Free Shipping Over $150 Lower 48 States Details

Back to Basics: The Power of Light

Image © Andrew Slaton

By Suzanne D. Williams—

Light is the key element in every photograph and having an understanding of it is essential to becoming a good photographer. Relying on your camera’s automatic settings will at some point become a hindrance because these settings can be misleading. The camera does not always make the correct choice. Instead, you, the photographer, must be able to recognize the light and know how it will affect your final image.

There are different colors of light and different directions of light. The direction of the light determines your choice of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The color of light determines your white balance. What is white balance?  White balance is just what its name suggests; it is the proper balance of the color of the light. Light itself is never one shade of color, but comes in a full spectrum, its color determined primarily by the light source and other factors. But okay, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s take this one step at a time.


Most lighting you will deal with usually comes from one of three directions– the front, the back, or the side. No one direction of light is incorrect, but each has a place in photography and sometimes one can be a detriment to the result you’re trying to achieve. That’s because each type of light creates shadows– unless it is diffused (more about that later). Shadows are, by definition, the absence of light, and they can often “make or break” a photograph.

This image is an example of front lighting. The light comes from behind the photographer and falls directly on the subject. Flash on a camera also produces front lighting, usually with heavy shadows behind the subject


This image is an example of side lighting. Side lighting gives a scene more texture. It prevents photographs from appearing to be blasted by light and shows texture in objects.  It can also be used to make dramatic portraits. Image © Andrew Slaton


This image is an example of back lighting. It can create silhouettes or strong highlights behind the subject. Back lighting is one of my favorite types of lighting. Image © Andrew Slaton

Knowing the direction of light also affects your choice of metering. Metering is how your camera decides to deal with the light. In stronger light, when I want to make sure an area of the image is precisely exposed, I use the spot metering feature on my camera. However, it must be used wisely because you want to avoid making an object that should be highlighted into an area of shadow. So until you experiment with it, other metering selections such as “matrix” and “center weighted” will usually give you a nicely balanced exposure about 95% of the time.

Metering tip: This is one of the 5% of the time that it’s worth remembering that extremely bright light reflected from sand or snow will fool almost any meter because the meter will tend to record the sand or snow as gray instead of white, with the result that  your subjects will come out too dark. Rule of thumb: Under super-bright conditions, overexpose your image by setting your exposure compensation marker a few notches to the plus side. This may sound counter intuitive, but when you take a few shots of the same scene at different plus settings you’ll see an immediate improvement.

Diffused lighting produces evenly lit images and causes shadows to almost, but not entirely disappear. For this reason, some floral images and portraits benefit from this almost-shadowless lighting. Image © Andrew Slaton.

Getting back to light quality, there’s another type of light– diffused lighting. Diffused lighting is  ideal for many types of subjects. The most common example of diffused lighting is produced on a cloudy day,  but even on sunny ones, you can always step into the shadow of a building or a tree to find open shade to avoid harsh shadows when shooting portraits.


Learning to recognize the direction of the light becomes easier with time, and choosing proper settings and camera positions to take advantage of it comes with experience. But there’s also the color of light that you should learn to recognize. Yes, light  never appears to be the same color. Sunlight (or the lack of it) changes the colors of things all day.

The color of light changes throughout the day as shown in these images of the same flower shot at different times of day.

In the early morning and late afternoon it’s a warm yellow–orange. At noon it’s less so. And when there’s no sun at all, the light is quite blue. Candlelight is very orange; light bulbs vary. The warm or cool tone of light is measured on a Kelvin (K) scale. Cool can be as high or higher than 6,000K on an overcast day; a match flame can be as low or lower than 300K.

But it all boils down to how you want your image to look. White balance controls on your camera take into account the ambient color temperature and brings it into line with a “normal” color value. It can do this automatically, or you can set it for a specific condition. For example, if you don’t want the reddish hues of sunset, you can set your color balance to give you a more neutral-colored scene– and the same goes if you’re shooting under fluorescent lighting (which usually turns images green) to “normalize” them.

Same building, two different colors. You can use this to advantage when deciding how you want your image to look.

Try this. Find a white object outside, like a fence, wall, building or statue and turn your color balance off. Then shoot it every three hours or so throughout the day. The results will give you proof positive that light varies in color. Then, at some point during the day, shoot the same subject at every color balance choice and you’ll see how the image shifts color at each setting. The object of white balance is to keep your white areas a neutral white. A white bird or flower should look just that using your auto white balance setting will usually handle it. And if it doesn’t, you can usually adjust it to suit your taste in an imaging program.

The best gauge for white balance is your own eyesight. Ask yourself if the image you’ve taken looks like the scene you saw. If it doesn’t, then adjust your settings and retake it. However, there are times when you might want to deliberately change the color of light. For example, many photographers set their white balance control to “cloudy” because they like the warm tone that it produces on their images.

Here’s an image of an Australian beach that has warm light on the cliffs and cool light on the water making it visually appealing. Image courtesy of J.J. Harrison

If you’re a bit confused about this, remember that the “cloudy” setting assumes a high amount of blue and therefore it compensates by adding yellow. So if it’s set at “cloudy” it will add a nice touch of warmth to any image, especially flesh tones and other images shot around noon. Another tip: When shooting sunrises and sunsets setting white balance to “cloudy” will enhance the reds and oranges. If you want to go even further, shoot some sunsets with white balance off altogether.

As in most things in photography, light and white balance work hand-in-hand, each one affecting the other. By developing an awareness of light and its color in different situations, you will be able to make quicker decisions and, in the end, better control the final result of your images.

About The Author

Suzanne D. Williams is a best-selling author of both nonfiction and fiction books with an avid interest in photography. She also writes devotional and instructional articles and does graphic design for self-publishing authors. To visit Suzanne’s web site click here .

Subscribe to Red River Paper’s Newsletter for Great Deals! 

Original Publication Date: May 17, 2020

Article Last updated: May 17, 2020

Comments are closed.