The transformative power of light in photography

Light – and the absence of light – is inherent in all photography. But light is not neutral – it shapes your image, it emphasizes your story, and can ultimately transform the reality to create new worlds as mysterious and powerful as those found in our dreams. Knowing when and how to use light is key to creating greater impact with your photography.

If we look at the impact of light as a continuum, light can transform your image in 4 different ways:

1.       Separation. At the very basic level, light acts as a separator between your subject and the background. Back to the core of our perceptions, the human mind can only distinguish elements in visual art if, and only if, they have different colors or shades of a similar color. In B&W photography, when colors are de facto absent from your composition, the only way to define your subject vs. the background is to create tonal differentiation. In other words, you need to capture elements with different values of light if you want them to be distinct from one another.

2.       Emphasis. A more advanced use of light in your composition can allow you to emphasize your main subject. In other words, light can help create better stories if used smartly and appropriately. Think about how light, and its opposite the shadow, can contribute to your composition: leading lines, blockers, frames, negative space. All those elements will support your story by leading the eyes to what really matters – and get rid of what doesn’t.

3.       Substance. Furthermore, light can create elements of its own – secondary actors that will help you tell a more subtle and powerful story: silhouettes, shadows, reflections. Those elements often convey more mystery and depth to your stories, helping to emphasize underlying emotions in your images. Those elements will create substance if they reinforce your existing story – which means, if they do not contradict the story in place.

4.       Tension. The most powerful impact of light that can be found in photography is to create meaning. When new elements created by light – or absence of light – detract and contradict the story in place, you are in fact creating new meaning. This is probably the most interesting and inspiring use of light for street photographers. New meaning will be created if, at the end of the day, elements with contradictory meaning come together to form a greater whole. This is the power of opposites – stirring emotions in multiple directions to create, ultimately, meaningful tension.

Let’s now study some examples of the transformative power of light.

1.       Separation: Using light to dissociate elements in your photographs

The primary subjects in the photo below would be almost indistinguishable from the background if the sun was not highlighting their faces. Here, light creates that required differentiation between tones that is at the basis of our perceptions. Because the light in the background is subdued, the point of highest contrast (meaning, the point where there is the highest difference between light and dark) also falls on the subjects. The eye will naturally focus on the point of highest contrast, ensuring that my subjects are prominent in my composition.

Tonal differentiation also works the other way, with a darker subject positioned in a lighter background, as in the photograph below. In both cases, the distinction between figures and ground is clear and indisputable, which is the basic essence of traditional composition.

2.       Emphasis: Using light to direct the eyes to what matters

In the photograph below, absence of light is used a frame and negative space. The resulting effect is to strongly emphasize the subjects, as if spots had been cast on them. Negative space will convey a feeling of mystery and gloom if it has a low value (meaning, if it uses dark, not light). On the other hand, light negative spaces will convey more positive feelings to your image and primary character. Here, the subjects appear a little lost in the surrounding darkness of Chicago’s alleys.

Light can also act a blocker, like that shiny ray of light on the steel of the bridge in the picture below. The line created separates the photograph into two distinct areas: the dark part of the left, where our eyes do not want to stay or linger too long, and the brighter part on the right where the subject stands. As a result, more emphasis is given to the subject, as the eyes are forced to shift on the right and rest on the illuminated face of the woman.


3.       Substance: using light to create depth in your stories

The sun has this wonderful aptitude to create new elements in photographs. Reflections are one of those elements that only light can create, and, if used properly, will add significant substance to your story. In the photograph below, the little girl looking beyond the window is facing her own reflection. Elements respond to one another – as if her reflection was an extension of herself, and extension of hey journey into her mind.

Shadows – that other artifact created by light – have a strong symbolic value. They tend to show that we are dual in our humanity, that there are two of us – the dark and the light, the reality and the dream. In the picture below, the shadow of that little girl is enhancing the story, not creating conflict as we could suppose so. That little girl alone imitates the world of adults as she proudly wears her feminine hat, yet behaves like a child in her attitude and posture. Her shadow and negative space around only enhance that story by offering a representation of that world of hers, of that imaginary place where she stands – bridging the seemingly separate worlds of childhood and adulthood.

4.       Tension: Using light to transform the reality

Tension is born out of the confrontation of opposites. Light and dark are in constant opposition with one another, and are associated with opposite feelings as well, as we already discussed in this article. In the photograph below, elements created by light do not act as an extension of the characters, but appear in total contradiction. The beautiful woman rests in the dark, while the strange-looking woman with naked legs is in the light. This inherent contradiction creates a feeling of mystery: the beautiful woman is not who she seems to be. From that dark corner, she seems to hide a secret that she will never share.

Light can also transform and personify ordinary objects. In the photograph below, light is not only acting as negative space. In fact, it brings together two key elements in the story: on one side, the group of people happily walking. On the other side, hidden in the dark, the shadow of a car coming at them. There is a strange and powerful contradiction between those two elements, and the car can easily be perceived as another character of its own – with motives of its own. As a result, the image conveys a threatening feeling, a sense of cinematographic drama that gives a totally new meaning to the image.

Hopefully, you will have enjoyed this travel into light in photography. The transformative power of light has no limit - it is a world of possibilities that I encourage you to explore. Now.