Thursday Tips, or Photography According To Lauren: #1 Light

So you asked for it. Well Sarah asked for it, but I’m going to pretend that a lot of people are interested in this. What am I talking about you ask? I’m starting a regular Thursday column on photography tips. If you’re already a professional photographer, it’s possible that you might not get much out of this, or maybe you will, I don’t know – I think it can be useful to discuss the way that other photographers see things. Over the years I have taken at least three photo 1 courses, and for bureaucratic reasons I was even forced to take photo 1 (again) after I had already been to grad school for photojournalism, and I must admit (however grudgingly), that I learned a lot of new things. However this series will primarily be aimed at beginners and hobbyists. So without further ado, let us begin by talking about the single most important thing when it comes to photography: light.

In my opinion, if you want to become a good photographer the first thing that you must do is start heightening your awareness of light. There are as many different kinds of light as there are stars in the sky. Light is changing constantly: it changes throughout the day, it changes with the seasons, it changes with the weather, and it changes depending upon where you are on the planet. Light is the biggest determining factor in what your pictures will look like, and a good photographer learns how to wield light like the magical force that it is.

The most obvious kind of light is direct light, as illustrated above by our lovely models Kirsty & Smidgen. Depending on the season and the time of day direct light can be a wondrous thing. It allows for bolder colors, faster exposures, and it makes your pictures look all golden and delicious.

There is also what I like to think of as muted light, or diffuse light.  This is the kind of light that happens on cloudy days, or at dusk, or if your subject is out of the way of a direct light source. This kind of light allows for even exposures and for pictures that include the full tonal range.

Here we have selective light, or highlights (I’m kind of making these terms up as I go along, but you get the idea). This is Kirsty again, isn’t she a good model? We took this picture in one of the closes in Edinburgh. This is one of my favourite kinds of  light and I use it all the time in my portraits, though I don’t often get to use it with as much focus as I have done here. This kind of light is great for drawing attention to a subject, and for creating drama.

This is back light. Back light can be used in a lot of different ways whether it’s to create silhouettes, sunstars, or you can go the other way and blow out your background and get detail on on your subject.

Finally there is window light, which is another kind of diffuse light. This is the backlight version, but light from a window also looks really great shining directly onto your subject. During the daylight hours, windows are basically just giant soft boxes for you to do with what you will. When it’s sunny windows cast a dramatic light, and when it rains windows can be used to add texture to a photograph as seen above.

So I hope this will get you thinking more about light and that you’ll begin to become aware of its infinite varieties. Even if you’re just out for a walk, it’s good to be mindful of what light does, how buildings can break it up, and how clouds can diffuse it. Notice when people are being highlighted, and try to guess when you might be able to create silhouettes. One of the best things that you can do if you you’re interested in becoming a better photographer is to look at other photographers’ work. Below I will list a few of my favourite masters of light, and links to my favourite of their books. I hope that you enjoyed this first round of photography tips. See you next week!

Robert Frank: The Americans

Sally Mann: Immediate Family 

Harry Callahan: Callahan

Nan Golden: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (not for the faint of heart, but when I was 24 I thought it was amaaaaaaazing)

Vivian Maier: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. (Have you heard about her? Her story is incredible.)

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  1. Posted December 8, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Okay, so 1) this is really helpful, and you’ve made me all excited to play around with my new camera and 2) argh these look so good, I can’t wait to see the rest!

    Oh and 3) isn’t my dog a cutie. 🙂

  2. Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I am definitely excited about this. Thanks!

  3. Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    This is great! Kirsty and Smidgen make wonderful models too. Thank-you for posting this, I’m looking forward to more of these so I can try and learn more.

  4. Posted December 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Kirsty and Smidge! Gorgeous.

    I love this new bloggity idea.

    In lighting design that light which just kisses the back of the subject is called the rim light, seperation light or kicker. Or (another form of) backlighting. I think I might get my light, science and magic book out and flick through it by the fire tonight so I can geek out on light SOME MORE. It is my favourite thing.

  5. Posted December 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Ace! As a total hobbyist, I can tell I’m going to love this series! Love the dramatic one of Kirsty, and the back light shot… and the rain on the window shot! Why have I never thought about the rain on the window shot before… I live in Scotland for pity’s sake! 😉

  6. Posted December 8, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I love, love, love Sally Mann! Have you seen the documentary (What Remains) about her? It’s good.

    I’m not much of a photographer myself, but I’m definitely a photo junkie. I’m looking forward to this series!

  7. Sarah
    Posted December 8, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    This is ace! Can’t wait to read all the tips and tricks 🙂
    I’m always thinking it’s too dull outside to take photos so mostly don’t bother but I really should experiment with it more! I always look at the sunny summer photos, mainly american ones, and get all envious that our light isn’t so dreeeamy, but maybe I’ve never given it a chance!

    • lauren
      Posted December 8, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

      Scottish light is THE MOST dreamy.

  8. Posted December 8, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Ooh, I very much look forward to more of this series!

  9. Posted December 8, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    This is great! Thanks Lauren!

  10. Posted December 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Looking forward to this series!