It is the key to enhancing your creativity in photography and will be the most important element in developing a personal style.
Now it’s time to use more dramatic lighting. Color, direction and quality are the essential elements of dramatic light. Go forth and seek dramatic light. Follow it whenever possible.
The color of light changes as the sun moves across the sky. In the early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is low, the light has a warm, orange-yellow glow. It also produces long shadows and textures, lending a two-dimensionality to your subject making it some of the best light for dramatic images.
Later in the day, the higher the sun climbs, the light becomes “cooler”, that is it has a more “natural” look. If the sun is blocked by clouds, or you are photographing your subject in the shade on a sunny day, or you are at high altitude, your pictures will have a bluish-gray cast to them. There is nothing wrong with your camera or your film, it is the color of the light! (You can correct this with a warming filter.)
The best times for that warm light are from sunrise to about 60-90 minutes after sunrise and again in the evening from 60-90 minutes before sunset until sunset. At the height of summer that warm light disappears much quicker, but in the winter, when the sun seems to rise more slowly, it will last longer.
The direction from which light strikes a subject can dramatically enhance or subtract from the image. The main directions are front, side, top and back. Moving your subject, or yourself, can often provide the solution to unflattering light, but if not, you may need to return at the correct time of day.
Front lighting will give you colorful pictures, the ones you’ve already been taking, but they’ve become boring, haven’t they? The reason they look flat is because the sculpting shadows that create depth and two-dimensionality are now falling directly behind your subject. Investigate the trade offs in moving yourself. If a short, flat walk produces a better angle it is definitely worth the effort. The only front light that is flattering is, of course, the early morning or late afternoon light with its warm glows. You can use it to make nice portraits or photograph other details such as buildings with pleasing results.
Side lighting is the best kind of light to capture drama and mood in land and cityscapes. This kind of light emphasizes textures, shapes and colors by introducing a third dimension to your subjects. Add to this the special glow of morning or evening light and you have all the drama you may want-without the bad weather. Use it whenever possible. Be aware though that the long shadows will not be so flattering in portraits, unless you want to emphasize somebody’s wrinkles.
Back lighting is frequently used for dramatic silhouettes, such as in sunset shots, but also at other times of the day. Back light can be very evocative, even romantic as it highlights specific elements, such as the outline of a cloud, rising smoke or sea spray. In portraits it creates halos around hair and body. However, be aware that strong back light can fool your camera’s meter and you may end up with an underexposed portrait unless you compensate for this (i.e. by using a touch of fill-flash). Also take care that back light does not shine directly into the lens as it produces flare.
One option many amateur photographers forget is to use back light to emphasize translucence. Let back light shine through the dense foliage of trees, a cluster of leaves, even flowers and clouds for an almost ethereal image.
Top lighting is the direction during the middle of the day and the least desirable of all as it washes out colors and often too bright and harsh. But often it is now or never. With people, top light produces all the wrong shadows (under the eye and even under the nose) But with people there is often an easy solution: move your (human) subject out of the direct sunlight and into open shade (see below). Otherwise, slightly underexpose and/or use a polarising filter to darken the scene a bit and enhance colors.
The quality of light, in addition to the position of the sun, is determined mainly by weather. The most dramatic light occurs during inclement or less than ideal weather. Sun striking a mountain as a storm is brewing right behind it. Or the sun illuminating the edges of a cloud, before it emerges from behind it. Rain and fog produces soft and even lighting and colors are richer, more saturated, lending a painterly feel to landscapes. And here’s another secret, rain streaks almost disappear against a light grey sky.
There are also other types of light, that should be considered.
Overcast skies and open shade are often wrongly maligned by amateur photographers. In fact, overcast skies act like one giant diffuser giving you the soft and low contrast light you want to reveal details not visible in high contrast light. It also saturates colors giving them the extra punch that will make your pictures stand out. In portraits you will have even lighting across the face without the harsh shadows of direct light. It also eliminates the problem of squinting eyes. Look for striking colors, shapes and patterns that can stand alone without sculpting shadows and be sure to leave out the grey, featureless sky in your composition.
Twilight and Dusk light is the time before sunrise and after sunset. It is the best time to take those “night” shots, a scene illuminated with artificial light. At this time there is still enough ambient light to separate buildings and other subjects from the sky . Even on gloomy, overcast days, the sky will turn a royal blue after sunset or be bathed in sunset colors on bright sunny days. It is also an ideal time to capture a rising or setting moon. You will definitely need a tripod.
Candle light, campfires and other incandescent light are light sources that can lend a very dramatic if not romantic feel to your image. The color of these light sources is much warmer than normal daylight and will certainly capture the mood of the scene. Be aware though that a general light reading of your camera will render the scene underexposed. If you have a spot meter, use it to meter the light falling on the face of your subject without including the light source itself in the reading. If you don’t have a spot meter, bracket your shots by opening up ½ a stop at a time all the way to +3 stops until you get a good feel for how much you need to overexpose from your camera’s meter reading. Shutter speeds will generally be too slow to hand hold, so be prepared with a tripod or a suitable substitute, such as the edge of a table, or rock ledge. Be sure any automatic flash is turned off and use the self-timer to avoid additional camera shake by depressing the shutter.