Posted by Jeff C.

The most crucial element to photography is without a doubt - light. We need light to make photographs. And while we prefer to shoot in good light, there are steps we can take to pull off good photos in bad light too. However, in order to manipulate light to our advantage, we have to understand the fundamentals of light first. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the more important things photographers should know about light, but it is by no means all inclusive.

1 – Small light sources will produce harder light.
Hard light isn’t always great for taking photos, as it produces high contrast and lots of shadows. Of course, there will be times when that is perfect for what you’re shooting, but for things like portraits, softer light is generally more desirable.

Think about what happens when you take a photo of someone using a flash without any sort of lighting modifier with it, including bouncing it off the ceiling or a wall. The flash unit, which is a small light source creates a lot of shadows. But when you take that same flash and put it behind a softbox, the small light source turns into a much larger one, since the light source effectively becomes the entire front surface of the softbox. Staying true to its name, the softbox creates a much softer light.

2 – Distance also creates hard light.
We know that the size of the light source impacts its quality, it’s time to discuss how the distance between the light source and the subject impacts its quality. The farther the light source is from the subject, the harder the light will be. Move the light source close in, and the light will produce a more diffused look.

That’s why, you’ll often seen portrait photographers place their subjects very close to huge softboxes or umbrellas. In this photo, below, you can see the photographer is using a (giant!) umbrella which he has placed at a strategic distance to get just the right light.

3 – You don’t need a studio lights to use a lighting modifier.
While it’s nice to have access to flashes and strobes, if you don’t have one, you can still use lighting modifiers such as reflectors, screens, and other types of diffusers with the lighting you do have. This includes natural light such as the sun, in which a reflector can make a huge difference. If you’re working with a bare bulb, as you saw in the video in section one, you can place a diffuser in front of it to soften the light. Vellum works well, but in a pinch, some photographers have made even a white bed sheet or t-shirt work.

4 – Light falloff should be used as an advantage.
When your subject is close to the light source, the light will fall off more dramatically. That is, the area in the background is more likely to be less lit than the subject itself. Contrarily, if the light source if farther from the subject, it will light more of the area, creating less fall off.

This is especially useful if you’re in a situation where you prefer the background be less visible and when you want to draw the viewers eye onto the subject.

5 – Light can be used to hide or enhance texture.
There will be times when you’ll want to really embrace and show off textures in your composition, such as when you’re photographing landscapes or nature shots, and you want the viewer to really feel like they can reach into the photograph and feel the texture of the rocks or sand or feather. Then, there will be times where you don’t want the texture to be so apparent or distracting, like with portrait photography.

So, depending on what type of photograph you are aiming to create, you will want to place your light source accordingly. Here’s what you need to know: a front-lit subject will show less texture; a side or lit from above subject will show more texture.