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Using Light and Shadow in Photography

by Alli Harper (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     
Let there be light.

Photography is all about light. Beginners often photograph what captures their attention in terms of a scene or interesting subject matter but, to take your photography to the next level, you really need to learn to be aware of, and make good use of, light. Of course subject matter is still important but how you use light and shadow will be what makes your work “pop” and will distinguish you from the average snapper.

Using light and shadow in photography how ideas photoh
Ella © Alli Harper Photographer

Learning to See

There is a lot you can do with natural light. In previous articles we have talked about the “golden hours”, that magical time at the beginning and end of the day. Whilst not great for portraiture, harsh direct light can be used to create dynamic images using strong shadows.

Spend time in the environments that you are really familiar with, look at where the light falls and at what time of day. Ask yourself, “is there an interesting photograph that you haven’t seen before or somewhere you can place your subject?”.

Go for a photowalk in your neighbourhood and look specifically for subjects with interesting light and shade. Practice and learn to see the light, it can be really subtle or quite obvious depending on the type of day and strength of the sun.

Think about how light affects the mood of your images and what you are trying to say.

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Bridge © Alli Harper Photographer

Getting the Right Exposure

Where there is a high dynamic range, (i.e. a big difference between bright light and shadows), one of the challenges is getting the correct exposure.

You don’t want to blow out your highlights resulting in a white patch with no detail, nor do you want to lose detail in the shadows resulting in pure black if underexposed.

Whilst it’s advisable to always aim for the right exposure, sometimes there’s a compromise or creative choice involved.

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Creating mood with natural light, from an open door © Alli Harper Photographer

Most cameras provide you with a meter reading that evaluates the overall scene and coming up with an average meter reading. This is normally perfectly adequate but not always good when you are photographing a bright object surrounded by shadows.

Evaluative metering can result in correct exposure for the predominantly dark scene, resulting in the brightest part being overexposed. Under those circumstances you want to base your exposure on the highlights.

If your DSLR has a “spot metering” mode, you can be very specific about the area that you take a reading from and adjust your exposure for. Another extremely useful function of most DSLRs is the histogram. Your highlights are on the right and your shadows are on the left. If they are “climbing the wall” on either side, you may be over, or under, exposed.

Another really handy function that you may find on your camera is the “clipping” or highlights warning. This means that when you review your image, incorrectly exposed areas will flash.

Using light and shadow in photography how ideas photoh
© Alli Harper Photographer

The balancing act. The flower on the left was in bright sun against a dark background. The highlights have blown out and there is no detail in the white parts of the image. The same flower, correctly exposed. Now there is just a little bit of detail lost in the shadows in the bottom left hand side of the image.

Of course sometimes you have to make a trade off on which detail you are prepared to lose, or you can bracket your exposure. Bracketing means taking images with different exposures – usually three: slightly underexposed, “in the middle” and slightly over exposed. Get to know your camera, and which tools are available to you, and experiment.

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Street Scene Cuba © Alli Harper Photographer

The Role of Light in Composition

I recommend studying the work of good street photographers. They are usually masters of light, placing their subject in a shaft of light that highlights them and removes all distractions.

In this example, the light frames the subjects. The composition places them within the frame created by the light, against the least cluttered part of the background. This composition also observes the “rule of thirds” (imagining that your image is drawn up into thirds, horizontally and vertically and placing your subjects at the points where the lines intersect). Note that the figures on the right are also walking into the negative space, rather than out of the frame.

Get Inspired and Experiment

One of the best sources of light is window light, often used for portraits as well as things like food photography. It is soft and natural.

See if you can find a willing subject and photograph them by a door or window, look at the way that the light falls on their face and watch for catch lights in the eyes.

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Experiment with window light © Alli Harper Photographer

Find the work of photographers that you love and look at the work of the old masters. Next time you see something you would like to photograph, ask yourself – how’s the light? Is it the best I can get? Is it adding to the story?

Alli Harper is a professional photographer and instructor, who hosts the Photoh Teenage Photography Class in Melbourne .

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