THE FOUR BA­SIC TYPES OF LIGHT

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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

2 front­light

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.

3 side­light

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.

4 back­light

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.

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