Learn how to master light

By Geoff Harris

“The sun is god,” the famous painter Turner apparently said, and an understanding of light is one of the most important skills in any kind of photography: film, digital, or smartphone.

It doesn’t matter how advanced and expensive your camera and lens, if you don’t really have a grasp of the different types of natural light, and how to harness these for your images, you’ll always be at a disadvantage. Fortunately, prolific photographer, author and long-time Learning with Experts tutor, Michael Freeman, has written one of the best books on understanding light I have seen for a long time. The book is called Light & How to Photograph It: The Professional Approach to Capturing Every Type of Light and is available now.

What I like about the book is its adroit mix of theory and practice, and there are lots of wonderful example images from Michael’s long and storied career – this guy really knows what he is talking about. It’s not some narrow or abstruse photographic treatise, however, with lots of technical jargon; Michael does a great job of busting jargon like ‘raking light’ or ‘hard light,’ and I love the way he also refers to how the great painters used light for creative effect. There are lots of really useful diagrams and the book is not at all text-heavy or cumbersome.

Here are some of the key take-home lessons from Light & How to Photograph It.

The art of waiting

“Practically, as a photographer, I divide light into the kind of light I can expect, and the kinds that take me by surprise.” Michael’s point here is that there is the light you can plan for (there are lots of tools and apps such a Helios to help with this) and then there there is the wonderful light that comes to you in a serendipitous way – a sudden shaft of sunlight as a storm lets up, for instance. So yes, you need to be able to plan, but also to know your camera well enough to grab the moment as it unfolds.

Shades of grey

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from Michael’s books is to appreciate what many of us dismiss as grey or flat light. Many conventional landscape photographers will hang up their camera when the sky become a solid mass of grey, but as Michael shows, it can be a wonderful time to shoot a garden, for example – the sky acts like a giant diffuser, and harsh shadows and contrast can be smoothed out. As he mentions, however, it’s best to avoid grey sky in the images, as it does look boring, unless that is the effect you are seeking. Rain, even drizzle, can be be a great way of adding atmosphere too, particularly with travel.

Hard facts

Another old chestnut is ‘avoid shooting in the middle of the day,’ as hard light/strong sunlight can create brutal shadows. Michael shows how high sun can actually be really useful when making images with strong graphic shapes, such as those found with buildings; some of his shots from Mexico and California, for example, show how “geometrical abstraction is arguably what hard light does best.” Hard light can also be harnessed effectively by black and white photographers – see the work of Australian photographer Trent Parke for a great example of this.

https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/trent-parke/

The Rake’s progress

‘Raking light’ is another commonly used term in photography, but it’s not just about the angle that light comes in. As Michael explains, “you see raking light when the light source is sharp and pinpoint (like the sun on a clear day) and glancing across a surface that has some kind of delicate relief.” So again, Micheal shows how we can use raking light to our advantage, particularly in architectural, travel and landscape photography – it can literally ‘sharpen’ the landscape.

Let it snow

Snow, according to Michael, is the ultimate reflector. The book explains how, with a cloudless snowy scene, there is much less of a sense of light coming down onto a scene from above, but that objects in the landscape receive a lot of bounced reflection from below.

Shooting into the sun

As Michal explains, shooting into the sun carries its share of technical problems, because of the huge range between the sun’s disc and the foreground shadows. While a lot of digital photographers steer clear of shooting into the sun because of these challenges, Michael explains how careful exposure and editing can solve a lot of the headaches – particularly if you shoot in Raw, rather than JPEG. He also covers the basics of editing images for HDR (high dynamic range).

As the book progresses, you learn in detail about other highly prized types of lighting conditions for photography, such as the golden hour (when the sun rises or sets), the blue hour (the dark blue sky of dusk before night fully sets in) and so on. He also does a great job of explaining more advanced concepts such as Directional Light and Fall Off. Light and How to Photograph It is one of the most useful photography books I have seen this year, and could really transform your photography. Highly recommended.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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