Hi, and welcome to my “HighLight & Shadow” photo column.
As photographers, we “paint images on canvas” (the camera’s digital sensor) using light as our medium, filling our canvas with color, tones, shapes and swirls to create images that speak messages to viewers and touch people in so many different ways.
Light is our paint, and understanding some properties of light helps us know how to manipulate light in ways that increases our artistic flow and the impact of our finished pieces of visual communication. Ultimately, understanding light increases our appreciation and enjoyment of our own photos and of photography in general.
Today, we’ll leave most of the physics of light alone, except for light’s qualities of color, direction and intensity. We’ll also look at a few light sources, and explore how these all these characteristics relate to photography.
Sources of light can be naturally occurring or artificial and can be objects that create their own light and objects that reflect light.
Two of the most important and obvious natural light sources that create their own light are the sun and fire. The moon and the sky are also naturally occurring light sources, but they reflect light. They don’t create it. Today, artificial light sources abound and the array of materials and objects that emit light is expanding all the time. Most of the time, our photo subjects are lit by several light sources and learning to see how light illuminates our subjects helps us more effectively, either manipulate light sources themselves, or when necessary, to manipulate other factors, to produce photos that more successfully impacts the viewers. We can manipulate how light affects almost any photo, including large panoramic natural scenes, portrait subjects, the dinner some of us post online, a Cowgirl’s basketball game and a studio or location fashion shoot.
Reflection and Refraction
Light travels in straight lines when unimpeded.
Light is reflected when it strikes an object and bounces off of that object in a new direction. Light is refracted when it enters a transparent or translucent object like a prism, travels through that object and then exits that object, at times, separated into the colors of the rainbow. Actual rainbows are light refracting through raindrops or mist and splitting into its amazing, colorful display.
Our eyes “see” objects because of light reflecting off their surfaces, traveling through space, entering our eyes through our pupils and ultimately stimulating our eyes’ rods and cones creating our vision of that object. Light that is not reflected off an object is absorbed by it.
Key and Fill Lights
Every subject we shoot has a key light (or main light). The key light is the essential light source for that photo. Also, our subjects are almost always lit by one or more fill light. Fill lights are not essential to the photo but usually enhance the photo a great deal by “filling in” shadow areas that are not illuminated by the key light.
When shooting a subject like a flower or a portrait, either indoors or outdoors, and some shadow areas are too dark, we can reflect light into those shadows using another light source, or using a variety of things (usually flat things) as reflectors, filling in those shadow areas and enhancing our photos. When landscapes have too much contrast (the shadows are too dark and highlights too light) we can manipulate our lighting by shooting from a different direction, at a different time of day or on an overcast day.
Take some time to explore how reflected light varies depending on the reflectors’ surface, color, size, etc. and to explore how light reflects off of different objects outdoors.
Colors of Light
All light has color. In some ways, light is color. And all objects reflect color.
Light sources vary in their color. Sunlight is “white light.” It contains all the colors of the rainbow. Most fires and most incandescent light bulbs emit yellow-orange light, florescent lights emit either aqua-turquois or orange-ish amber light and most streetlights used today emit similar orange-ish amber light.
Any object’s color is the combination of the light source’s color and the colors the object reflects when lit by white light. In sunlight, our eyes see the beautiful reddish-brown colors of a Stradivarius violin because those beautiful colors are reflected off of the violin’s surface while it absorbs all the other colors in the sunlight. When the violin is lit by an incandescent light bulb, the violin’s wood is tinted by that bulb’s yellow hue.
Each digital camera’s white balance setting adjusts how the camera records the colors of the image by compensating for the color of the main light source. Notice the incandescent, florescent, cloudy, sunny and other white balance settings on your camera. In the auto setting, the camera automatically makes those adjustments.
Questions About the Photos
So, lets look at the photos. I’ll ask some questions today and give you answers in my column Jan. 1. See, which questions you, can answer.
Each scene has a key light. If it didn’t it would be a completely black scene. If there is only one light source, then it’s the key light and there are no fill lights. Photo A is a shot of the Laramie rail yard. What are photo A’s key light and fill light?
Photo B is a backlit photo. What is the key light and are there any fill lights? Why are the shadows blue? Is shaded snow always blue?
Photo C is a photo-composite, shot shortly after sunrise and created by joining four separate photos together. First, notice how yellow the snow is, especially in the left half of the very snowy, main mountain. Why is that? Secondly, why does the snow gradually loose the yellow tint and become a bit darker, moving from the far left to the end of Sheep Mountain? And in answering this question, can you also tell where the sun is along the eastern horizon behind me when I shot the photo?
Lastly, lets look at photo D. Here, the moon is just emerging from the earth’s shadow during a full lunar eclipse. The bright area in the upper right is where direct sunlight is once again lighting the moon. First, what is the key light, and second, what is the fill light that is lighting the areas of the moon in the photo that aren’t lit by direct sunlight?
Observe how other objects are lit by determining what key light and fill lights are lighting it.
So, until next time, keep your eyes open, your camera handy and your imagination flowing.
Dan Hayward is a 37-year veteran photographer. He is well-known for his fine art photography and his aerial and ground-based images documenting Wyoming’s Natural Environment. Go to www.highlightandshadow.wordpress.com to view his previous columns. Also, go to www.facebook.com/haywardphoto to view his most recent photos. Contact him through that Facebook page with any questions, suggestions or comments.