The Basics of Light for Photography

Feb 15, 2011
by Ian Hylands  
Light is the most important part of every photo we take, it's what creates everything that we see and affects how it appears. Understanding a little bit about it can really help to improve the quality of our photos and videos.
Natural Light

Light is what allows us to see. It is what shapes and colors every object we can see with out eyes, it creates depth, mood, and color. The word photography comes from “photo” or “light” and “graphy” or “writing”, so photography essentially means “light writing” .The objective of this tutorial is to learn how to see light and use it to our advantage and create interesting and exciting photos. At the end of this tutorial you should have a basic understanding of the following fundamentals of light:

1. Exposure - how bright a scene is and how it effects our image.
2. Quality - how focused or diffuse light is.
3. Color - the color of the light in an image.
4. Direction - where is the light coming from?
5. Highlight - the brightest part of the image
6. Shadow - the darkest part of the image.
7. Contrast - The difference between the bright part of an image and the dark part of an image

How we see

When we see an object we are seeing the light reflected off of it. Sunlight contains light of every color and when it illuminates an object we are seeing certain colors of light reflected by that object that then travel into our eyes. Red objects reflect red light, and green objects reflect green light. Dark objects reflect less light than bright objects. For the purposes of this lesson the most important thing we need to know is that what we see is created by light reflecting off of everything and traveling into out eyes. A photograph is created by capturing the light that is reflecting off of our scene and traveling into our camera, where it is captured by film or a digital sensor.

There is at least one entire field of physics devoted to the study of light and how it behaves, however this type of in depth study is beyond the scope of this tutorial.

Basics of Light

1. Exposure

Exposure is the overall brightness or darkness of a scene. A neutral or normal exposure is one which creates an image that looks similar to how we see it with our eyes. A typical scene during the day has about 10 stops of light in it, and the average high end DSLR captures between 5 and 7 stops. Our eyes can take in somewhere around 20 stops. What this means for us is that what we see in real life is not what we get in the camera or on the screen or in print.

I exposed the first shot for the flash, but the ambient light was really dark so in the second shot I extended the shutter speed a fair bit to brighten up the ambient light and also opened up the aperture a bit to brighten the flash. Both of these photos have exactly the same lighting, the only difference is the camera settings.
Sequence strip of exposures showing my Nikon D3s range over 9 stops. The light is identical in all photos, all that changed was the shutter speed.

2. Quality

As well as being light or dark, light can also be soft or hard. This is primarily a function of how large the light source is compared to the subject. A large light source close to the subject creates a very soft light with soft shadows if any, the light wraps around the subject. A small bright light far from our subject creates a hard light with hard well defined shadows.
Sunlight may at first appear to be a small light source, however it is both small and soft as the earth’s atmosphere diffuses a lot of it, and it also tends to bounce and reflect off of lighter or bright objects. Fog and cloud also do a lot to diffuse and soften sunlight. While a single ray of sunlight in the forest can be fairly hard, full late afternoon sun in a brighter location (snow, concrete parking lot, dusty dirt lot) is a lot softer. Part of this has to do with the angle the sunlight travels through the atmosphere. In the morning and evening the sun is at a low angle and travels through significantly more of the atmosphere than it does at mid day, this helps to make early and late light a lot softer than midday light. Evening light in developed areas of the world is also softer than morning light as air pollution builds during the day and helps to diffuse the sunlight further. This pollution normally dissipates a lot at night when temperatures are cooler and the world is asleep, making morning light crisper and cleaner.

Crisp early morning light

3. Color

Sunlight varies in color greatly and this color is measured as temperature in degrees Kelvin. Normal daylight film used to be calibrated at about 5600K which produced a nice image in the middle of the day but was much warmer (towards the red side) in the morning and evening. The diffusing effect of the atmosphere also colors daylight, and normally daylight can vary from a warm 4000K in the late evening to a cool 6500K on a cloudy day. 6500K is considered to be the actual color of daylight without the effect of the atmosphere. Tungsten lightbulbs put out a light that is really orange at around 3200K and fluorescent bulbs can now vary greatly in color. Note that when you are adjusting the color of a RAW photo with the color slider it makes changes opposite to what you would think initially. Moving the slider to a lower number makes images appear cooler, while a higher number makes images appear warmer.

An evenly lit cloudy day photo, Darren Berrecloth killing it for NWD10. While I shoot with flash a lot, sometimes you just don't need it
Super warm evening light. This photo was taken less than 3 or 4 minutes before the sun disappeared. Mike Kinrade, almost dragging bars in Utah

4. Direction

Light travels in a direction for the most part. It may be hard or soft, but the sun is a single light source and that light travels in straight lines radiating out from it. It may bounce and reflect off of things, but try to keep in mind that it has direction. Because of this things can look quite different depending on which direction we view them from, they can be front lit, back lit, or side lit. And everything in between. Remember that this applies to all light sources as well and not just the sun.
We can use natural objects to block or redirect (reflect) the light and change it’s direction, or we can place objects ourselves.

This image is a front lit shot of the exact same trail at almost the same time of day as the back lit shot below
This back lit shot has a lot more punch to it than the front lit shot above. Same trail, almost the same time...
The dust in this back lit shot wouldn't look nearly as interesting if it was shot from the front. Kirt Voreis...

5. Highlight

The highlight is the brightest part of an image. When we are dealing with a single light source this is normally a reflective surface or object facing the light source.

6. Shadow

Shadow is the darkest part of an image. When we are dealing with a single light source this is normally a non-reflective object or surface facing away from the light source or in the shadow of something else.

This image has a lot going on as far as light. The backlit dust is really bright, almost too blown out in spots, but the rider in the trees is a complete silhouette. Solid clipped shadow,almost no detail at all except for some bits reflected off his helmet and goggles...
The blue areas are clipped shadows with no details, the red areas clipped highlights.

7. Contrast

Contrast in an image is the measurement of the difference between the highlights and the shadows. If there is a lot of range between the two there is very little contrast, if there is little range between the two then an image is said to have high contrast. Images shot on a cloudy day usually are low in contrast, and images shot in the bright sun are generally high in contrast.

Things to consider when shooting

1. See the light - What does it look like?

Learn to see what the light actually looks like before you shoot. Take a look around, is it bright or dark? Where is the light coming from? Are there shadows and highlights? How is the contrast?
Take the time to evaluate the scene you are shooting and look at it from different angles, not just for composition but for light as well. If you’re shooting front lit in an area of high contrast i.e. bright highlights and dark shadows, it may be very difficult to see anything, try looking at it from a backlit angle. Look at large areas of light and shadow and see if you can use them compositionally. Plants and greenery and other translucent objects often look better backlit.

2. Control the light - Can you make the light work for you?

Can you use a scrim to block unwanted light, or a reflector to add some light? Sometimes it doesn’t take much to change average light into good light. The easiest way is usually to choose a different time of day when the light works for you. Early morning or late afternoon/evening traditionally has the best light, but sometimes there is less than an hour of the day when the light might be perfect for what you need. Light between two trees or buildings for example.
This is late day sunlight, shining between two posts...

Read up on previous tutorials
Basic Workflow
Custom Color Profiles
Basic Composition

Posted In:


  • 90 0
  • 13 1
 Super helpful Information, Thanks a million Ian!
  • 20 0
 y'know i think i could've put that up without caps lock on.. Razz
  • 3 0
 comepletely agree. i can use this daily thank you!
  • 4 0
 Very helpful guide! Been looking for a great light guide, and my search stops here.
  • 5 0
 its like a mini christmas... very helpful
  • 3 0
 my digital photography and my teacher loved it. i love deing able to drop mountainbiking in to my class when ever i can. kep up the good work!
  • 2 0
 @ youngFR, in all the classes i have right now i've done at least 2 or 3 projects involving biking and i got 100s on all of them Wink
  • 26 0
 Stoked that you all like it so far!
  • 16 0
 Ian you're a champ!
  • 4 1
 Excellent work, as always.
  • 1 0
 hey ian! can you put up a article on all of the camera settings? if there isnt one already that isSmile or send me a link or something haha thanks a ton!
  • 10 0
 For an amateur like my self this is really helpful! Thanks a lot for a great post...
  • 6 0
 Ian, you've done it once again! Great articles with tons of information. Ironically enough we're talking about the direction of light in my photography class at school. I can definitely use this information as well as the stuff my teacher shows us!
  • 3 0
 Light... is like a woman. It takes a while to finally understand all aspects. But once you finally get used to the different moods, it's like the best thing ever.
  • 3 0
 shit if you understand all aspects of a woman, please tell the rest of the men on this planet..
  • 1 0
 Hahahahahahah! tup
  • 4 0
 Agreed, light is great, shame we havent had any good light in the UK for a while though. Any chance of something simular to this about flashes..? Like placements and balancing more then one flash together..?
  • 2 0
 You get pretty rad lighting at this time of the year, cos the sun is pretty low. Not very often mind but I wouldn't say we don't get any.
  • 1 0
 i've had some awesome crisp or foggy mornings, and not long ago there were big pink sunsets. there's always some kind of light!
  • 5 0
 thanks everyone, let me know what else you need to know. I have a few more I'm working on at the moment...
  • 2 0
 Hey Ian, great article - thanks for sharing some of your knowledge with us. One quick question though, I usually shoot in Raw, but have had a difficult time figuring out what the best type of file to convert the edited Raw images to. I'm partial to .tif files, however they are huge, and few print shops have the facilities to print that type of file. I know .jpeg is the standard, but what sort of settings do you generally suggest using if one were blowing something up to say A2 size format?
  • 1 0
 I save .tif files as well, but like you said, it takes a lot of memory. They are a loss less file format unlike .jpeg when they are saved, so going back and editing them for a different purpose works out great. As for the poster size a jpeg at 300dpi is going to give you plenty of resolution for an A2 size print.
  • 1 0
 Yes, and as I explained in the workflow tutorial if you take a highest quality full size jpg and save it as a tif you'll have a large editable file that's over 30 Mb from my camera. There may be some small differences, but the biggest issue with the jpg version is every time you reserve it as jpg the quality goes down, not so with tif. Great point about the saving tif files, whenever I work on an image in Photoshop I always save as a tif. Otherwise I just convert to dng and just keep those until such time as I need something to send out. 90% of my images never see Photoshop so they just remain dng files on my server. If I need to send one I export it from Lightroom as a jpg or tif, send it, then delete that tif or jpg file.
  • 5 0
 thanks Man, you are the best!
  • 1 0
 Ian, thanks for the lesson, makes so much more sense now, reminded me of Crankworx BC when you asked us to move from a shot because of the color of our jerseys changed the lighting in a shot. NOw just to practice on improving my race shots for 2011, thanks
  • 1 0
 Thanks a lot Ian, really good insight here, I think all of us aspiring photographers took a few pointers from that.
Like an above poster said, I would also really benefit from a article on remote flash, since I've started into that alot more in the last year to get more desirable images in the woods. Just things like flash setup/location in relation to rider and camera, balancing flash power and exposure (I know one of my issues I've been working on is keeping the background and foreground colorful and properly exposed, while not having the subject too over-exposed).
Thanks again, really appreciated!
  • 1 0
 Nicely written and good stuff. I know this stuff but I'll be directing some people here to read this and see the examples instead of trying to explain it myself. Thanks for the time put into this - Cheers - N
  • 2 0
 grat, thanks Ian, I love this type of publication, I really enjoy reading something new to help me improve my photos, thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience
  • 1 0
 Another great article, Ian. Thank you. Since you asked what else we would like to learn: I have recently started to shoot with remote speedlights. Maybe a couple pointers in that area would be nice? Thanks!
  • 2 0
 I'll be doing a tutorial on creating light in the next little bit, it will include speedlights and other flash but concentrate on basic lighting techniques...
  • 2 0
 Ian, thanks so much for posting this. I always enjoy looking at your new pics, and this was a very informative article for anyone interested in starting out w/ photography!
  • 1 0
 Thanks Dude very easy to understand & well laid out,

I've just started a camera course & we actually discussed this very topic last night, I will be watching out for more tutorials from you in the future!
  • 1 0
 Not enough can be said about good glass, as well. Those photos look the way they do not only because of good composition, exposure, and lighting but also because the lenses are great.
  • 2 0
 A thousand thank you Ian,you're the man! and of course awesome shots as always!!
  • 1 0
 Just came back to re-read this for about the 6th time. Awesome work Ian. I am new to the DSLR world and need all the help I can get.
  • 3 0
 Well done
  • 1 0
 So helpful! Learnt heaps! Thanks for putting the time and effort in for this!
  • 1 0
 Awesome! Care to post some comments regarding composition for bike photos?
  • 3 0
 Yes, you can read my thought on composition here in my Pinkbike Composition Tutorial
  • 1 0
  • 2 0
 Excellent work man, thanks for educate everybody.
  • 1 0
 Fantastic article, we need more like this. Is it possible to put the camera settings up next time?
  • 1 0
 More Tips on Photography are always welcome, We can all learn from this. Thanks!
  • 1 0
 Highlands, you are the man. Epic photos. Keep 'em coming for the rest of to get our stoke on.
  • 1 0
 Thanks! There will definitely be more...
  • 1 0
 This is awesome Ian, super informative and helpful.
  • 1 0
 Simple stuff but great article!
  • 2 1
 Thank-you very much, lot's of good pointers and tips!
  • 1 0
 Sunrise and Sunset... PICTURE TIME... Thanks for taking the time.
  • 1 0
 Awesome article...I have a lot of practice to do. Cheers.
  • 1 0
 What can I say. Thank you Ian!
  • 1 0
 Thanks, Ian. You're a fantastic photog, and we all appreciate the tips.
  • 1 0
 and i thought i just gave up photography till this came along.
  • 1 0
 great job on the article Ian! Definitely need more stuff like this
  • 1 0
 Just wondering Jpeg or raw? iv heard mixed opinions on both.
  • 1 0
 In my opinion it isn't really an option, you should always shoot RAW. Otherwise you're throwing away a huge amount of data in every shot. Sometimes I shoot RAW+jpg if I need to have photos very quickly for press use, but I always keep the RAW for future editing. You can learn more about my reasons in the intro to Workflow tutorial
  • 1 0
 Thanks for that tutorial Ian, all of it is very interesting.
  • 1 0
 Sweet dude,
  • 1 0
 Fantastic tutorial!
  • 1 0
 thanx a lot dude
  • 1 0
 you're very welcome!
  • 1 0
 A master class. Thanks!
  • 1 0
 Awesome! Ken
  • 1 0
 Nice, great article!
  • 1 0
 really good article!

Copyright © 2000 - 2022. All rights reserved.
dv65 0.018297
Mobile Version of Website