Through the Gadling Lens: seeing the light

When you’re first starting out in photography, you’re likely to read, or hear, or have told to you:

“See the light. When you can see the light, you’ll be a great photographer. You just have to see the light.”

Many times, I’ve had new photographers retort with exasperation: “God, I hate that. ‘See the light.’ What light? There’s just light! I see it! What are they talking about? How do you ‘see the light’?”

In many ways, the exhortation to see the light is one of those things that, annoyingly, you’ll understand it when you finally see it. But basically, what you’re trying to do is not just acknowledge that the light exists, but really notice the quality of the light — is it golden? blue? white light? Is it coming in at an angle? Is it merely ambient light, or tightly focused? Are there shadows, or reflections? Once you’ve assessed the light, you can adjust your camera ISO, white balance, aperture and shutter speed accordingly, to capture the light and image as authentically as possible.

For tips and a refresher on how to adjust your camera’s settings, click here. However, for an illustration of the various types of light, and how to maximize what it does to your images, read on.
1. Light

First, let’s just take a look at light:

Sunsets are obviously very popular subjects, and for good reason — the light is very easy to identify, and it’s easy to see what the light is doing. What makes the shot shared by RuthannOC, above, such a great shot is not just that it captures the colour of the sunset — certainly the most striking aspect of most sunsets — but you can also see the rays of sunlight coming out from behind the cloud. The light here is very easy to see, and therefore make the resulting image a great capture.

This photograph, shared by Jon Rawlinson, is another great example of how being aware of the quality of the light and capturing it accordingly can result in a great shot. You’ll notice that this image was in the waning hours of the day, and judging from the cloud cover, I’m betting that there wasn’t much sunlight during the day. However, as the light got lower in the sky, the light was able to brilliantly illuminate the buildings, making them seemingly glow. In addition, the light is somewhat golden, which helps to establish the time of day.

The lesson to learn here is that even though you’re outside, the quality of the light can change throughout the day. Be very cognizant of what the light is doing, to maximize how you take your scenery shots.

This photograph shared by insEyedout is particularly spectacular, because he was mindful of how the quality of light changes and enhances the colours of the picture. Obviously, this photograph was shot at dusk — at just the time that lights are starting to illuminate the buildings. Incandescent lights tend to have a very yellowish hue (which is why, when shooting indoors, you might want to check your white balance to make the less yellow) — but in this case, the yellow light adds to the element of coziness in the feel of the image. Beautiful capture.

2. Shadow.

Obviously, different types of light can result in different types of shadows and silhouettes, which can also enhance your photos. The following are great examples illustrating how.

In this photograph shared by PDPhotography, the photograph is framed so that the window isn’t the only subject — the shadow it casts on the wall is included, too. This image was taken inside Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, and by framing the photograph this way, you can just imagine what it might have been like to be incarcerated inside, with the blue skies and freedom on the outside. The effect would not have been the same if PDPhotography had just shot the image through the bars — the shadow on the wall conveys the loneliness and the feeling of being convicted far more effectively.

One of the greatest things that shadows are able to do are convey the time of day. In this black and white photo, shared by Michael Joseph Goldst…etc, even though you can’t see the colour of the sunset, you can tell by the wonderful length of the shadows that this was taken late in the day. The photograph was clearly mindful of the light in this shot, since he made certain to capture the low sunlight in the top left hand portion of the image, as well as the length of the shadows to the lower right. Well done.


This spectacular image shared by t3mujin debunks one of the most common “rules” of photography: the one which says that you should always make sure that the light source is behind you, and you never shoot into the light. If t3mujin followed that rule, he would’ve never captured the wonderfully moody image you see above. Remember that when you have a person in your shot, you don’t always have to be able to make out their face or features — sometimes just having them in the shot in full silhouette conveys the ambiance of the shot in a way that shooting their faces full on might not be able to. This shot is one for printing and framing.

3. Reflections.

In addition to light and shadow, light can be captured by virtue of reflections, which can often result in a really compelling shot. The following three images are good examples. Just remember: turn off your flash.

The image shared by Buck Forester is sort of the classic reflection image — the wonderful mountain vista reflected in the water below. This image is actually a bit more difficult to capture than you might think: after all, when you’re in a beautiful setting, you’re often so captivated by the mountains and the treeline, you’ll likely forget to look into the water for the reflection.

The trick to these images is to be sure to look through the viewfinder carefully, and really see what you’re taking the shot of, so you can be sure to frame it to include the entire reflection. Also, this obviously works best when the water is exceedingly still.

This fantastic shot, <
a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/moody75/3387524541/">captured by Moody75 is such a great reminder that you don’t need to have a body of water to capture a great reflection — he was able to get a wonderful landscape of the entire city of Barcelona in his companion’s sunglasses. Talk about capturing the beauty of a city and the feel of a vacation all in one.

It’s nighttime, it’s raining — the temptation would likely be overwhelming to put your camera away. But this shot shared by mingthein shows why you might want to hang on to your camera a little longer. While you could never get the sharpness of the reflection that you can in Buck Forester’s daytime shot, above, wet streets at nighttime can make for a beautiful reflection of the lights on the street above. Again, remember to turn off your flash and steady your camera before taking a shot like this one.

So remember: see the light. If you have any examples of how you managed to see and capture the light, please share your links to your images, below. And as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.