Getting the LIGHTING right can literally make or break an image. The following tips will help ensure SUCCESSFUL captures, whether you’re working with HARD or SOFT LIGHT
Light isn’t something you can hold. You can’t touch it or feel it — it lacks physicality yet bears a presence. So, to take pleasing pictures, you need to start treating light as the subject — a shapeshifting object with the power to make or break the ambience. What’s stirring in one moment can leave no impact the next. The bland can become beautiful and the beautiful, bland.
Aesthetic light can draw out depth and detail in colours and textures, taking the eye to a particular point. This is where photography can be a work of patience, because light constantly changes.
Despite the infinite variations, light can be distilled into two core categories: hard and soft. Both influence the atmosphere of your photography, which is the feeling created in the space. Let’s explore how to deal with each.
Typically emanating from one direction, bright, midday sunshine is a good example of hard light. Because of its severity, high contrast is a defining feature of hard light. Use this intensity and capture something unexpected. Project the focus of your image where everything in the hard light becomes a highlight, and everything else stays in the dark. This technique may leave part of the image glaring and a little abstract, but not necessarily lacking harmony.
A simplified composition through the adjustment of shadows can conceal unwanted detail and lead the viewer to the stark highlights. Effective use of strong, blunt shadows heightens the shapes in your image and accentuates the lines and angles within it. The overall result is added character and emphasis on three-dimensional shapes to a dramatic effect.
Unlike hard light, soft or ‘flat’ light isn’t dark or full of depth and drama, although it can be equally captivating. Its lack of intensity gently softens the image through a more even quality. Soft light has a low contrast, which tends to create a mood that’s reflective and kinder — meditative, even. Such uniformity means your composition by itself has to steer the viewer to a certain point in the photograph, in order to tell its own compelling story. To help soften light, diffuse it with clouds or mist for instance, and stay away from strong, directional light including a headlight, spotlight or flashlight.
Problem: My images are either too light or too dark Solution: Check your exposure levels On your camera, click the ‘+/-’ exposure compensation button and turn the control dial. Adjust the meter’s evaluation of the scene. Measured in stops, the camera’s exposure level scale is visible in the viewfinder and digital screen, which is your steer to correcting it. The indicator in the centre of the scale denotes the right exposure, corresponding to the exposure meter. As you swivel the control dial, a marker moves up and down the scale. When it inches towards the positive end of the scale, the image becomes brighter. Oppositely rotate the dial, the marker moves towards the negative end, thus darkening your image.
If you prefer using the viewfinder, you won’t see this change happening to the picture as you do this. That said, the effects of exposure compensation are reflected in electronic viewfinders and live view. The amount of compensation you wish to apply depends on variables such as the type of metering being used, the lighting, and the tone of the subject.
Problem: In my landscape shots, the land is often too dark and the sky is too bright Solution: Play with filters Typically, wan skies are brighter than the land, so if the ground is correctly exposed, the sky will pale into insignificance. This is mainly because the dynamic range of the scene is wider than what the sensor can encapsulate in one shot. A simple solution is to add a neutral density graduated filter to balance the exposure.
Shoot in manual and raw, and you’ll likely recover lost detail in the sky. Slightly under-expose the scene to maintain highlight detail.
Based on the above hints and tips, play around with light and vary the harshness or softness of it until you get what you’re after. Have fun in making a bold statement with hard light or get creative with a subtle understatement of gentleness.
Jason Spafford loves all things adventure travel, where the perfect end to the perfect day is throwing down a sleeping bag and setting up the tripod somewhere in the wilderness. That, and a cuppa. With an infatuation for chasing light in big open spaces comes the pursuit of photography, which has been his passion for 30-plus years. Through his work, Jason aims to engage folks with nature’s backyard while promoting the preservation of wild places. His internationally published portfolio captures two decades of adventure travel, landscape, and commercial photography.
Follow him on Instagram (@fourwheelednomad) or see www.fourwheelednomad.com for more photographic adventures and inspiration.