At its most basic, photography is light captured by a sensor or on film to produce an image that can be replicated. That’s it. But the end results are hardly that humdrum.
The images conjured by that light can inspire and excite us. They can make us pensive or talkative. They can remind us of happy memories or show us terrifying truths or allow us to experience the otherworldly. They can change lives and show us lives long gone.
If every art has a language, then light is the language of photography. Without it, the medium doesn’t exist. Learning photography requires us to study this language. And with the photography basics below, you can begin becoming more fluent.
You can spend a lot of time with color temperature, diving into the physics, mechanics, and applications. But the short and sweet of it is that color temperature describes a light’s hue.
When color temperature is balanced in a photo, whites will appear as a true white. That is, the colors are neutral. As you change the color temperature—which is measured in a unit called Kelvin (or simply K)—that neutrality shifts, and the whites will no longer be so pristine.
Increase the color temperature, and the photo’s colors become cooler. In other words, the whites will take on a blue hue, while blues grow deeper. Decrease the color temperature, and the photo’s oranges and reds will become predominant. This makes the image feel warmer.
Balancing the whites in your camera settings, or through post-process editing, will offer that neutral palate, but that’s not necessarily the best way to present every image. To elicit certain moods or atmospheres, you may want to make your compositions either cooler or warmer.
Hard vs. soft lighting
Color isn’t the only property of light that can drastically alter your photo. You’ll need to be mindful of whether the light is hard or soft, as well.
Hard light hits directly. That is, it travels from its source to your subject without being filtered. The resulting effect highlights texture and creates deep, strong shadows.
Use your camera flash for a selfie, and you’ve just smacked yourself with insta-hard light. A more thespian example is film noir. Those knife-edged shadows cast across the actors’ faces—such as the classic venetian blinds setup—come courtesy of hard light.
Conversely, soft light originates from a broad source and is diffused through an intermediary. Think light flowing through a window. It results in softened shadows and more even complexions. This makes soft light easier to work with and more complementary to people’s features when taking family photos. (Though hard light has its uses. See below.)
Remember: It’s not necessarily the source that makes a light hard or soft light. It’s about how that light reaches and wraps around your subject. A good way to remember this fact is the sun. At noon on a clear day, the sun shines brightly and casts strong shadows. But filter that same light through an overcast sky and it softens.
Inside lighting can be tricky. Indoor light sources tend to be harsh, natural light can be minimal, and your choices may be limited to what your tools can compensate for.
The interior surroundings will also affect color. Dark walls will bounce off a darker hue of light, which will be reflected in your photo. But bright, white walls will bounce a nice even color of light.
Inside photography can have its perks, though. Since you aren’t at the mercy of the elements, you can more easily use lenses and artificial light sources to manipulate the composition. For example, bouncing a flash off a white wall can evenly light a scene, and soft boxes allow you to pack up and take that hazy glow anywhere.
Don’t have a soft box? Sunlight streaming through a window proffers a soft light that compliments most any portrait. It’s basically a makeshift soft box.
Outside lighting is generally favored by photographers. Unless you’re shooting at night, you’ll have plenty of good, natural light to brighten your set. All of it free, thanks to the sun.
But the sun illuminates the outdoors differently at different times. To reiterate: A clear sky, especially during midday, provides a hard light, while clouds diffuse soft light naturally. Therefore, most photographers prefer to shoot on bright, overcast days.
You should consider the time of day, too. The best light tends to be in the hours before sunset or after sunrise. This is known as the golden hour. Because the sun’s light travels through more atmosphere at this time of day, it becomes very soft and very warm. It’s a tone that enhances most any subject.
Another photographic favorite is the blue hour. It takes place roughly a half hour before sunrise or after sunset. Like the golden hour, the sun’s angle changes the way light filters through the atmosphere, but this lower angle adds a much cooler nuance, bathing the world in blues and purples.
Positioning: Front lighting
Front lighting occurs when the light source is positioned in front of your subject. It’s that simple.
If you’re just learning photography, front lighting is the easiest light to work with. Because it shines directly on your subject, it reduces the number of shadows, brings out detail, and minimizes texture. It’s the you-get-what-you-see position for light.
Although easy to use, front lighting does have some downsides. Images using front light feel flat because they lack texture and shadow, robbing them of a sense of depth. It’s also the least dramatic of the lightings, though it can still be used to great artistic effect.
Positioning: Side lighting
If you want to add some flair to your composition, try side lighting. Side lighting occurs when a light source hits at about 90 degrees so one side of your subject is in light, the other side in shadow.
A quick note on shadows: Shadows add layers and shape light within the frame. This creates dimension and volume, which can reinforce the drama of an image or redirect the viewer’s focus. But shadows can also obscure important details, so they can be tricky to get right. They are a practice-makes-perfect type situation.
Side lighting plays with this contrast between light and shadow to evoke the texture and dimension that front lighting striped away. When done right, its visual impact makes your subject pop in the frame.
Speaking of shadows, backlighting.
Backlighting occurs when the light source comes from behind the subject. With all that light flooding into your camera’s sensor, the subject becomes cast in deep shadow, and details become muted.
Does this ruin a photograph? Sometimes, but when used intentionally, it creates a layer of spectacle and awe. Picture a city skyline with the sunset bursting from behind, and you’ll get the drift.
As with side lighting, backlighting can be difficult to get right. Silhouettes are never pure. Light will almost certainly be falling on the subject from some side- or front-light source. The trick is to darken just the right amount of detail to draw the eye, but keep enough so that the composition’s subject isn’t unclear.
Photography basics are the first step
When it comes to photography basics, lighting may be the most fundamental but there are several others to consider. Composition. Familiarity with your gear. The exposure triangle. Editing software. And, of course, practice!
As you continue your photographic journey, be sure to create a photo book portfolio of your work. Select your favorite shots, your most adventurous experiments, and the compositions that surprised you. Chronicle them in a photo book dedicated to your photographic journey, showing your progress year after year.
Remember, it’s not just about the next shot, but the journey that got you there.