Home COMPOSITION AND ART How to Manage Light in Photography

How to Manage Light in Photography

How to Manage Light in Photography

At the end of the day, there’s only one reason why people like good photos. It’s a simple concept, really, but it also forms the foundation for all of photography. Emotion. For a photo to succeed, it has to resonate with your viewer. That could happen for a number of reasons, ranging from your subject to your composition. But the strongest tool to capture emotion is far more fundamental than that — it is, quite simply, your light.

Light has extraordinary power to create emotions in a photo. Most photographers know that light is important, but it’s still something everyone should strive to learn about and improve. If you master light, you master photography. Photography is light. Without it, you couldn’t take pictures in the first place.

Different qualities of light — brightness, contrast, direction, and so on — all carry their own emotions. A dark, backlit photo with high contrast sends a very different message from a bright, airy forest at sunrise. And in photography, your light should complement your subject.

If you’re trying to photograph an intense and dramatic waterfall, your light should contribute to that mood, not detract from what you’re trying to say. The same is true if you’re photographing a fun, happy portrait — the lighting should reflect those emotions.

Below, I’ll go into the unique emotional impacts carried by different types of light. Although some parts of this are subjective, others are nearly universal. I suspect that you’ll recognize many of these themes in your own work.

1) Dark light

One of the most emotion-filled types of light is dark, intense lighting. This works well for all sorts of photography: moody portraits, powerful landscapes, and somber documentary work. Dark light is popular across the board, and with good reason.

Quite simply, it’s unique. Dark light conceals information from viewers, making a photograph appear mysterious and — depending upon your subject — potentially ominous or refined. You’ll see many product photographers capture dark images for high-end advertisements, since, again, it does such a good job of conveying emotions.

The emotions of dark light:

  • Powerful
  • Ominous
  • Refined
  • Intense
  • Somber

2) Bright light

The obvious counterpoint is that bright light also exists, and it carries its own set of important emotions. Say that you want to capture an etherial, airy photograph. Would you rather take pictures under a dramatic storm, or during bright, hazy, late-afternoon sunlight? This shouldn’t be a tough question — the afternoon sunlight will give your photo a much softer, airier quality.

The same is true in other cases. For example, maybe you want to capture a happy and optimistic image. If that’s your goal, you probably won’t go out in search of dim street corners at night. They just wouldn’t fit the mood, while a brighter scene might.

Although bright light is pretty common, it’s still worth seeking out in many cases. If you’re after a certain type of mood — airy, optimistic, or etherial — bright light will be your bread and butter.

The emotions of bright light:

  • Optimistic
  • Airy
  • Light (the adjective)
  • Gentle
  • Etherial

3) High Contrast

Many good photos make use of high contrast — juxtaposing extremely bright and dark regions of the image right next to each other. If you have a dark mountain silhouetted in front of the sky, that’s contrast. If you have a bright pond against a dark shoreline, that’s contrast.

A lot of people think that contrast is the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of an image. Although that’s true to a degree, it isn’t the fundamental definition. For example, this gradient contains both white and black, but it has fairly low contrast:

Instead, contrast occurs when bright and dark elements are right next to each other (or elements of different colors, but that’s an article for another day). The “contrast” slider in most editing software does add to the distance between the brightest and darkest part of an image. But it also makes smaller, side-by-side regions of contrast more punchy.

And that’s one of the key words for contrast: punchy. As far as emotions go, it’s no surprise that high-contrast images draw a lot of attention. They’re dramatic, and they stand out from a crowd. That’s not always a good thing — it depends upon the image — but it’s also why high-contrast images are fairly popular on social media and photography websites right now. Quite simply, it’s a good way to get your photo noticed.

You can find contrast by searching for non-diffused light. In other words, a sunny afternoon or an unmodified camera flash will likely result in high-contrast images (although this does depend upon your subject). Personally, for landscape photography, I look for contrast when I’m trying to make a photo pop — cases when the landscape itself is particularly dramatic and intense.

The emotions of high contrast:

  • Dramatic
  • Loud
  • Vibrant
  • Punchy
  • Sharp

4) Low Contrast

As popular as high-contrast images can be, don’t discount the opposite — photos that are low in contrast. Low-contrast images are more muted and subdued. They tend to occur when your light source is heavily diffused (such as an overcast day). It also helps to capture relatively uniform subjects, such as the above photograph of a lupine field.

Often, low-contrast photos won’t stand out as much upon first glance. They don’t shout for attention. However, if you’re after a more subtle look, they work quite well. That’s because successful light doesn’t always need to attract immediate attention; instead, it’s the light that matches the character of your subject. If you’re photographing a quiet, gentle landscape, or you want a soft mood for a portrait photo, my top recommendation is to search for low-contrast light.

Does that sound like something you’re after? If so, add a diffuser to your flash, or move your subject into the shade. For landscape photography, wait until an overcast day, or until the sun has set below the horizon. For many photos, this will be a good way to complement your subject.

The emotions of low contrast:

  • Subdued
  • Gentle
  • Soft
  • Quiet
  • Muted

5) Direction of light

So far, it should make sense that brightness and contrast strongly impact the emotions of a photo. But what about the direction of light?

There are five primary directions of light:

  1. Backlighting
  2. Frontlighting
  3. Sidelighting (left or right)
  4. Overhead lighting
  5. Under-lighting

The last one, under-lighting, is relatively unusual, unless you’re going for a Halloween look. But the others are fairly common in most types of photography, from street photos to landscapes. On top of that, you might have multiple light sources, typically for studio work. Indeed, high-end product photography setups may have more than a dozen different lights. There’s really no limit, aside from simple practicality.

But does the direction of light impact your photo’s emotion?

The answer is yes. But the specific way it affects emotion is hard to generalize, since it depends upon the scene. Sometimes, backlighting will be high-contrast and dramatic. Other times — say, on a foggy day — it could cause the atmosphere to light up with bright, etherial sunbeams. There’s no inherent consistency.

That’s even true if you’re capturing a portrait under controlled conditions. You can get many different emotions from a single direction of light. For example, are you altering the diffusion of your flash? What about the color of the background, or even the emotion your subject is conveying? All of these factors mean that backlighting or sidelighting — just to name a couple examples— won’t always carry the same emotions from photo to photo.

So, this is something you’ll have to approach on a case-by-case basis. Look at the scene, analyze the direction of the light, and see which elements of your photo it highlights. Usually, that’s a good way to tell which emotions it is most likely to convey.

The important thing here is that the direction of light does impact a photo’s emotions, but not consistently in one way or another. You need to experiment in the field, and think carefully about which mood the light is creating.

6) Summary

Now that you’ve seen how light can carry emotion, will you seek out any specific looks in your own photography? Are you tempted by the dark side?

The good news is that you can (and should) take photos with all different types of light. There’s no reason to stick with just one, unless you’re working on a specific photo series. However, it’s still important to pay attention to the type of light you are capturing in a particular photo, since you want to make sure it complements your subject and enforces your message as strongly as possible.

We also have another article on finding good light for landscape photography. Check it out if you’re interested in reading more on this topic. I’ve also published a video which dives into some of these topics in more detail, which you may enjoy:

Other than that, all I can say is simple: best of luck, and best of light. Perhaps more than any other area of photography, this one can take your photos to another level.

  1. Chapter 1: About this Guide
  2. Chapter 2: What is Composition?
  3. Chapter 3: Elements of Composition
  4. Chapter 4: Light (You Are Here)
  5. Chapter 5: Color
  6. Chapter 6: Simplicity
  7. Chapter 7: The Refining Process
  8. Chapter 8: Composition Tips


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