Light shapes and colors every object we see, creating depth and mood. The word "photography" itself broken down to its roots means "writing with light". The word "photo" is derived from ‘photon’ (a particle of light) and "graphy" (Greek, to draw).
Amateur photographers are often wrapped up in lenses, shutter speeds, and Photoshop before they even master this most fundamental component of their craft. Understanding how to maintain control of your light and use it to your advantage will greatly enhance the quality of your pictures.
Before you dig into the details of the different types of photographic light, it’s important to understand what exactly photographers are talking about when they say an image is “high contrast” or “overly exposed”:
- Exposure is the overall brightness or darkness of a scene as it relates to your image.
- Highlight is the brightest point of an image. This is typically the reflective surface of the subject or angles facing the light source.
- Shadow is the darkest point of an image. These are typically non-reflective surfaces or angles not facing the light source.
- Quality is how focused or diffused the light is. In addition to being light or dark, light can also be soft or hard.
- Contrast is the measurement of the difference between the highlights and shadows within an image.
- Color in photography refers to the color of the light in an image. Sunlight varies in color and is measured in degrees Kelvin. The color of daylight is 5500K and is comparable to light on an overcast day.
- Direction is where the light is coming from. Light may be hard or soft, but it travels in a straight line. How photographers direct or reflect the light determines if a subject is Front Lit, Back Lit, or Side Lit.
The Four Types of Photographic Light
Photographic light falls under four main categories. Though multiple types of light can appear in one image, each type of light in different combinations creates the mood of your image. Hard light is stark and intense. Soft light is dreamy, gauzy, and romantic. Reflective light is edgy and dramatic. Transmitted light is epic, eye-catching, and bold. Learning what they are and how to create them is how you set the mood for your image.
1. Hard Light:
When we think of light we think of either the sun or a light bulb. Both are great examples of "hard light". The sun on a clear day will cast a strong shadow off any object it strikes. A bare bulb will do the same, but if you wrap a lampshade around the bulb or put a cloud in front of the sun, the light is diffused.
2. Soft Light:
When you diffuse a light source you create ‘soft light,’ where the shadows fade or disappear. The sun and the bare bulb are both small light sources, but if you put a diffuser in front of them you convert them into a large light source, emitting "soft light".
3. Reflected Light:
Reflected light is light that bounces off any other surface and back onto the subject. For example, when standing in the shade light is reflected from nearby surfaces onto you. You may not be able to see the light source, but you are still illuminated. Photographers use reflectors to change the direction of light and have more control over lighting in their images.
4. Transmitted Light:
Transmitted light simply means that the light source is visible in the image. For example, a picture of the sunset or a city at night.