The importance of light in photography

I didn’t realize how important light was to my vision of photography until recently – when it became apparent that I was deeply attracted by photographs using light in a powerful, meaningful way. Of course, one could argue that photography is light, and in essence it would be true. Exposure is about capturing a certain amount of light through one’s lens – and light is at the core of the making of photographs.

Beyond that technical truth, however, mastering light in one’s photography is far from being an easy task. In fact, I would argue that many photographers do not use light to their advantage, especially in street photography. But let’s start with the beginning: how does one “see” light?

Light is such a troubling concept. It can be as obvious as a source of light, whether natural (the sun), or artificial (flash), and as ephemeral as the slight contrasts in tones between a darker façade and a lighter subject. Light can be best understood in opposition to dark – with anything in between being shades of dark and shades of light. Seeing light is thus being able to see those contrasts as if you were taking pictures in black and white, not in color. When looking at a scene, ask yourself: are the contrasts of light interesting enough? Do they support my story, highlight my subject?

The human mind sees and perceives in many ways, but it is useful to understand the role of light in this regard.  Light has three major impacts on how people will perceive the components of your images, and thus of your stories:

·         The human mind is first attracted to the point of highest contrast in a photo or a painting – by that I mean, where the difference between light and dark tones is highest. Thus your subject should ideally be placed where the highest contrast occurs.

·         Light objects convey more weight than their darker counterparts. It means that smaller light objects will easily attract the eyes – and if they’re not your subject, you should be careful to not allow them to distract viewers from your story.

·         Finally, light has an impact on the overall mood. Light spaces conveys lighter mood, dark spaces will bring up feelings such as isolation, loneliness, sadness more easily. Have you ever noticed how dark negative space and light negative space can make you feel differently? Well, this is it.

Let’s test this newly acquired knowledge on the picture below. Light here plays a significant role in defining the subject of the photo: the point of highest contrast is clearly put on the subject, makes it a clear point of focus for viewers. Another point of interest is the overall mood here: the huge negative space created by the wall is lighter in tones than the subject. The overall effect is rather positive: I wanted to convey a feeling of determination, not of isolation and loneliness.

Learning to capture light in a meaningful way is tough, and by no means an easy fate. But once you understand the impact of the smallest variations in your photo, you become more apt to control and use light to your advantage.