X. Light

In considering light as an aesthetic tool, there are two common situations in photography: light that reveals subject matter in its natural condition and light that enhances the subject through management. The factors contributing to management relate to the manipulation of the source—the light’s color or “quality,” intensity, direction, and modifiers, how it’s made more or less specular. Because black and white photography eliminates color, it’s an ideal medium for developing an awareness of these properties. 

Training The Eye

Whatever the medium, I recommend frequent observation of a particular kind—paying attention to what light is “doing” within a frame. Is it enhancing form or texture? Creating vectors? Generating reflections? Softening or creating specular highlights?… I specify this kind of attention because the development of an aesthetic eye requires the framing of elements in order to include certain parts of a scene and exclude other parts.

For this purpose, I keep a framing card in my camera bags. They can easily be made: take an 8 x 10 black card stock and cut out a 3.5 x 5.5 rectangular opening in the center. When a framing card isn’t available, I revert to putting my fingers together (first and second fingers on both hands) to create a square frame, and adjust them to simulate the camera’s viewfinder format. At arm’s length these devices serve as a telephoto viewfinder; closer to the eye, they provide the wide-angle perspective. Movie directors and directors of photography (DP’s) do the same thing, but with very expensive optical viewfinders. Of course, it’s not always practical—or socially acceptable—to hold up frames in certain situations, but there’s nothing like it for cultivating an awareness of light and composition. 

When I find a location that has photographic potential, especially when I’m working with a large format camera, the first thing I do is walk around with a framing card as a way to quickly identify possible subject matter. And I don’t have to carry around the tripod-mounted camera to use its viewfinder or view screen. 


Whatever the circumstance, from capturing a family photo with an iPhone to working with a professional camera, the five above mentioned features are always part of the image-making equation. They hold for existing light or the purposeful placement of lighting equipment. Even if the objective is to simply and quickly capture a moment without making it artful, awareness of light properties can enhance the image. If, on the other hand, the objective is to create an image that has some aesthetic appeal and captivate viewers, then some thought needs to be given to their management. 


The source of light determines the other four properties of light, so it’s of primary concern. In light that reveals, we just want to be aware of what it’s doing. Relative to the subject in its natural condition, what is the light source? What color is it? How bright is it? Is it soft or hard, diffuse or specular? If the purpose of taking a picture is simply to document the subject, these can be altered by changing the camera position—or not.

Here, the light basically “reveals” the subject matter. The source is cloud-covered sunlight.

If on the other hand, the objective is to maximize the impact of an image to take advantage of the available light, the same properties are considered, but now choices have to be made with respect to camera angle, composition, geometry, and the direction of light in order to enhance certain aspects of the subject.

Here, a more impactful image is created by a camera angle and composition that enhances the illusion of perspective, using the light to reveal patterns of light and shadow. 


When photographers talk about the “quality” of light, the reference is to its color. Normally, in daily living, the human perceptual system tends to interpret all light, indoors and out, as “normal” or “natural.” Only recently, when we began to see “daylight” bulbs being offered in stores, did many people realize that the incandescent bulbs in home fixtures were and are decidedly yellow, compared to daylight which is blue. Every light source emits a specific wavelength or color of light. Sunlight varies dramatically in color depending on geography and atmospheric conditions, but generally, it’s blue or “cold” relative to the bulbs just mentioned, specular when the sky is clear and diffuse when it’s overcast. 

The quality of light that a camera records can be altered by changing the “white balance” feature on a digital camera, or by putting a filter over the lens. In both cases the color of the image is affected overall—everything takes on that color. The alternative is to put a “gel” over a light fixture, so only the light coming from that source is affected. In this way, three lights with different colored gels will result in three colors of light in the same frame.

Carnival ride


Shooting in bright sunlight yields sharp, very distinct, hard-edged shadows and high contrast—excellent for deepening color saturation and creating depth. As brightness diminishes, these qualities gray-down to darkness where only the brightest highlights are rendered. To accomplish this with lights, they’re placed at some distance from the subject. The intensity of such a light is determined by its wattage.  

Bright sunlight

Moments later, clouds obscured the sun.  


Whatever the source, inside or out, light coming from the side enhances texture—the more to the side the greater the texture. Light falling on the front of a subject illuminates its features but is considered “flat,” lacking in depth. It’s fine, just ordinary. The opposite is true of light coming from behind the subject. Backlighting is dramatic because it creates a halo or rim around the subject, enhancing its form. Generally, the brighter the backlight, the more dramatic the image, and then a decision has to be made: Is there enough light on the front of the subject to resolve some degree of detail? If not, a “fill light” is needed to lighten the shadows. 

Amish shocks lit from the front.

The same field shot early in the morning with strong side-lighting.


A light modifier is any medium that diffuses the light coming from its source. For instance, clouds modify bright sunlight on a clear day by softening it. At one extreme is “specular” light—a source that’s tiny and bright, like the distant sun on a clear day, or a small 500-watt bare quartz bulb. Better jewelry stores have several specular lights mounted in the ceiling, and even rotate them in some cases to make the facets in precious stones sparkle—give off specular highlights. The more specular the source, the sharper the shadows it creates. And as a source becomes more diffuse, the shadows spread out until they diminish altogether. 

Snow drifts in bright specular sunlight.

Clouds modified the sunlight, making it diffuse—flat, lacing contrast.

Rule of thumb: photograph men in specular light to emphasize skin features and hair texture; photograph women in diffuse light to soften those same features.

Camera stores have a wide variety of light modifying materials and equipment, but professionals also use inexpensive white foam-core sheets to soften skin tone by using them as reflectors. Another way to create diffuse lighting is to bounce lights off a white wall or ceiling.

Contemplating Light In Another Context

“Light” is a common metaphor for awareness. We picture a lightbulb and say we had a “bright idea.” And when Indian sages attain realization they speak of it as “illumination.” Basically, the metaphor expresses a new or heightened state of awareness or consciousness. Considering the above recommendation to pay attention to what the light within a frame is doing in order to create an image, a question comes to mind regarding the place of light in everyday experiences—our frames of reference. Whatever is attracting my attention, what is consciousness (the light) doing? Along what lines are my thoughts being directed? Where am I “pointing” my attention (the camera equivalent)? And what am I creating as a result of my attention? Simply put, what are the consequences of what I think about most? Whatever we attend to we make more of, so whatever it is, that’s what I’m creating in my life and contributing to the world.

There’s a significant difference between “taking pictures” and “making photographs.” The former is largely mechanical, requiring little thought. The latter is a creative act, requiring greater consideration and a heightened level of observation—awareness. Creative activity then requires more awareness and results in increased awareness, as when we observe and share what we’ve created—be it a photograph, business transaction, or garden. And this raises another question for me: Am I creating the reality I want—by purposefully managing my attention? Or am I allowing it to be directed by outside influences? It’s the difference between directing and reacting, living authentically, consistent with one’s purpose, or on auto-drive.

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”




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