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Understanding light

Just as good ingredients make good cuisine, the right ingredients make an attractive image. Of course, everyone knows light is the most important ingredient in photography. Often we tend to forget this and hope to achieve great results without thinking much about light.

 Understanding light

The first important decision a photographer has to make is - when to shoot. It does not make sense if you travel all the way to a famous monument, only to find it backlit from the sun behind it. Of course, there are techniques to correct it, but it's always better to reach when the sun is in a favourable direction. Find out about the direction of light while planning to shoot at any outdoor location.

In case you have no choice but to shoot a subject against the sun, expose for the lit part, and use active D'lighting to correct the shadows. The best results will come out if you shoot in RAW format.

Even with your subject facing the sun, you may encounter problems, if the time of the day is not chosen well. Sunlight, early in the morning or about an hour before sunset, is mild and has a warm golden cast, often known as 'golden light'. This is the best time to shoot landscapes as well as portraits. Since this light is 'soft' it does not create harsh shadows, and as the light comes from a more horizontal angle than mid-day sun, subjects appear more three-dimensional.

As the sun goes higher up in the sky, the shadows get harsher. The light becomes whitish, resulting in flat colours, not suited for both landscapes and portraits. Try to avoid harsh sunlight as much as you can.

However, the harshness can be used effectively to create high contrast monochrome images.

If you have to shoot portraits in toppish sun, place them under shade, where the harshness is almost eliminated.

 Top: Portraits in harsh sunlight Bottom: Portraits in diffused light in shade

 In cloudy or overcast weather, the sky acts as a huge diffuser, resulting in soft, diffused light. This light is very good for portraiture, but not particularly suited to landscape photography, as the image will lack contrast. Colours, though, will appear more saturated, particularly if under-exposed a bit. In such conditions, slight warming up of the scene by selecting cloudy white balance can improve landscapes.

In situations where there is no light coming directly from the sun, like dawn (time just before sunrise) and dusk (time just after sunset), the sky can look dramatic, depending upon the season and location. Such situations can provide brilliantly coloured skies, making landscape shooting a good option, provided a tripod is carried, due to low ambient light. For portraits, this light may not work well, due to too less contrast, as well as lack of sufficient intensity.

There can be numerous ways to overcome bad light, but most important is to prepare in a way that light is favourable for your shoot. So, the next time you go hunting for great images, don't forget to think and prepare for the light.










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Updated Date: Sep 21, 2017 15:34:30 IST

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