For Better Photos, Learn How to Recognize Good Light


A few years ago, I went to an exhibit of Impressionist paintings at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. At one point, I rounded a corner into another gallery room. Just by chance, the room cleared out as I entered, and I found myself at the perfect distance for viewing Monet's Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light.

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There are times when an image—photo or painting—grabs you and won't let go, and this was one of those times. I could not take my eyes off of Monet's masterpiece, and when I finally moved on to another part of the exhibit, I looked back to catch one more glimpse of the painting.

It would be easy to say this is a painting of a cathedral, but after long minutes of staring at it, I couldn't tell you one detail about the cathedral itself. To my eye, this is not a painting of a building. It's a painting of morning light.

The light outside changes dramatically during the day. As the angle of the sun shifts, it throws shadows more or less dramatically. Also, the color of the light changes depending on the time of day. Monet perfectly captured all of the vagaries and particulars of what light looks like in the morning. The fact that the light is bouncing off of a cathedral is secondary.

I'm often asked what I like to photograph. I shoot a lot of landscapes, but that's largely because I spend a lot of time by myself in pretty places. Ultimately, I like to photograph good light, and as with Monet's painting of morning light, what the light bounces off of is often less important.

Learning to recognize good light is essential to becoming a better photographer, and learning to think about light as a subject in itself opens up a huge array of photographic possibilities.

What is Good Light?
Daylight looks best in the early and late parts of the day. While it varies depending on atmospheric conditions, light is usually warmer—that is, more red—in the morning and afternoon (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The color of daylight can change dramatically during the day. I shot the upper photo in mid-day and the lower image at dusk. Click on the image to see a larger version.

This reddish color can be particularly desirable for portraits, as flesh tones look healthier when they're warmer, but extra color adds appeal to just about any subject matter.

When the sun is lower in the sky, it shines at a more oblique angle and casts longer shadows. Longer shadows are good for a few reasons. First, they're graphical elements that add forms to your scene and so give you more to compose with.

Second, stronger shadows add depth to a scene. Photos are two-dimensional representations, of course, and shadows make it easier to understand the third dimension in a scene. Your images look less flat, and relationships of different objects in the scene are clearer.

Finally, texture is more pronounced when the light is low. The bumps and high bits of a rough texture cast slightly longer shadows, emphasizing the texture (Figure 2).

Figure 2. In the morning and afternoon, shadows lengthen and textures become more pronounced. These give you more compositional elements to work with and help create images that don't look flat. Click on the image to see a larger version.By contrast, the light in the middle of a summer day is not as interesting. With the sun high overhead, nothing casts much of a shadow, so you don't see a lot of detail and textures on objects. Your scenes appear flatter, and the intensity of the light can wash out colors.

All of these things change depending on the time of year. In the fall and winter, the sun is lower in the sky during the day, and so shadows stay long. Light characteristics also change with geography. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the light has a white quality that's much like the light of the Mediterranean. Paris has a pink light, while the American Great Plains often have a warm, reddish/orange light.

Light as Subject
Beginning photographers often believe they have to go to a beautiful landmark to make good pictures. The fact is, you can take a successful picture anywhere once you're tuned in to the beauty of light.

And while long shadows often make for better photos, you can still take a good picture in the middle of the day when the interplay of light and shadow creates interest. For example, I shot this picture in Florence in the mid-afternoon:

Figure 3. This image began when I recognized the splash of light as something potentially interesting. Finding the subject and the rest of the image came later. Click on the image to see a larger version.

This shaft of light on the ground was a noteworthy compositional element because of its shape and its interplay with the shadows in the background. But I knew that the image needed a subject, so I waited until someone walked through the light shaft. I got lucky (and luck is often a big part of good photography) because the light shaft was tall enough that it highlighted the man's shoulder and head.

There was nothing about this alley or the man that caught my attention. I started with the light and made an image from that.

Figure 4 is another example:

Figure 4. Although the subject of the statue didn't interest me, the play of the brightly lit statue against the dark shadow caught my eye. If I hadn't been paying attention to the light in the scene, I might have missed this opportunity. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I don't know what that statue is, and to be honest, I don't really care. This shot is about the contrast between the brightly lit object and the dark shadow behind it. To get the statue into the relationship with the shadow you see here, I climbed up higher, then waited until there was a collection of people beneath the statue. Again, the light drove the image.

Learn by Doing
Light and shadow are the building blocks of any image. Much more than your choice of camera or your Photoshop skills, your ability to recognize and work with good light will make you a better photographer.

The good news is that you can practice this skill anywhere. Get your camera and start walking through your home—inside and out. If you're looking for noteworthy subjects, you'll probably be frustrated because you're bored by the things you see everyday. But now as you walk around, look instead for interesting light. The attraction can come from the shapes the light forms, its colors, the way it highlights the rim of an object—any play of the light at all.

Once you've identified appealing light, pay attention to what it's falling on and build a composition using both the light and the shape of the thing. All images need a clearly defined subject, and your tasks as photographer is to make sure the viewer knows what that subject is. It might be the shape of the light itself, or it might be the way the object is lit.

I recently had the good fortune to teach with Connie Imboden at the Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, a multidisciplinary arts camp for 14- to 18-year-olds. Connie did a great job of getting the students to see light rather than objects, and the resulting photographs were ideal examples of light as subject. Here are two student samples:

Figure 5. Photographed by David Parks. Click on the image to see a larger version.Figure 6. Photographed by Ashley Hale. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Theses shots are also excellent examples of finding good photos wherever you may be. Can you identify the subjects? Give it a try, then go to "The Images Identified" for the answers.

All photos begin with light. If you don't want to grab your camera and leave whatever else you're doing when the light turns good, you may not be giving it enough attention.

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