George Eastman said, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

I’d like to echo Mr. Eastman’s thoughts. Pay attention to the light, and you will get great photographs. Whether it’s wildlife, landscape, travel, or any other kind of photography, light will always be your primary consideration. Without light, there is no photograph. Understanding the quality of light helps you make compelling pictures. There are three basic principles relating to light that you need to understand.

DIRECTION
One of the most important things to understand about light is direction. Beginning photographers should concentrate on keeping the sun at their backs at all times. You can disregard this rule if you want to accomplish a special effect, such as a silhouette or a backlit subject. But for most standard portraits and action shots, positioning yourself with the sun at your back ensures that you will have good light on your subject. Eventually you will want to try side light and backlight.

QUALITY
After you have the light coming from the right direction, you’ll want to judge the quality of the light. Is it harsh or diffuse? Where is the sun in the sky? Is the sun high or low across the horizon? What color is the light? Is it the golden light of sunrise or the soft blue light of a high overcast sky? Evaluate the quality of the light before you shoot.

INTENSITY
The third component of light is intensity. How MUCH light is there? If the light is strong, you will need less exposure to make the image. If you are shooting in low morning or evening light, you will need more exposure. This is crucial in wildlife and sports photography since you often need fast shutter speeds to capture the moving subjects.

THE BEST LIGHT
My best photographs have been made in the hour that follows sunrise or precedes sunset. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to shoot at those times. In those cases, your best bet is shooting during the right season, not the right time of day. In North America, winter offers light that you can work with most of the day. This is because the angle of the sun is low on the horizon. When the light is high in the sky, it is too harsh. Look for light that’s low – just over your shoulder – and you will get dynamic images.
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Join the conversation! 26 Comments

  1. Great post, Scott. I suppose I knew most (?some) of this from experience but you have summarized it succinctly. My best pictures were always in winter. Now I know why.
    Good luck with the bears, and maybe an eagle or two…

    Reply
  2. Great post, Scott. I suppose I knew most (?some) of this from experience but you have summarized it succinctly. My best pictures were always in winter. Now I know why.
    Good luck with the bears, and maybe an eagle or two…

    Reply
  3. Light is the photographer’s medium. The camera is merely the canvas.

    Reply
  4. Light is the photographer’s medium. The camera is merely the canvas.

    Reply
  5. Scott, I really loved the quality of light in the shot you posted. Texture and colour are just spectacular, was this taken at ‘golden hour’ (was there much post processing to get this effect?)

    Reply
  6. Scott, I really loved the quality of light in the shot you posted. Texture and colour are just spectacular, was this taken at ‘golden hour’ (was there much post processing to get this effect?)

    Reply
  7. @Shaun no post at all. Just waited for the light on a perfect fall day – then waited on a bird to land in the reflection – only took three hours standing there – on second thought I SHOULD have done it in post – that would have taken three minutes :)

    Reply
  8. @Shaun no post at all. Just waited for the light on a perfect fall day – then waited on a bird to land in the reflection – only took three hours standing there – on second thought I SHOULD have done it in post – that would have taken three minutes :)

    Reply
  9. @Scott, you could have done that, but you get allot more joy of showing to people saying Look what I took, instead of ‘Look what I post processed’ :)

    Reply
  10. @Scott, you could have done that, but you get allot more joy of showing to people saying Look what I took, instead of ‘Look what I post processed’ :)

    Reply
  11. Great shot. One must always look at the light before clicking the shutter. You must also study the master’s. One of the great master’s was Ernst Haas.

    Reply
  12. Great shot. One must always look at the light before clicking the shutter. You must also study the master’s. One of the great master’s was Ernst Haas.

    Reply
  13. @Scott

    Great post, I appreciate the wealth of knowledge you have with the rest of us. Its been very insightful.

    Reply
  14. @Scott

    Great post, I appreciate the wealth of knowledge you have with the rest of us. Its been very insightful.

    Reply
  15. …and beauty is in the eye of the beholder!
    (since we are being so poetic!)

    Reply
  16. …and beauty is in the eye of the beholder!
    (since we are being so poetic!)

    Reply
  17. […] The Learning Never Stops Photography is hornlike without the light. TWIP Photo has a pleasant class on the qualities of light. […]

    Reply
  18. […] The Learning Never Stops Photography is hornlike without the light. TWIP Photo has a pleasant class on the qualities of light. […]

    Reply
  19. i’m gonna make an effort to get outta bed around dawn … if the light is that good … it might be worth the effort …
    scott is seldom wrong eh …??? hehe …
    good post as always … thanks …

    Reply
  20. i’m gonna make an effort to get outta bed around dawn … if the light is that good … it might be worth the effort …
    scott is seldom wrong eh …??? hehe …
    good post as always … thanks …

    Reply
  21. Thanks for writing such a good summary of the main points about light. Here in Finland we have in winter quite short days, and the sun is low during most of the year, and there are days when the light is fantastic all day long. If only I had the skill to capture it. But perhaps the skill can be learned by taking enough photos that fail.

    Reply
  22. Thanks for writing such a good summary of the main points about light. Here in Finland we have in winter quite short days, and the sun is low during most of the year, and there are days when the light is fantastic all day long. If only I had the skill to capture it. But perhaps the skill can be learned by taking enough photos that fail.

    Reply
  23. If shooting color, I would also add that color temperature is a factor to consider. Especially if shooting with a flash/strobe.

    Reply
  24. If shooting color, I would also add that color temperature is a factor to consider. Especially if shooting with a flash/strobe.

    Reply

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