THE FOUR BASIC TYPES OF LIGHT
1 soft light
Eliot Porter was one of the first people to recognise what many photographers have realised since: that soft light is often the best complement to colourful subjects. When there’s no direct sunlight in the scene, the light is soft and diffused, striking the subject more or less evenly from all directions. Since the light itself won’t provide contrast, the subject must have its own. This is great light for flowers, autumn leaves, or anything colourful.
Forests often present a chaotic array of trunks, branches, and leaves. Shade or overcast conditions can simplify these scenes, but only if bright patches of sky are kept out of the frame. As Ansel Adams pointed out, “One problem with forest scenes is that random blank areas of sky seen through the trees can confuse the spatial and tonal continuum of the composition. In reality such interruptions are logical and accepted, but in a photograph they can be extremely distracting. The sky is usually much brighter than foliage, and these bits of blue sky can be considerably overexposed and blankly white.” Telephoto lenses can help to narrow the focus of the composition and crop out the sky.
I began to see the effect of available light on my subjects, either from a clear blue or from an overcast sky, and I began to recognise that direct sunlight was often a disadvantage, producing spotty and distracting patterns. Eliot Porter, 1987
Putting the sun at your back creates even lighting, much like soft light, as shadows fall behind objects. This uniform illumination can be too flat, but works well for colourful subjects, like these poppies and goldfields below. The shadows are small, and touches of black set off the colours nicely.
Sidelight, with the sun raking across the scene from the left or right, can be exquisite, especially when the sun is low in the sky. It can accentuate the texture, roundness, or three-dimensional form of an object. In the image of Yosemite Falls, sidelight brings out the texture of water and rock, while it highlights both the texture and form of the sand dunes in Death Valley.
Many people avoid backlight. Perhaps they once owned an Instamatic camera and took to heart the words in the little instruction pamphlet: “Always photograph with the sun at your back.” Please ignore that advice and look into the sun. Backlight is too interesting to avoid. Yes, exposures can be difficult, and lens flare problematic, but when it works it’s beautiful.
Translucent subjects seem to glow when lit from behind, especially when placed before a dark backdrop. For only about one week every year Horsetail Fall in Yosemite is lit by the setting sun while the cliff behind it is in the shade.
Frontlit Sil houette
We usually associate silhouettes with backlight, but one of my favourite types of light is the frontlit silhouette. This situation can occur anytime the sun is at your back but an object in the foreground is shaded. In this scene from Joshua Tree National Park, the morning sun was striking the clouds and rock formations.