Photography – Understanding Light (6 Flavors of Available Light) and Taking Advantage of It

W. Eugene Smith once said that “Available light is any damn light that is available!” In Photography, the viewfinder is our canvas and light is our paint. By means of adding, removing and controlling the light we can customize how our captured image will look like. Without light, we wouldn’t have much to work with. In this article we will discus the different types of light and the issues of controlling and/or creating light.

The camera allows light in to strike its sensor and thus recording the image. Too much light, and the image is washed out; too little light and the image is too dark to make out. Therefore, the correct amount of light is the correct exposure.

Available light is the most common form of lighting that is used in Photography. If we’re shooting outdoors, available light is the light from the sun or other available sources. Indoors, it’s the light provided by lamps and other light sources in the room. Using the available light to your benefit is the key.

As photographers, we have six “flavors” of available light at are disposal, namely:

  • Fontlight – this is the light coming over your shoulder and falling on the subject. Frontlight creates a flat, often dull light. If you want to shoot in frontlight, try moving around the subject so the light comes more from behind, and try using a Flash.
  • Sidelight – as the name implies, this light comes directly form the side. Great for landscapes and scenic shots, this light is pretty severe for people pictures, unless you’re trying to emphasize character in a face (lines, crags, and the like). This being such perfect light for landscapes, as it creates dimension in your photos, you can perhaps include a person in the shot to provide a sense of scale, placing him or her at the edge of the shot, and shooting wide – just establishing the human presence.
  • Toplight – noon, with the sunlight illuminating the subject form the top down, is not a favorable light for Photography, because it creates harsh shadows and tends to be colorless. This is a great time of day to scout areas, however, so you can decide when to come back. If you have to shoot in this light, use a graduated filter, which will help saturate the sky’s color and create a bit more interest.
  • Backlight – this light comes directly from behind and can create an ethereal look, emphasizing the spray in ocean waves, adding depth and magic to smoke, and creating halos when used in portraits. This wonderful light, but it does weaken the saturation of color. Try popping in a little Flash to bring up the light on the backlit side and strengthen the colors.
  • Overcast/shade – this is one of the kindest types of light for Photographing People. Clouds create a giant “soft box,” softening the light and smoothing out the skin. This light also helps out the exposure, as the dynamic range of light that the chip can capture is within range; often side, front, toplighting will provide an exposure range greater than the sensor can capture in the frame.
  • Twilight – twilight can be the “magical hour” for taking great shots. The sun has nearly or just passed the horizon, and the ambient light starts moving toward the blue range. Shooting on a daylight setting will emphasize this effect, but do not set auto-white balance, because that will remove this cool/cold effect. Try setting the Digital Camera to the correct exposure, manually, for the scene, and then use a strobe to fill-flash the subject. This will create a wonderful dichotomy in light – the warm light from the flash and the cool ambient light.