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There are a lot of things that go into the making of a good photo. There is the gear you choose, the way you compose, the exposure choices that you make, and of course, your selection of subject matter. But ultimately, all of these things are irrelevant if you don't have good light. Good light can make an otherwise boring scene into something interesting. All photos begin with good light, and the most expensive lens in the world in the hands of the most gifted photographer alive still won't yield a great image if the light isn't right. Now this is another one of those things where you can say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, light's important. I get it.
If you don't have good light, you've got dark." But the light thing is so much deeper and more complicated than that, and whether you're shooting color or black and white, one of the most important things you can do to improve your photography is to study light itself. I am not talking about the physics of light, but simply opening your eyes to how light looks at different times and simply paying attention to its qualities. Most people get that the light looks better in the late afternoon. Some people also see the difference in the morning. Others recognize that in the winter the light generally looks different. That's great! But you need to go farther.
Can you look at a scene and understand how the light should be to get the best results? Do you recognize when you're in a light that is ideal for shooting, say, portraits? Do you notice when there is no point in taking a picture of that astonishing scene that's before you because the light is not working in your favor? We don't just develop an eye for a light because it's a technical necessity; we develop an eye for light because very often when your eyes are open to the vagaries of light, you'll choose to take a picture and not because you're interested in a particular thing, but because you're interested in the light that's bouncing off of that thing.
When you have an aesthetic for light, there is a lot more subject matter to be had in the world, and when you're tuned in to light, the subject matter that you already know about can be captured in much more compelling ways. So why does the light look better in the late afternoon? Most people these days have heard the term 'golden hour' and they know that Hollywood types like to shoot movies in it, and that term clues us into one of the properties of light: it has a color. A little bit before sunset, the light turns very golden, or yellow, as it passes through more of the earth's atmosphere.
This color can be very flattering to skin tones, to grasses on a landscape, to hair, to light-colored bricks on a building. Those colors also carry emotional impact because we recognize them as end-of- day colors, and we have memories and emotional associations with that transition from day to night. Now, of course, as black-and-white shooters, we're not so concerned with that aspect of afternoon light, but something else happens later in the day, and early in the morning, as the sun is just over the horizon. Its light strikes things at more of an oblique angle, causing them to cast longer shadows.
Any texture on the thing itself will also cast a shadow, meaning that textures will appear much more vivid and deep. So in addition to color, light has an angle. A more extreme angle creates more texture and longer shadows. Related to that is contrast. Longer shadows are typically darker, and when the light is at an extreme angle, there are more shadows, meaning there are more dark things in your scene alongside the light things. In other words, you'll get an image with more contrast, more range from the darkest to lightest thing.
At noon, when the light is more overhead, shadows are very short, texture goes away, and there's very little contrast. So I think of light as having a contrast property also. Finally, of course, there is the direction of light, which side the shadow is being cast off of. If the shadow is being cast toward you, that looks very different than if the shadow is being cast to one side or behind the object that you're shooting. Now as much as I'm hyping high contrast, it's important to recognize that there are times when low contrast is also very good light.
For some images, low-contrast light is actually preferable, either because the type of mood that you are aiming for or because you want to use post-production techniques to control the light and shadow in your image. And of course, if you are shooting portraits, low-contrast light is almost always preferable to high-contrast light. Low-contrast light will reduce shadows under eyes and chins. It will lighten wrinkles and generally create a more attractive final product. Now, I don't walk around thinking, "Wow! Look at this light that's shining at a 23-degree angle, casting 60-yard shadows, from a vector of .96." But to learn most things down to a gut instinctive level, you've got to start with a step-by-step intellectualized process.
So by putting a vocabulary to these concepts, I'm hoping that you'll now be able to go out into the world and start thinking, "What does this light look like? Is it very contrasty? Am I seeing lots of texture? Does it have a color? Where are the shadows? Is it very even? Is it somehow just luminous?" The great thing about studying light is that you don't have to go anywhere special to do it. In fact, doing it at home around light that you're already familiar with is one of the best ways to recognize how different things can look at different times of day, and different times of a year.
And just as important as studying light in the real world is to study light in photos. When you look at someone else's photos, take note of where the light was in the picture. What purpose does it serve? How might the picture look different if the light were different? Now, the good news is that studying black and white is a great way to learn about light. As we've talked about, when we strip color out of the equation, we're down to just brightness. Light and shadow are all we have to work with, so we are going to get a lot of practice with paying attention to the qualities of light. Now, the bad news.
Once your eyes are open to the vast menu of different lighting in the world, you'll find it hard to ever again simply appreciate nice fall light, or the fading light of a pretty afternoon. Henceforth, light is going to become a resource that you'll feel compelled to capture and exploit. But when you hit that point, that point where seeing good light outside is torture to you because you want to go out and use it, then you'll know that you've pushed that understanding of light down to an instinctive level that you can really work with.
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