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How to write with light in photography?

To photograph means to write with light. It comes from the ancient Greek phôtós (“light”) and gráphô (“to write”). Literally: “write with light”. Whether with films or digital sensors, taking a photo is truly writing with light. Understanding and spotting light is essential to improving the quality of your photos. We are all as photographers dependent on it to beautify our photos. Except for studio photography, it cannot be controlled. It can manifest itself or disappear at any time. This is why it is necessary to understand it, to identify it and always observe it to better understand it.

Are the shadows long or brief? Are the textures highlighted? Do the details stand out? Are the contrasts soft or rather strong?

Observe its intensity

The intensity of light corresponds to the power of the light source. It varies depending on whether you move the light source forward or further away from the subject to be photographed. When your photo is overexposed, then the light intensity is said to be excessive. Conversely, when your photo is underexposed, then the light intensity is considered insufficient.

When shooting, ask yourself if the light is adequately illuminating your subject. Does it correspond to the desired exposure? If not, how can I fix it? Compare the light sources in the different planes of your photo (foreground, second ground, background)? If you need to change the intensity of light sources, remember that you have two legs: move!

Observe its quality

The quality of light depends on two factors which are the size of the light source and its distance from the subject:

  • the light source is large, + it is soft
  • the light source is small, + it is hard
  • the light source is close to the subject, + it is soft
  • the light source is distant from the subject, + it is hard

The inverse square law

To put it simply: every time you multiply the distance by two, the light intensity is four times less.

Example :

You take your measurement at 1 meter and you obtain 10,000 lux
Then you measure again at 2 meters and you get 2500 lux
Finally, you take a measurement again at 3 meters and you obtain 625 lux
The light intensity is therefore inversely proportional to the square of the distance.

The soft light

Soft light is diffused light that spreads evenly across the entire subject. This has the effect of obtaining relatively few shadows. This type of light is used for portrait photography or advertising photography of products (food, etc.). The objective is to soften the skin, reduce wrinkles, reduce imperfections, etc. This is why studio lighting is equipped with opaque films. Naturally, it is the clouds that diffuse the light. Hence the interest in photographing in cloudy weather.

Cloudy weather

It’s a good time for photography. There are no or very few shadows. The light is soft and homogeneous. Cloudy weather has the advantage of highlighting details. In addition, very often, it is a favorable time to create atypical photographic atmospheres, because the colors are almost monochrome.

The golden hours

It is the light that we observe during the golden hours (“golden hours”) which correspond to sunrise and sunset. The “golden hours” beautify the colors. The sky is clearer so your photos are sharper and more contrasted. The sun is low on the horizon, creating indirect lighting and thereby extending the depth. The shadows are elongated and soft and give relief to your photos. We can easily see the outline of the elements of the scene that capture the light. At these times, the sun is below 6° on the horizon. The colors are soft and warm. You benefit from tones ranging from yellow to red through shades of orange. It’s simply magnificent!

The blue hours

The ideal is to be there one hour before sunrise and one hour after sunset. You then witness the blue hours: the sun is about to rise or has just set. The sky is imbued with a bluish light. To preserve blue tones, be careful not to overexpose or underexpose your photo. Be patient, you won’t regret it!

The light lasts

It is the opposite of soft light. We speak of hard light when the break between light areas and dark areas is not progressive. Hard light creates more emphasized shadows. The contrasts are stronger: the facial features are harsher.

Light in the middle of the day

Outdoors, it is the hours in the middle of the day that give this light. Avoid mid-day sunlight if possible in the middle of summer! This light flattens everything. The landscape loses its relief. The sun is high in the sky. The light is direct. The contrasts are very marked and the contours are sharp. The shadows are dense and harsh. This is clearly not the best time slot to enhance your photo!

Observe its directions

Light is also characterized by its direction. The atmosphere and quality of your image depends on the direction of the light source. The possibilities are multiple: from the front, from behind, from the side, from above, from below… I have a slight preference for side lighting which is more flattering for both portrait photography and landscape photography. Very often, it is the light that allows us to recreate a fantastic atmosphere, an enchanting spectacle. It is she who essentially enhances your photos by creating poetry and magic.

Backlit light

It is a sensational light that is frequently sought after. The light source illuminates the subject of your photo from behind. It’s a light that requires a little shooting experience, especially to adjust the exposure parameters (filters, HDR, etc.). To avoid having your subject underexposed and your background overexposed, consider change the shooting angle: move!

The side light

Lateral light highlights shapes, textures and reliefs (rocks, sand, faces, etc.). The light source illuminates the subject from one side only. This light is ideal for portrait photography. The idea is to get one side of the face lit, the other side more in shadow.

Color temperature

The perception of colors is conditioned by the hue of the surrounding light. The eye naturally makes the correction. In order to better understand this concept, we will see in a future article what white balance is.
Like the human eye, your camera can, to some extent, balance this color cast through a process called white balance. Most of the time, a white item is not “white”! The perception of the element depends on the light source that illuminates it. Each light source is partly characterized by its color temperature and therefore by the color cast it causes on the elements it illuminates. Each light source has a dominant color:

Warm with red, orange hues: natural light = golden hours or artificial light = LED bulb
Cold with blue tints: natural light = blue hours
This color cast has a significant impact on the atmosphere of your photo.

Plan the light

You have tools at your disposal to select the type of light you want and plan its direction and times.

The tools

Photopills or Sun Seeker are paid applications designed for smartphones:

Complete applications:

  • positioning of the sun at the desired time and information on the state of shadows
  • Large community, lots of tutorials
  • Functions for measuring filters, focal lengths
  • 3D augmented reality
  • Precise planning

The photographer’s ephemeris is a free application for computers and paid for smartphones:

  • Ease of use
  • Direction, shadows, geodesic marker (latitude, longitude)
  • Sun: golden hours and blue hours
  • Moon: rising and setting
  • Milky Way

This app is ideal for photographing landscapes, wildlife, portraits, or architecture in natural light.

How to write with light? The „photographer’s ephemeris” application.

In the field

Before arriving on site, remember to prepare your shots in advance. To do this, take into account the geography of the land, the seasons, the different types of lights desired.