When it comes to light, it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. A sunny day may make you more inclined to go out and take pictures, but it doesn’t guarantee you’ll get great shots. In fact, you are just as likely to capture award-winning pictures on a dark, stormy afternoon as you are under a cloudless sky.
Your digital camera can compensate for low light by cranking up the ISO, opening up the aperture, using longer shutter speeds and getting essential support from a tripod (see our 4 quick tips for sharper shots when using a tripod). However, your camera can’t do much about the way the light falls upon your subject, and it is this that makes or breaks a picture.
Subtle differences in the position of the light, its intensity and colour can suddenly transform a mundane scene or competent composition into a breathtaking masterpiece.
The trouble is, these small differences in lighting can be hard for the human eye to see and appreciate. We have spent a lifetime learning to identify objects, shapes, textures and colours around us in whatever lighting we see them in so we can often be blind to the dramatic effect different light can have on a scene.
Here we’ll show you how to see like a photographer. You’ll learn how the angle of the sun can change things like colour and the appearance of depth and start transforming your outdoor photos, whether you shoot landscape photography (see our 10 Commandments of Landscape Photography – and how to break them), architecture, portraits or anything else.
We’ll reveal how you can use clouds and the time of day to take control of the way your shots turn out. So read on and get ready to see the world in a whole new light…
Where is the light coming from?
One of the most important things to learn about light is what direction it’s coming from. After all, the position of the sun (or other light source) in relation to the subject you’re shooting has a huge bearing on how your pictures will turn out.
The direction of the light dictates which parts of the subject are lit, but more importantly perhaps, which are in shadow. Photos are two dimensional, and it’s the shadows that provide the vital clues about depth – the three-dimensional shape and texture of a subject.
Shadows can also obscure detail and mute colours, so making the most of the angle of light enables you to show subjects in a number of different ways. The huge range of differing angles are generally broken up into three main types: frontal lighting, backlighting and sidelighting…
In our infographic below, we’ve illustrated the same scene as it appears in different lighting positions to give you an idea of the changes in effect (see more infographics like this in our ongoing photography cheat sheet series – and don’t miss our 11 most popular photography cheat sheets).
Keep the light behind you
Traditionally, photographers were told to stand with the sun behind them – and this is still good advice if you want trouble-free exposures. Frontal lighting tends to give the best colours across the whole of the scene, and particularly in the sky.
It also creates an evenly lit picture, allowing you to see a huge amount of detail because shadows are reduced. Most shadows are thrown behind the subject, so are often kept out of the picture.
The drawback is that subjects can look rather two-dimensional – like cardboard cutouts (as in the shot of the palm trees). This is less of a problem if you keep the sun over your shoulder, rather than directly behind you (as in the mountainscape at the beginning of this section).
You then get the advantages of both sidelighting and frontal lighting (slight sidelighting provides some shadows to give enough of a three-dimensional appearance).
Use stormy skies
One of the best times to shoot city scenes or dramatic landscapes is just after – or just before – a storm. Frontal lighting has a tendency to create safe-but-boring exposures that lack any sense of drama. However, shoot against a backdrop of receding rain, or an impending downpour, and you’ll add that theatrical element.
With the sun behind you, the main subject is evenly lit and fully saturated. Instead of the blue sky of a clear, sunny day, you get dark menacing clouds as a backdrop, accentuating the colours even more. It’s a potent combination and worth anticipating if you see rain on the horizon. Just don’t forget to take your waterproofs with you…
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