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Understanding light

By June 29, 2016 Photography No Comments

Before embarking on the more creative side of photography, it’s important to grasp the basics. Even before you wrap your head around how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO need to come together correctly in order to make a good exposure, nothing would happen without light. This makes light arguably the most important factor involved in creating a photograph.


Light is a small part of the electromagnetic wave spectrum, which includes x-rays, UV rays, microwaves, and radio waves. Visible light is located near the middle of this spectrum, and ranges from approximately 400–700nm (nanometers). Light waves change colour as they increase in length, ranging from blue, through green, yellow, orange, and red. Ultraviolet (UV) and infrared (IR) light waves fall just outside this visible range on either side. The different colours of the spectrum can be seen clearly when light rays are refracted, which happens naturally when the sun shines through droplets of moisture in the air, creating rainbows.

The reason we perceive objects as different colours is because they reflect those particular wavelengths of light, while absorbing the others. For example, a red apple reflects red wavelengths, but absorbs the other colours of the spectrum, while a green apple reflects only the green wavelengths.


Light reflects differently, depending on the characteristics of the surface from which it’s being reflected. A grassy meadow reflects the sun’s rays every which way, as the surface of each individual blade of grass has its own orientation. This produces even, diffused light. Sunlight shining on a perfectly smooth frozen pond will reflect back in a more concentrated manner, creating very bright, harsh light.

The angle of reflection is the same as that with which the light falls on an object. For example, if you shine a light at something at a 45° angle, it will reflect back at a 45° angle, but in the opposite direction. When light falls on a perfectly round object, the rays reflect in countless directions, as there’s no truly at surface available.

The brightness or darkness of a surface, as well as its texture, controls how much light is absorbed or reflected. Black absorbs all light, which is why wearing black in a hot desert is a very bad idea. White light is comprised of all colours of the spectrum, so a white surface reflects all of the light falling onto it. While there are countless artificial light sources available to photographers, natural—or ambient—light is likely all you’re going to need (or want) when photographing landscapes.


The difference between light and dark in a photo is referred to as the contrast, or ‘contrast ratio,’ and is related directly to the hardness or softness of the light. Very hard light, such as direct sunlight at noon on a clear day, causes black shadows against very bright areas; this is referred to as ‘high contrast.’

Compare this image to the feature image at the top of the article. This was taken at midday; the other one close to sunrise

Compare this image to the feature image at the top of the article. This was taken at midday; the other one close to sunrise

Very soft light results in a gradual shift in intensity between light and dark areas, or ‘low contrast.’ On overcast days, clouds diffuse the sun’s rays, creating soft lighting conditions. Similarly, just before sunrise or just after sunset there is no direct sunlight. Photos taken in either of these conditions will include far more detail in the darkest and lightest parts of the image, and it has been my experience that overcast or partly cloudy conditions are usually most suitable for creating dramatic landscape photos.

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Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir

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