city scape at long exposure but I notice that there are certain area which is just too bright while others are nice. Just can’t seems to get the right shoot.
    Cheers!

  8. Get there about 10 minutes before Sunset and shoot a shot every minute or two until about 20 minutes after Sunset and you will see the point where the ambient light and buildings blend together nicely…

  9. merci beaucoup pour le partage de ces magnifiques photos mais aussi pour les conseils.

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