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.
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.
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.
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.
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!