Understanding Light

WHEN I THINK of light, a particular picture forms in my mind. I think of a clear blue sky, the light bright, everything before me sharpened into high contrast between full sun and deep shade. For you, your picture may be different. Maybe you see inside your living space, shadows occupying the corners where daylight can't quite reach, maybe you see the face of your child lit only by a window. Someone else's picture might be different again. Maybe they see a cloudy afternoon with cool diffused light, shadows lining only the tightest of spaces.

Much like a painter, it helps the photographer, that’s you, to understand the light that falls on the subject matter when you are making photographs. To watch it, look carefully, to see what it’s doing. The direction and intensity of light will affect the depth and weight, colour and tone, detail and contrast in your photographs. Collectively these attributes will define in your photographs form, emotion and atmosphere.

I’ve divided this subject into two posts; Part 1 (this one) is an overview of how light affects the colour and mood of your chosen subject. Part 2 discusses how light forms the illusion of space within a photograph.

As always, I will throw in a few thoughts from Stephen Shore and his book The Nature of Photographs. This is by no means an exhaustive analysis of such a large subject. Studio lighting techniques are not discussed here. However, I will hopefully be able to outline a number of points for you to think about when making your photographs.

Just so you know, this is a long read even in two parts. Please don’t be discouraged. Put aside some time if you can. I hope you’ll find some helpful stuff here. 


Going back to that sunny day I mentioned earlier. It’s summer, midday. A need your hat and sunglasses type of day. In this light, it’s a good idea to pay attention to where the sun is in relation to you, your camera and your subject. Is the sun behind or in front of you? Or is it to the side? These simple questions will change the colours of how your subject looks and subsequently how they are depicted in your photograph. High noon summer sun can absorb all the colour from a landscape and create short, sharp-edged shadows silhouetting anything set in front of it. Those shadows are deep and dense hiding any detail within its graphic shapes. This isn’t necessarily a problem if this is what you’re after in your photograph.

It’s the same day but the weather is beginning to change, the wind has picked up a little and large clouds are edging across the sun filtering out the warmth. You find yourself reaching for your jacket. The landscape before you changes. Those sharp-edged shadows have softened back into the shade revealing all the detail that was hidden. The colours around you have flattened and cooled. Some people say that this type of light is best for portraits. No deep shadows elongating a nose or obscuring a person’s eyes; there’s a softness to the light that can flatter rather than highlight flaws.

The day fades as the sun begins to set. The clouds have cleared a little, the glow of the low sun surrounds everything before you with a yellowy orange warmth. Sunsets never fail to enchant. This low glow adds a magical quality to the landscape and people within it. Some say ‘This is Perfect Light’. Faces relax in the warm evening sun, wisps of hair catch the light as it weakens, the landscape changes quickly with the movement of the sun. But, as with all things magical, it’s presence is fleeting. A few minutes later and the sun has dipped below the horizon leaving the sky on fire with shades of red, pink and orange.

You wake in the middle of the night. There’s light coming through the window where the curtain hasn’t quite shut. A silvery shaft of light nips through the gap and pools on the floor below. You get up and look out of the window. The moon is full and clear. The world you see before you is now bathed in cool desaturated tones. The colours of daytime have disappeared replaced by monochromatic hues that range from light to dark.


Below are some examples from my own archive of pictures that illustrate the thoughts above. They’re not all from the same day, or even the same place, or even the same country. That’s where imagination lies.


There are two common variations of light that affect your subject; direct and indirect (or diffused). Both these affect the colour, tone and mood of an image in different ways. Here I’m talking about natural and ambient light, however, everything here could be considered when in the studio. The difference is that in the studio you have complete control of your lighting. But the basic principles are the same.

If you were to take a spotlight and shine it right on your subject matter, there is your direct light. If you take that same light and shine it on a wall or ceiling, the light filtering down onto your subject is then indirect. Both create very different looking images.

Take a look at the three photographs below:

01 is a picture of my kitchen floor when the morning sunlight was beaming in through the patio doors. Those shadows are long and deep. The contrast between the shadow and the floor is high and sharp. There is a warm yellowish cast to the colour of the vinyl flooring.

02 is five minutes later as the sun was covered for a few minutes by cloud. The heavy shadows have disappeared revealing a more realistic colour and range of mid tones that reach right to the back of the photograph. The red of the broom isn’t quite so bright and saturated.

03 is a few minutes later again when the cloud has moved away uncovering the sun. I pulled a thin light curtain across the windows. The shadow is still visible but the edges are softer, the sunlight has been diffused through the fabric and the colour is less warm than in 01.


In The Nature of Photographs, Stephen Shore shows us a photograph by artist Anne Turyn from her series Flashbulb Memories. The photograph was made in the 1980s (so no digital manipulation here then) yet the tone and colour feel reminiscent of a picture made in a much earlier decade. (I’m looking at this photograph purely from an aesthetic point of view rather than engaging with it on a critical level.)  

Turyn’s skilled use of light and colour presents to us a scene that appears to be set in a kitchen. I’m taking my cues from the kettle, table and cup. The light appears to come from two directions; falling from above and from the right-hand side. The direction helps to describe the form of the woman in her dress and creates the slightly looming shadow of the man’s hand and his coffee cup. This subtle use of light imbues the colours of the image with a soft desaturated hue leading us to read this scene perhaps in a nostalgic way. Not from our own experience necessarily but from the images we have seen through movies, books and advertisements that characterise a different point in time.

12-17-1960, from the series Flashbulb Memories by Anne Turyn, 1986

“Colour expands a photograph’s palette and adds a new level of descriptive information and transparency to the image. It is more transparent because one is stopped less by the surface – colour is more like how we see. It has added description because it shows the colour of light and the colours of a culture or an age.”
— p.18, The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore


But I shoot in black and white you say! No problem!

Each colour falls into a different tonal value across the grayscale of your photograph. Abstracting the world into black and white brings a different sensibility to your photography. You must really concentrate to see how light works its magic, how it transforms the colour world you see through your viewfinder into photographed monotones. A black and white photograph can appear nostalgic, lost in a pre-digital time, aberrations and imperfections less noticeable, shape and form are emphasised.

You will need to experiment with different types of light to see its effects and how that translates into your black and white world. Again, that smartphone in your pocket can help you see your colour photograph in black and white as seen above in the portraits of my daughter. However, using black & white film might improve your ways of seeing entirely. You will have to ‘pre-visualise’ (to use a common phrase) your subject. You will need to use your imagination to understand how this colour image before you may work in monotone. Removing the option of colour may liberate you to find your desired vision.


We all know the plague of terrible lighting that haunts every changing room when shopping for items of clothing. Too dark and we’re peering at ourselves in the mirror trying to ascertain if the colour of this or that top suits our complexion or if it leaves us looking ill and washed out. Too bright and we feel that our every perceived imperfections are being highlighted in way too much detail.

It’s a useful exercise to think about. We understand on a subconscious level how light affects how we look. So when trying to improve the quality of your portraits, try to look at your sitter as if looking in a mirror. How is that light working? Where is it falling? How does the quality of light affect contours, features and skin tone of your sitter? Is it flattering, dramatic or ugly? What sort of mood are you trying to create? How is the colour of the picture changed by this light? How would you feel if you were looking at yourself?

You’re outside on that bright sunny day. Again!

The sun is high and depending on the time of day, the shadows are either long and low or dense and sharp. Take a look at your subject and see where those shadows fall. When well-placed they can create intrigue and drama. But if poorly considered they can be less than flattering. The advice in this situation is often to seek open shade or add a little fill-in flash. And this is advice well-heeded in a situation where a good-looking portrait is needed.

However, as always I like to try the opposite of good advice. What happens when you move your subject out from under the shady tree, put away your flash and take their portrait against the sunlight? Move around them. Look at the light, really look, and watch the shadows and where they fall. See the shift in colour as you move around them. The feeling of the image changes as you move. You can try this in all sorts of situations. On a cloudy day, the changes will be minimal. Those shadows aren’t nearly so deep. Facial features aren’t in heavy contrast, the light reveals colour that seems more familiar more real. Use your smartphone and make notes – this will aid as a reference for you.

Take a look at photographer Viviane Sassen‘s work. In Flamboya, she is outside photographing people in high sun with deep shadow. The pictures seem fearless in the way that light is used, shadows hiding parts of bodies and faces. Here is someone unafraid of that bright sun.

Another example is work by photographer Richard Avedon. In his series In the American West, Avedon set up an outdoor studio using a white background and natural light. The light falls directly onto the people he photographs. It’s flat light that describes the endless nuances of the human face and body. The portraits are arresting in their starkness.

Below are 3 examples of people in different lighting situations. You can click the images to see a bigger version. Look at how different the colour is in each image. How does this change the mood and atmosphere?


Let’s take your patient sitter inside. Photographer Jane Bown famously used window light to take her celebrity portraits. The window acts like an enormous diffuser, filtering the light that comes into any room.

Here are some informal portraits I took of my daughter as she sat by our kitchen window. I’ve also added a black & white version of each image so you can see how this change shifts the dynamic of the photograph.

The light is from the side, from behind and facing. I didn’t use a reflector. The differences are clear. Try it. Use yourself if necessary. Rather than relying on the filters in your smartphone editing app after you’ve made your photograph, try to think first about the mood, emotion and atmosphere you are wanting to create and how you could find that by looking and moving around your subject. It may feel a little conventional, corny even, we are highly sophisticated at looking at photographs now. It can become intimidating to try stuff out. I get that. No one needs to see the mistakes. My pictures below certainly would not win any prizes. But the point is in order to make consistently good photographs it takes time. Time to look and time to practice.

I hope that was helpful. Do let me know in the comments below if you have any points or questions. Or send me an old-fashioned email. Coming soon will be Part 2!

Check out my Pinterest board with other examples. I’ll keep adding to it as and when I find something lovely.