Seeing the Light

In How to, Inspiration

You could say that the subject of all photographs is the same: light. Without light, we wouldn’t be able to take pictures at all! But sometimes a particular kind of light really can be the subject of a photograph, or lend it a distinctive mood or style. To take pictures you have to learn how to use a camera, how to compose images, how to get the best out of people, and so on. But I think another important skill is learning to recognise different kinds of light, and how to make best use of them. In other words, seeing the light. Here are some of the kinds of light that I look out for, and the kinds of pictures that I think work best with each one.


Golden hour.
This is the most obvious example of what I’m talking about. Everything looks better during the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset! No wonder some people call it the “magic hour”. There’s a scientific reason for this: when the sun is lower in the sky, its light has to pass through a thicker layer of atmosphere than when it is overhead. The air scatters out more of the blue wavelengths, making the light softer and warmer, and colours bolder. You also get longer shadows, which can look great in landscapes.

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This Japanese word means “sunlight filtering through trees”. It’s a magical, dancing light that evokes spring and summer, because it requires the trees to have leaves. Once you know what it’s called, you’ll see it everywhere, and you’ll appreciate the special way it can light up a table, or the beautiful silhouettes of trees on the sides of buildings. There’s a magic spot half way up the stairs in our house where dancing light, filtered through a tree in the garden, appears in summer evenings. Perhaps that’s why I love it so much—it’s like a sign that it’s summer.


Liminal light.
I noticed this kind of light when we were on holiday. Liminal means on a threshold; these pictures work best in actual doorways, although any threshold between light and dark will do. When someone stands in an open door with a dark interior behind them, although they are illuminated, the background behind them is not. This gives great separation between subject and background for portraits, but looks less formal than using a backdrop. Sometimes you even get a few hints of light and bokeh in the background. But you don’t even need buildings: one day we were walking in the country, and we crossed an open field before climbing over a stile to go into some dark woods. As everyone climbed over the stile, I noticed this kind of light once again. You can also find it in the mouths of caves. Once again, when you know about it, you’ll see it everywhere!


Shooting into the sun.
Backlighting your subject with the sun is all the rage right now: a lot of fashion shoots seem to be using this style at the moment. It has to be done when the sun is quite low, obviously, though it need not be golden hour. You’ll often get a nice “rim light” around your subject, and you may get interesting lens flare, too. Obviously you’ll have to overexpose your subject a bit to prevent them turning into a silhouette, which will overexpose the background. But it’s usually best not to include the sun itself in the picture; otherwise, with digital cameras in particular (film is more forgiving), you may get a horrible blown-out highlight in the sky.


Shafts of light.
The “hand of god” shafts-of-light effect is something you most often see when there’s fog, mist or smoke in the air, and it can look magical. You can also encounter it in woods or forests, as the light filters through the canopy of leaves. And sometimes you get a shaft of sunlight in a dark room, through shutters or an open window. What’s lovely is the way it can pick out a subject against darker surroundings, or liven up a landscape image. You may have to move fast, though; it probably won’t last long.


Sea light.
There’s something special about the light by the sea. Perhaps it comes from the combination of the big, open horizons and the spray in the air. Or perhaps it’s just because it’s so magical being by the sea at sunset.

What are your favourite kinds of light, and what sorts of images do you find they work best for? I’d love to hear!



  1. Oh you know I am a lover of light. Beautifully said! Love the images you used to illustrate the types of light. I’ll be exploring some of these soon!

  2. You’ve given me a new word for a light I love – liminal – thank you!

    I love noticing the way the light changes color & colors things differently season by season. For instance, here’s a pure, crispness and clarity to winter light that gave me something new to appreciate about her once I recognized it & makes it worth putting up with chilly fingers for a winter photo outing.

  3. Why does the light make us so giddy? Your words answered that question better than I could. I knew there was a word for dappled light (sunlight filtering through trees). I love this word, komorebi. My camera and I enjoyed this light recently.

    I also thank you for this word liminal; and I recently photographed it as I looked out onto the ocean from the shelter of my sea cave. I love having a word to describe this light.

    Thanks for sharing this Kirstin. Such a great read!

  4. Wonderful! I learned some new words I hadn’t known ten minutes ago. And they all end in beautiful.

  5. I so enjoyed reading this and seeing your gorgeous examples Kirstin. Thank you!

  6. I’m so glad I finally managed to come here and let your magical images warm my heart and your words give me so many wonderful suggestions! thank you so much! and happy searching and seeing the light xx

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