Lesson 27: How to read the light in a photo
Shortly we will find the perfect light in your home or office to use for taking still life photographs, but before we do this we need to master the art of reading light, so pop the kettle on, grab some magazines or cookery books and take a seat!
Aiming for a natural look
As I mentioned previously, on-camera direct flash causes a generally undesirable effect for bloggers, makers & sellers of lovely things. The narrow beam of direct light will cause harsh shadows and highlights and light pointed directly at the subject from the front will eliminate any beautiful texture and form in the item/s you are photographing.
See how different the dried flower looks with direct flash (left) and with no flash (right). The shot on the right (despite just being a quick snap) already has a sense of place, just by using natural lighting. It also enhances the texture and displays more accurate colour.
Without knowing you can already read the light in these two photos. Notice how the natural window has allowed light through the petals and highlighted the edge in this close up of the above shot…
In contrast to the flash version below where detail and form is lost…
If your camera has a built in flash, try it for yourself. Grab a bowl of fruit, flowers or any textured subject that you have to hand. Position it close enough to a window that it can be lit by the window light then take one photo with the flash on, and another with the flash off.
Now you know what is going on in these photos you could probably read the light in another photo and know the lighting used, it’s really quite easy. Now you can read light, you just need to learn how to read the finer details.
The clues are hiding in the shadows
Shadows are where you will find the answers to the lighting riddles in each photo you see. You can tell a lot about how a photo was taken from the shadows, or lack of them.
Light coming from one side will create shadows of different length depending on the angle of the light source. When the light is lower (top of doodle) the shadows will appear longer, similar to how they do late evening when the sun is low and you see beautiful long shadows from trees.
When the light source is higher (bottom of doodle) the shadows will appear shorter. On a sunny day take a look at how the shadows change outside at different times of day.
Of course when you add equal light from the opposite side, those shadows will be eliminated altogether, similar to when you use direct flash from the front.
While uneven lighting will show the texture and shape of an item better than completely even or direct front lighting will, lighting from one side only can create a dark side to your image.
We need a good balance and the majority of my time working on location is spent balancing light to make the scene look clear yet natural. I will teach you how to do this, bouncing a small amount of the light back into the shadowed areas as and when the shadows appear too harsh for your taste to give a good balance. We will look at how you can do this in upcoming lessons with home-made reflectors and different lighting techniques.
To know how to improve lighting, you first need to be able to read the light in a scene. This takes practice but you will soon pick it up!
Now it’s your turn to master the art of reading light, by now your cup of creative brew should be ready and you can study some photos, any photos of still life with some shadows in them, cookery books are great for this task.
Why not find some photos that you would love to be able to recreate? just studying them closely like this will help you get your photos closer to those you dream of creating. I can help you to get your photos looking just as good, if not better! Don’t forget you can also post a photo in the chat room and ask me how you would re create the lighting in it, I’m there every day to advise you.
So let’s see if you can figure out from which direction the light falls. The shadows will give you the vital clues as to the source, angle, intensity and size of the light.
Find 5-10 photos that you love and see if you can draw a doodle that shows where you think the light source might be if viewed from above and from the front.
Here’s an example of my doodles, you can see I’m much better with a camera than a pencil! but you can draw it however you wish, your doodles are just for your own notes.
The shadows in the image are not very long, which is why the view from the front shows the light source to be quite high up. If the light had been lower, the shadows would appear longer.
There are shadows at the back of the soaps but not at the front, which suggests the light source was positioned on the south side of the soaps as shown in my doodle.
The shadows are soft and this suggests a large diffused light source.
This exercise will make you look at all photos in a whole new, erm… light!
Always studying photos in this way, questioning the light source, size and direction, will give you a solid understanding of lighting and improve your own lighting skills no end. If you want to become a great photographer this is the key. It’s like chefs trying new recipes or writers reading more books, you need to study your art.
Do share your doodles with others in the chat room! Simply snap a photo of them next to the book/magazine photo, I will also add some photos for you to guess at the lighting set ups.
Once you are happy that you have taken some time to read and guess at lighting scenarios, then I’ll see you back here for the next lesson but don’t miss out practicing this vital stage, it is key for the success of your own photos going forward.