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Behind the Lens: It’s all about the light

Back in the days of film, photographers had to make many decisions about what film they would use based on what they were shooting—action required a fast film that could capture movement without blur, low light required a film that wouldn’t become too grainy, bright sun required a slower fine-grained film. Today’s cameras are so capable of adjusting to light that even the most inexperienced hobbyist is capable of getting good images without ever thinking about the quality of light. But that would be a huge mistake.

Where is the light coming from?

Photography is all about light. Your first consideration should always be to define your light source—its direction, strength, and how it falls on your subject. Knowing the strength and source of your light will determine your final product.

Front lighting is light that directly faces a subject; that is, the light source is behind the camera. It creates a smooth, even light useful in portraits and landscapes.

Backlighting is lighting that comes from behind a subject. Used by itself, backlighting creates a silhouette with little to no detail in the shadows. By adding light from a flash or reflector, you can bring some of the detail back.

Side lighting is a directional light source that helps shape and bring out textures in a subject. With light from the left or right, a subject appears more three-dimensional. It can be used with both portraits and landscapes.

Soft lighting vs. hard lighting

After determining the direction of the light, you need to consider the type of light with which you’re working. Lighting can be soft, gentle, and even on one hand, or harsh, sharp, and dramatic on the other.

Soft lighting is light that wraps around objects, casting diffuse shadows with soft edges. The light source is large compared to the subject, such as an overcast sky, light streaming through a north-facing window, or the light found in shade. It is even and results in bright shadows that retain their detail. Soft lighting is most often used for portraits.

Hard lighting is harsh light that comes from a small, strong light source like the sun, a flash, or a spotlight. Hard lighting creates sharp contrast and deep shadows. It is dramatic and can add vitality to a landscape or still life, or even, with some amount of flash or a reflected light, a portrait.

The golden hour

First of all, “golden hour” is a misnomer, as it is really the time around sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky and the light looks warmer than at any other time of the day. At the North Pole in summer, this period can last hours, so it depends on where you are and the time of year. The beautiful lighting of the golden hour can make an ordinary landscape extraordinary. Even when a photo is converted to black and white, you can still see the quality of dramatic lighting.

This week’s assignment is to play with light. Choose an object or subject and photograph it using different types of light. Email your favorite images to by noon Friday, July 3. Each photo will need a caption or title. Provide your name, street, and why you like the lighting you achieved. The editorial staff will select some of the best images to be published the following week. All ages and abilities are welcome.

Approaching storms can offer some of the most dramatic lighting conditions in nature. Here a rainstorm crosses the Nashua River Valley as seen from Prospect Hill. (Photos by Lisa Aciukewicz)

The soft, even light of an overcast day can be perfect for capturing the textures of nature like this bunchberry nestled in granite.

Dramatic late afternoon light on scarlet firethorn.

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