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Learn Photography

Beecher's Handouts >

1 – Light

1 – Introduction

This section is the most basic section—you need light for your photography.

This section is also the most advanced—light is the most important ingredient in your photographs.

The subject in front of your camera is often less important than the light illuminating the subject.

For example, a scruffy dog in great light can look better than a dog-show champion in poor light.

William Henry Fox Talbot published a book of photographs between 1844 and 1846 called The Pencil of Nature.

Light is our pencil.

For example . . .

I was climbing a long ridge west of Mt. Clark.

I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light.

The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me.

I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.

Ansel Adams, 1923

2 – Snow Analogy

Imagine stepping outside after the first snowfall of winter.

(Never experienced snow? Imagine a foggy morning, instead.)

The snow makes your neighborhood look different.

You notice different things than you would have without the snow.

Note how the snow on the boulder below changes how it looks.

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The lighting, the snow, makes the surface of rock more apparent.

Sunlight, coming from the side, would do the same, by creating shadows.

But, we may not notice the effect of lighting as much as we would the effect of a dusting of snow.


3 – Sensitivity

Seeing how light is affecting a scene is difficult because light is hard to observe:

• Because we're immersed in light most of the time, we don't pay much attention to light.

• The qualities of light often change gradually, so changes are hard to notice.

• The light that we see with our eyes is often different when seen in a photograph.

4 – Encouragement

There are "light sensitivity training" exercises below.

You may feel that the payoff from the exercises will be low.

You're not alone.

Students often feel this way.

The need for sensitivity to light is not visceral, is not compelling.

However, after doing one of the exercises, students have become enthusiastic.

They've improved their photography.

5 – Take Pictures Out of Your Window

Imagine if you could click a remote control and change the time of day.

If you could click back-and-forth from "10 A.M. light" to "4 P.M." light, the comparison would show you how the color of the light and shadows change.

You can't click a remote, but you can take a picture out of your window once every hour.

Look for:

• How the color of the light changes.

• How the direction of the light changes the shadows.

• How whether it's sunny or cloudy changes the shadows.

The latter is called contrast.

Shadows can be dark with sharply defined edges, such as those from sunlight.

This high contrast lighting is caused by small light sources, such as the sun.

On a cloudy day, because the light source is the huge sky, the shadows will be bright with softly defined edges.

This is low contrast light.

Monet did this exercise.

He painted a series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day.

The National Gallery in Washington has two of the canvases.

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Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, Sunlight, 1894 Rouen Cathedral, West Façade, 1894

Have a look at others.

As you look at his paintings, you can approximate the time of day by the color of the light, and the angle of the shadows.

You can photograph something repeatedly.

Compare the photographs to learn about light.

6 – Take Pictures of White Paper

In the last exercise, you're asked to use daylight.

In this exercise, you'll use artificial light.

Simply walk around photographing a piece of white paper with different types of light—window, LED, incandescent, fluorescent, and so forth.

The paper will look the same to you—white.

The photographs of the paper won't be the same white.

White balance—setting your camera for the color of the light in the scene—will be discussed later.

Lighting Type Color of the Paper
Window light without sun but with a blue sky outside

Old-fashion light bulbs


Fluorescent tubes

(Not CFL bulbs or full-spectrum tubes)

7 – Play with Light

1) Get a light, such as a flashlight or lamp.

2) Set up a still life.

3) Experiment.

Direction of the Light

4) Place the light in different locations:

a) Near camera

b) To one side

c) Above the camera

d) Behind the still life (backlighting)

Photograph each change in lighting.

5) Compare the photographs side-by-side.

For example, shadows will make your still life look more three-dimensional.

Size of the Light Source

If you're using a bright light, do the following.

6) Place a white board to the left or right of the still life.

7) Photograph the still life with the light near the board, but aimed directly at the still life.

8) Aim the light at the board, bouncing the light from the board toward the still life.

9) Compare the two photographs.

The photograph with the light aimed directly at the still life will have darker shadows with sharper edges—high contrast light.

The photograph with the large light source—the board—will have brighter shadows with fuzzy edges—low contrast light.

8 – Watch an Old B&W Movie


Cary Grant & Ingrid Bergman in Notorious

Turn the sound off on a 1930s or 1940s black-and-white film.

Then, watch the lighting, not the film.

Pause the film occasionally, and study the lighting.

Shadows & Direction of the Light

Look at the shadows.

In the last exercise, you learned about how the direction of the light changes a scene.

Try to determine where the lights were placed in the scenes by looking for the shadows they create.

Shadows & Contrast

You can also look at the shadows to study contrast.

If the shadows are dark, with sharp edges, a small light source was used, such as a spotlight.

The lighting is high contrast.

If the shadows are bright, with indistinct edges, then a large light source was used, such as a light passing through a scrim.

The lighting is low contrast.

Women were often filmed with low contrast light—while men had contrasty light.

Watch as the film cuts between a male and female lead.

The lighting often changes depending on the sex of the character.


Highlights, especially on faces, will also reveal the lighting design to you.

A small light source produces small highlights.

For example, on-camera flash produces small highlights on your subjects nose tip, forehead, and cheeks.

If you photograph the subject in the shade on a sunny day, or under a cloudy sky, the highlights will be much broader.

Catch Lights

Catch lights are the reflections of lights in the eyes.

Catch lights often add vitality to a portrait.

Where they're located in the eye tells you the location of the light.

If there are more than one catch light, there was more than one light.

The shape of a catch light can hint at what sort of light was used.

For example, a circular catch light may be from a white photography umbrella.

If window light was used, the catch light may be rectangular, with the window dividers showing as well.

9 – Summary

Light Direction

Direction Effect on the Light

From the side

The viewer sees shape and texture because of the shadows.

From the camera

There are no shadows, so the subject is flattened.

The viewer cannot see shape and texture as well.

From behind the subject

The subject stands out from the background—more separation.

The subject's shape is emphasized.

The above are due to:

• The dark subject being against a bright background.

• Bright lighting on the edges of the subject.

Light Size

Size of the Light Effect on the Scene

Small, like the sun

More contrast

The shadows are darker with sharp edges.

Large, such as the sky on a cloudy day

Less contrast

The shadows, if present, are brighter with fuzzy edges.

10 – What You See Is NOT

What You Get

What you see is not always what you get on your photograph.

We saw how light can appear differently in photographs compared to our eyes.


The contrast is always higher in photographs.

That is, shadows are always darker on photographs than they are when looking with our eyes.

Do an experiment.

1) Photograph a still life with a bright light to one side.

2) Take a second picture after you've placed a reflector (white paper) on the side of the still life opposite from the light.

Reflect the light bouncing off of the reflector onto the still life.

The shadows will be brighter by using the reflector.

3) Leave the still life set up with the light on.

4) Compare the real-life still life with the still life photographs on your computer's monitor.

The photograph with the reflector will be more similar to the way the still life looks with your eyes.

We'll explore this topic in depth later.


If you did this exercise, 6 – Take Pictures of White Paper, you saw how the color of the light in the scene may appear differently in your photographs.