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TIPsy Tuesday: Seeing the Light

Welcome to TIPsy Tuesday, my weekly posts of Tips to get better shots. Every Tuesday I will post a Tip on topics such as: camera functions, composition, coordinating, post processing and many many more. So if you haven’t as of yet, be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed. You don’t want to miss out on this great new series. And if you have ANY questions or suggestions please comment below. I promise I will get back to you, because this series is all about sharing and interaction.

Today’s Tip: Seeing the Light

Photography is all about the light and when you find it, wow, talk about setting the mood. But to get to that stage we need to train our eyes to see the light. It isn’t as easy as it sounds and because of that I thought I would do a little blog post about the different lights.

There are 4 light categories:

  1. Transmitted Light
  2. Reflected Light
  3. Hard Light
  4. Soft Light
1. Transmitted light is light which is passed through a transparent or translucent medium such as a leaf back lit. The color becomes even more saturated. I always remember the trick as a child of holding my hand over a flashlight and seeing the translucency of my hand but also the red glow. This is due to the transmitted light and how it passes through the hand.
2. Reflected light is created when light from a light source reflects off an object before striking the subject that is to be photographed.
3. Hard light comes from a small light source which provides high contrast characteristics. IE. Sharp shadows and reveals texture sharply.  Direct bright sunny days fall into this category.  Though the sun is large it is still a small light source given the distance the light must travel to light the subject.
4. Soft light is the opposite of hard light.  The light source comes from a large apparent area. IE. Overcast sky and/or large blanket of clouds. This provides a low contrast with hardly any shadows and if used incorrectly could result in quite dull images.

Since my field is portrait work I won’t focus much on transmitted light. Both transmitted and reflected light are major elements for landscape photographers, but reflected has it’s place in portraiture, especially if you shoot outside of a studio and look to use natural light to record your subject and because of this I think I should at least talk about reflective more.  Reflected light tends to be soft but it also tends to have a colorcast.  The softness of the light is a result of two major factors: usually the reflected surface is quite large and close to the subject casting a soft light. IE. placing your subject near a large wall and using the wall to bounce the sunlight onto the subject. This results in soft light but depending on the color of the wall, it could also result in a color to be casted on the subject as well.  But if you are looking to use this method also consider this next factor of the equation: The rougher the surface of that reflective object the softer the light. Why?  A rough surface helps to scatter the light which makes it even softer.  Neat huh?

Now on to hard light. We all know this one and curse it many a times through the day, especially on a bright sunny day.  We also tend to jump for joy when we wake up to an overcast day because we know the sun and all that harsh light will be diffused due to the clouds.  Before you start jumping let me just say … overcast days are not the best.  Let’s face it. The best time to photograph is the magical ‘golden’ hour.  This is usually 30 minutes after sunrise and before sunset. But do we know why the golden hour is when the gates open and the angels sing?  What makes this time the most amazing light? Depending on where you are (and by this I mean near a water source ), this time of day encompasses ALL of the light categories. Say it ain’t so Deborah!  Yep, it really does. So before cursing that hard light let’s understand that hard light has power and if used right, it can really impact those photos.  So how can we use hard light?  First, stay out of the direct sunlight. Place your subject in an indirect source of that sunlight: IE. under a porch, down an alley way or under some trees.  OR better yet, take the subject inside and place them near a window.  Midday sun makes the best light for lighting a subject inside near a window. But don’t just rely on that light source. If you are going to light them by a window be ready with a modifier such as a reflector to bounce some light back on your subject.  I’m a big believer in reflectors and not just the commercial brand ones.  Look around you … reflectors are found everywhere: concrete sidewalks and/or walls, water, etc. Heck even a simple white art board works wonders.  Use these elements to help redirect the light to your subject, but this also requires you taking a breath and looking at the light.  How is that light falling on your subject? Do you have the subject facing the right way … the best way to accent their eyes?  This is when the magic happens.

One game I like to play is find yourself a willing subject and take them out into the direct sunlight: take a photo. Now move them into a shaded area, take another photo. Better right? But still not a wow photo. Now is where the fun begins. Start slowly moving them in a 360 degree turn and study the light. Take some photos along the way.  When did their eyes light up?  When did you start to see those magical catch light? THIS is when you have found your light.  But we aren’t done yet. Photos are starting to come alive but to better it, pull out that reflector and bounce light on the shadow side of the subject’s face.  We don’t want to eliminate the shadow! Shadows are a photographer’s friend. It helps ground the subject; gives weight to what you are accomplishing here.  What we want to do is help CONTROL that shadow.  A reflector will soften it.

I know long post but bare with me … one more category to go: The soft light.  I dared to say it before and I will say it again: Soft light can be one boring light source.  Next time it is overcast outside, take a look at the light and specifically the shadows that are cast. What shadows, right?  Remember the paragraph above? Shadows are our friends and with no shadows being produced what does that tell you?  It doesn’t mean you can’t get some beautiful shots but my suggestion is be ready with an off camera flash to help pop some light back into the subject. You can also try a more powerful reflector such as a silver toned one.  The bottom line is play with the light and before you know it you will be seeing the light.

That’s it for this week, now get out there and look for the light: SEE the light. Until next week…cheers!



Deborah Chetwood is an award winning, published photographer in Austin, TX who specializes in stylized children's, senior's and glamour photography. To find out more about the artist click HERE.

Please visit our other website for information on the Texas Vogue: Contemporary Glamour.

Natalie Jones - March 20, 2012 - 10:58 am

Awesome explanations!!

Shannon B. - March 20, 2012 - 12:01 pm

Great reminder thank you for posting this!

Maggie - March 20, 2012 - 12:21 pm

Very informative post. Deborah! Excited to be playing with different lighting techniques in some upcoming practice sessions.

Tara Colburn - March 20, 2012 - 2:51 pm

Awesome, awesome post! Great explanations.

Jo Reason - March 20, 2012 - 3:53 pm

great explanation, thanks.

Jenn Valluzzo - March 20, 2012 - 4:14 pm

So fantastic. A seriously great post!!

Beverly Williams - March 20, 2012 - 10:10 pm

Great post. I love the day that it suddenly “clicked” with me about the light!

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