Lighting is both a photographer’s best friend and worst enemy. When used correctly, light can help you produce stunning photos. On the flip side, poor lighting can ruin an otherwise flawless shot. This short guide will introduce you to the most common types of light and how each can be used to improve your photographs.
Natural light, or sunlight, is perhaps the best light to use in photography. Of course, sunlight varies throughout the day and its intensity (or lack thereof) can make a significant difference in how your photos turn out. The following recommendations can help you make the most of natural light from dawn to dusk.
Golden hour occurs approximately one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. During this time, the sun sits low in the sky and its rays are filtered through the atmosphere, creating a warm, rich light that flatters just about any photo subject. Golden hour is a great time to shoot landscapes and portraits; the light makes skin tones appear warm and soft without any harsh shadows.
Blue hour occurs approximately 20-30 minutes before sunrise and 20-30 minutes after sunset. The shorter period of time and reduced light makes it trickier to shoot photos during this time; however, the effect can be stunning with colors ranging from lavender to blue.
In general, it is best not to take photos in direct sunlight which can result in washed out subjects, squinty eyes, and harsh shadows. If you must take photos on bright days, try to avoid the mid-day sun and seek out partial to full shade. Taking pictures under the shade of a tree will help diffuse the light and reduce shadows.
Overcast and rainy days can be great times for taking photos outside. Cloud cover acts as a natural light diffuser and helps soften the sunlight that is able to reach the ground, leading to pictures that are still relatively bright to those that are darker and more dramatic. Best of all, overcast skies help eliminate problems commonly encountered with direct sunlight, such as squinty eyes, over exposure, and shadows.
Window light is the best light to use when taking indoor photos during daylight hours. Like natural light outdoors, there are different types of window light. Windows with an eastern or western exposure offer the best softly diffused light, great for portraits and still-life photography. Bright sunlight coming from south facing windows can cast interesting shadows on your subject if he or she is posed correctly.
Artificial light is best reserved for times when natural light is not available. You can use a variety of light sources, from lamps and candles, to streetlights and car headlights. A professional camera that allows you to adjust the ISO, aperture setting, and shutter speed is the surest way to capture an ideal photograph in this challenging light scenario. Assuming you’re not Ansel Adams, you’ll want to consider your light source, remembering that all artificial light comes in a variety of color temperatures, from warm to cooler colors. You may need to adjust the color temperature or white balance using an editing app to correct an unfavorable hue that may be cast on your otherwise well-composed shot.
Now that you understand the different types of light available to you, grab your camera, choose a subject, and start snapping! The best way to get comfortable with using light in your photography is through hands-on trial and error.
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