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Direction of light

From: Foundations of Photography: Composition

Video: Direction of light

So I'm walking around, the sun is setting, it's really dramatic and I'm looking in this direction and I'm just not seeing anything, the sun is so bright and it's washing out everything. It looks kind of flat. As you can see, I've also got this big problem with lens flare. But if I turn around, I've got the sun casting shadows into these tire tracks that are cutting across the grid of the field, and it's all leading into a beautiful full moon with clouds passing in front of it. This is a nice shot. Now, when I'm looking into the sun, if I have the problem of lens flare, when I am looking away from the sun, I have the problem with my shadow.

Direction of light

So I'm walking around, the sun is setting, it's really dramatic and I'm looking in this direction and I'm just not seeing anything, the sun is so bright and it's washing out everything. It looks kind of flat. As you can see, I've also got this big problem with lens flare. But if I turn around, I've got the sun casting shadows into these tire tracks that are cutting across the grid of the field, and it's all leading into a beautiful full moon with clouds passing in front of it. This is a nice shot. Now, when I'm looking into the sun, if I have the problem of lens flare, when I am looking away from the sun, I have the problem with my shadow.

This means I am going to have to work to try to get out of the way or find a camera position and focal length that lets me get the framing that I want without including my shadow. When I am looking into the sun, I am going to have to work on shielding the lens with my hand. If I had just been looking that way, I would have missed this. Direction of light is a critical consideration, particularly when the sun is low, both for ease of shooting because you are going to be facing one of these two problems, and because you are going to be getting shadows in very different places and that can lead to very different results in your image.

Let's take a look at some other examples of direction of light. So the sun is setting and like a moth, my camera is drawn to it. I can't take my eyes off of it. I am standing here in this field, thinking there's a great picture here because of all this dramatic light and these clouds, and I've got these cool repeating patterns because of these crops here that I'm trampling as I walk around looking for a picture. But it's just not happening and I shot this a lot. I tried a lot of different things and I just wasn't getting anywhere.

Couple of things are going on here, first of all, the camera is exposing for the bright sky, so this is all going a little bit darker, but also I'm standing on the shadow side of the plants. In other words, since the sun is coming from over here, the other side of these, whatever these are, are lit up and I am standing in the shadowy side. I came very close to going, there is no picture here, and just turning to the right and walking back to the car. Instead I turned to the left by chance and actually did a full turn around, and when I turned about 180 degrees I saw this.

So this is very similar to the example we saw earlier in the video. From this side, something is really happening. Now of course, part of it is I've got these wonderful geometric patterns of these tire tracks through here. But the reason they're working is that I'm now looking at the lit side of the plants, and so I've got brightly lit plants against the dark ground and that's giving me this cool contrast. Yes, I don't have the dramatic sunset in the sky, but that's okay that would be competing with my subject here. So I found these lines and started to work the shot building around the lines. But what really makes this image work, or what makes this subject work, is the change in direction of light.

By looking at lit side, rather than the shadow side, I add something interesting. Now that doesn't mean that that's a hard and fast rule. Here's a case of standing on the shadow side where it works. What makes this image work is the nice dramatic shadow that's coming all the way out to my camera that's forming this one whole complete piece of geometry here that's interesting. If I'd been standing over here to the right, obviously I could have had a picture of a tree with a shadow going off to its left. I could have stood over here and had the shadow going off to the right. Those might have been interesting pictures. This is the one that really took me. Probably the least interesting picture in this case would have been to do what I did in the last example, which would be to walk around the tree and shoot the lit side of it.

And I think that probably would've been least interesting because the lit side of the tree tonally was going to be about the same as the ground, and so the tree just would've gotten lost. So here is a case where again direction of light is what's making the image, but in this case it's working because I'm looking into the sun. One thing I did here was I moved around quite a bit until I found a tree branch that blocked the main disk of the sun in a way, in such a way that I did not get lens flare. So the reason I don't have a lens flare here is I very carefully positioned this tree branch here.

It's getting washed out and lost, but I kind of like that. This nice dramatic point here is a destination that your eye gets to after following all these lines, and it also served to really stop a lens flare problem. When you are working in color, in addition to contrast changing, you will very often find changes in hue, changes in color, as you look in different directions. A thunderstorm had broken up, the sun was setting and so this ridiculously dramatic orange sky was happening. This is actually what it looked like.

There is not really any manipulation here. The air itself was red. It was just spectacular. But we're also getting some nice things looking into the sun here. We are getting the silhouettes of the trees. We're getting the dramatic water here, and I kind of composed and built up around these strong lines coming across here. Curiously enough, looking in the other direction wasn't much happening. The light was very purple, not red. So this is a case where I'm getting a color shift because of the direction of light looking into it or looking away from it.

Here's another looking into the sun example, kind of similar to the one we looked at earlier. I wanted to show you this one to show that sometimes a silhouette is not the only thing you can achieve. The sun was down behind this barn a little bit, or this little house thing and I was still working to get the tree in such a way that it was blocking lens flare for me. But it hasn't gone into full silhouette, so I've got these nice details on it. What caught my eye here was, one, the dramatic backlighting, but also I just liked this big curve and the mirror, not quite as big, but a mirroring curve over here so I built around that compositionally.

But again, you can sometimes shoot into the sun without going to full silhouette. Now here's an interesting one. This is a direction of light example. But there's not a really strong direction of light that you can see. I am not getting strong shadows anywhere. That's because the sun is directly overhead. Now we talk a lot about how, well when you're shooting you want to go out when the sun is low, because you get dramatic shadows and lots of contrast and lots of texture. And that's true. That's a very easy time to shoot. You'll see lots and lots of wonderful texture and geometry and things to play with.

That doesn't matter that you can't go out in the middle of the day and get good shots. You will have to work harder. It's harder to find interesting light in the middle of the day. But here's an example where directly overhead, the sun is never directly overhead, but more overhead. It really works for this image. It gives me just this sea of white in this cotton field and I like this strip of black here, and then the strong geometric shape behind. A stronger shadow in one direction or another, this image might not work as well. I wouldn't have such great white because the cotton would be casting shadows on itself.

So there are times when the correct or best direction of light for an image is from high overhead, eliminating shadow and eliminating too much texture. Here's a case where my subject would be pretty much invisible with a different direction of light. The sun is actually off- frame a little to the right here. It had risen maybe two hours earlier and so I'm still getting good strong backlighting, the deer is running. It's silhouetted. If I had been around on the other side, well if I had been around on the other side I'd be standing in water, but in addition to being wet, I would be looking at the deer up against the bare ground.

If you've spent any time around deer, you know they are very well camouflaged and so the shot just really wouldn't work. This deer is pretty much only visible because it's in silhouette, so again a case of direction of light really making the difference. In looking at these images now, it's obvious that being on the shadow side of something is very different than being on the lit side, or being 90 degrees to the shadow, in other words being over here looking this way. The main thing I want you to take away from this is that direction of light matters. It's very important for your composition.

If you are in a scene and you think, boy the light here is really great, but I am just not seeing anything, be sure you look in all directions. You may be recognizing the hallmarks of potentially good light like I was here, but you're not looking in the right direction. Looking 180 degrees in the other direction gets you something more interesting. So be sure when you see good light to check it in all directions. Or if you see subject matter that you think is interesting, but you just can't find the shot. It may be because you need to work with the light in a different direction. It can be important to think about, do I want to shoot the shadowy side of something or the brightly lit side of something.

If you don't want to think through that whole process, or you don't really know how to visualize that, fine, just explore, work your shot. Change the direction of light by moving in different directions and turning in different directions, and you very well may see that a shot appears in one direction when it's invisible from another direction.

Show transcript

This video is part of

Image for Foundations of Photography: Composition
Foundations of Photography: Composition

86 video lessons · 55675 viewers

Ben Long
Author

 
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  1. 12m 4s
    1. Welcome
      1m 47s
    2. Using this course
      7m 27s
    3. What you need to know
      2m 50s
  2. 2m 47s
    1. What is composition?
      2m 1s
    2. All form, all the time
      46s
  3. 12m 34s
    1. How your camera is not like your eye
      2m 52s
    2. Looking vs. seeing
      2m 25s
    3. Vision and attention
      2m 13s
    4. Dynamic range
      1m 59s
    5. Seeing exercises
      3m 5s
  4. 36m 48s
    1. What all good compositions have
      1m 8s
    2. Subject and background
      3m 5s
    3. Balance
      7m 20s
    4. Point of view
      3m 22s
    5. Simplicity
      2m 59s
    6. Finding and capturing a good photo
      2m 11s
    7. Working the shot: Why one is never enough
      6m 41s
    8. Practicing
      3m 24s
    9. Why black and white?
      2m 21s
    10. Exercise: Practicing the fundamentals with points
      4m 17s
  5. 41m 48s
    1. Lines
      7m 7s
    2. Analyzing lines
      6m 35s
    3. Exploring a town
      4m 7s
    4. The Franklin Hotel
      2m 7s
    5. Shapes
      10m 13s
    6. Repetition: Arranging the elements
      1m 37s
    7. Rule of threes
      1m 36s
    8. Perspective
      1m 47s
    9. Symmetry
      1m 10s
    10. Focal length, camera position, and depth
      2m 27s
    11. Intersections
      1m 41s
    12. Exercise: Practicing fundamentals with geometry
      1m 21s
  6. 10m 38s
    1. Working a shot, revisited
      3m 21s
    2. Understanding the photographic impulse
      2m 58s
    3. Warming up
      2m 16s
    4. Exercise: Get your feet moving
      2m 3s
  7. 35m 7s
    1. Thirds: How rectangular frames are weighted
      2m 20s
    2. Tonal balance
      3m 52s
    3. Content balance
      1m 20s
    4. Squares: Weighting the corners
      2m 24s
    5. Composing people
      3m 42s
    6. Composing landscapes
      3m 53s
    7. Sometimes you can't get the shot
      1m 12s
    8. Practicing thirds with points and geometry
      1m 45s
    9. Practicing squares with points and geometry
      1m 12s
    10. Image analysis: The work of Steve Simon
      13m 27s
  8. 19m 6s
    1. It's the light
      1m 50s
    2. Direction of light
      8m 30s
    3. Texture
      2m 7s
    4. Shadows and negative space
      1m 19s
    5. Exposure concerns
      2m 44s
    6. Keeping one eye on post
      58s
    7. Light as subject
      1m 38s
  9. 18m 59s
    1. Introducing the workshop location and instructors
      1m 2s
    2. Assignment: Finding light
      5m 17s
    3. Shooting the light
      3m 14s
    4. Critiquing the light assignment
      9m 26s
  10. 22m 11s
    1. The basics of color
      1m 4s
    2. When to shoot color
      3m 56s
    3. How to shoot color
      2m 47s
    4. Practicing color composition
      1m 4s
    5. Image analysis: The work of Paul Taggart
      13m 20s
  11. 16m 48s
    1. Entry and exit
      5m 41s
    2. Framing
      2m 17s
    3. Examining the composition of this set
      2m 28s
    4. Narrative
      1m 55s
    5. When the scene doesn't fit in the frame
      3m 13s
    6. Guiding the viewer's eye
      1m 14s
  12. 13m 36s
    1. Assignment: Foreground and background
      3m 4s
    2. Shooting foreground and background relationships
      2m 19s
    3. Critiquing the foreground and background assignment
      8m 13s
  13. 34m 24s
    1. Planes
      5m 13s
    2. Controlling depth
      4m 54s
    3. Juxtaposition
      2m 58s
    4. Fear
      4m 3s
    5. Layers
      55s
    6. Image analysis: The work of Connie Imboden
      16m 21s
  14. 41m 21s
    1. Recomposing an image with the Crop tool
      7m 23s
    2. Resizing an image
      8m 9s
    3. Tone
      8m 54s
    4. Altering the perspective in Photoshop
      4m 38s
    5. Changing composition through retouching
      6m 16s
    6. Vignetting to drive attention
      6m 1s
  15. 10m 22s
    1. Workshop wrap-up and exhibition
      3m 13s
    2. Workshop students' final thoughts
      7m 9s
  16. 1m 0s
    1. Final thoughts
      1m 0s

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