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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Characteristics Of Light
by Mitch Moraski

I live in Vermont where summers seem to come and go in a flash and we all look forward to the vibrant colors of autumn. The Green Mountains turn golden, and most important to an aspiring nature photographer, the light hugs the horizon ever so closer and gives us the magical light that allows us to capture those dynamic images. There are many important characteristics that go into creating great nature photos, but to me nothing wets my appetite more than great light. Sure I look for great images, but I also seek out great light. After all, the word photography means "painting with light" so lets talk a little about the characteristics of light.

Light makes photography possible; and it can be magical, just plain dull or anything in between. It's up to us to choose what kind of light to use. When I'm searching for great images I go to places where I know the light will perform for me. My canvas is laid before me. It's then that I must learn to paint with that light.

The Characteristics of Light 
Consider these characteristics of light: direction, character and color. How these three combine will determine the character of your images.

Direction: How your subject is illuminated is determined by the light's direction. In photography we talk about front lighting, side lighting, and back lighting.

Front Lighting is when the light is behind you and falling directly on your subject.

I remember as a kid my mom always saying that the sun must be over her shoulder falling on my siblings and myself. This type of light produces flat one-dimensional images and causes your subjects to squint into the sun.

It is by far the worst type of light for any landscape or portrait photographer. But front lighting can be very useful for tight images of birds or any mammal. In this case the light equally illuminates the entire area of interest to the photographer.

Exposure is easy with front lighting as the entire subject is illuminated equally.

Side Lighting. Personally this is my favorite type of light to work with. Side lighting creates shadows that emphasize on the shape and texture of your subject. Side lighting creates a three dimensional effect in your images. Landscape photographers are more prone to use side lighting at sunrise and sunset. Exposure can be more challenging as shadows can block up and become featureless, or highlights can be burned out with overexposure.

For tips on metering for proper exposure when using side light check out Gary's article Exposure: Get It Right The First Time in Issue #14

Back lighting 
is when you are facing your light source. Now you become the illuminated subject. Backlight outlines shapes by creating halos or silhouettes.

By changing exposure you can determine how light or dark you want to make your subject. Picture a person with the sun setting behind them. Expose to capture the details of the person and the sky will wash out. Expose for the sky and most of the detail of the person will be lost, but the sky will be the correct exposure. Stop down even further and the sky will be rich and saturated and the person will become a silhouette against that colorful sky.

Or you can use fill flash to illuminate your subject and use the natural light to define the edges of the subject. Now that person will be sharply defined against that same rich colorful sky. For more information on fill flash check out Chuck's article Flash Photography Made Simple .

Character: The character of light is directly related to the source. Light can be harsh at midday on cloudless days or diffuse on overcast days. You will not find many, if any, experienced nature photographers shooting in harsh light.

Harsh light creates images high in contrast with dark shadows and blown out highlights. When the leaves turn here in Vermont I pray for great early morning and late day directional light. At midday I enjoy diffused light, or what I call "nature's canopy", and perhaps a brief shower to help saturate colors.

Diffused Light is great for close-ups. Film's ability to record color and detail is at it's highest under these conditions and the same holds true for you digital shooters.

Just keep in mind that your eye can see a greater range of light, from deep shadows to bright highlights, than either film or digital can capture. Learning to "see" what you can capture and to gauge the light will make a big difference in your shooting.















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Color: Most non-photographers never really notice, but light has color. The color of light can range from cool blues in the morning to warm reds in the evening. Midday and overcast light, as well as fog also tend to lean toward cool blues. 

I often use an 81A or 81B warming filter helps to eliminate cool or blue light that's often present but not noticeable to the eye under these conditions. Filtering late day or warm light is often times not necessary, but on occasion I find myself using a polarizing filter provided that the direction of the sun (degrees to my left or right) is suitable for it's use.

We see a white flower as white no matter what the time of day. Our mind automatically adjusts for what our eye sees. But your camera will accurately record the color of light. So as a photographer you need to learn to see that color.

Keep this in mind. Light is constantly changing and often times it changes quickly. Often times I'm asked why to do I frequent a spot time and time again. That's because the light is never the same. Images of the same place or subject made under different light can look radically different. So continue painting even after you think you've captured the best shot. Nature can surprise you. At any moment she can hand you the most marvelous light. It's up to you what you choose to do with it.

Cattails, early morning, no filtration

Cattails, early morning, 81B filter

Cattails, late afternoon, no filtration

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