Light | NZ Photo Art



Any photographer will tell you that photography is all about light. We often take light for granted, but once you pick up a camera, you learn to appreciate light.

Lighting is a fun aspect of photography to play with, even when you’re not sure what you’re doing, and can be easily and cheaply exploited by any photographer with any camera to create beautiful photos. Before you get caught up in the infinite details of how your camera works, it’s more important to fully appreciate the role of light.

Light is not only a matter of how bright or dark the photo is, but it determines the look, mood and atmosphere of your picture.

There are not many rules that you need to follow when you pick up your camera, and if you understand the character of light, you can master photography in no time, and even take better photos than many professionals. The quality and direction of the light is the great differentiator between a good and an average photo. And the beauty of digital photography is that there is no harm in taking lots of photos.


There are only three characteristics of light that are very important in photography, and if you take care of them it will set your photos apart from other amateur photographers. Some of them need some practice to master, but they are not rocket science and really simple to apply by anyone. If you always keep these three characteristics of light in mind, I can assure you that you will take even better photos than many professional photographers.

They are:

  • Quality (hardness/softness) of the light
  • Colour of the light
  • Direction of the light



The relative size of the light source in relation with the subject determines how hard or soft the light is. Small lights are referred to as hard light, and larger lights are referred to as soft light. Hard light produce harsh shadows with defined edges, while soft light creates soft shadows with a feathered edge.

The sun is a huge light source, but it is also a very long distance away. Because of this, the sun is a relatively small light source in relation to the subject. Therefore direct sunlight creates strong well-defined shadows. Pictures taken in direct sunlight often have dark shadows and bright highlights that can be harsh and unflattering.

Larger light sources in relation to the subject creates broad, soft, shadows with a feathered edge and are often the most flattering light for peoples’ faces.

The distance of the light source to the subject will also change the characteristics of the shadows. The closer the light source is to the subject, the softer shadows will be created, as the relative size of the light source increase. The hardness and softness of the light source determine the characteristics of the shadows and can totally change a shot’s appearance.



Red, green and blue are the three primary colours that form white light, and exist inBlog-Light-2 various proportions in any light, depending on the colour temperature of the light. So what is colour temperature? Each light source has its own individual colour, or ‘colour temperature’ which varies from red to blue. When the colour temperature is low, more red light exist, and when the colour temperature is high, there is more blue light. The colour temperature of light is measured on the Kelvin scale, which is an extension of the Celsius scale. You might remember the Kelvin scale from science class in school.

Have you ever notice how the stars are different colours?  This colour is directly attributed to the surface temperature of the star where blue and white stars are hotter than yellow and red stars.

Now what does all of this have to do with photography? It is actually very important for anyone using a camera to be aware of the different colour temperatures. You hear people talking about “using a cloudy white balance setting to correct a 7,000K colour temperature”, and you are tempted to just switch off your mind. But it is actually quite simple and proves to be very useful to help you to cope with various lighting conditions.

The human eye (actually the brain) is excellent at adjusting to different colour temperatures, which means colours appear the same under different light sources. Cameras are not so clever, but thankfully they allow us to correct them by telling them the colour temperature of our light source. This can be done by using the white balance setting which all digital cameras have. In the old days with film cameras we had to use colour filters to correct for different colour temperatures. All digital cameras have preset values on their white balance setting to make life much easier, i.e. daylight, shade, tungsten, etc. Some cameras allow you to program an exact colour temperature value for an even more accurate control. A colour temperature meter can give you a precise value, or you can take a photo of a white paper and let the camera calculate the colour temperature. If your camera doesn’t have this functionality, just keep a colour temperature chart (like the one on the photo) in your camera bag to make an educated guess.

What about my camera’s “Auto White Balance” (AWB) function? Certainly a very helpful function and I highly recommend to always activating the AWB after you use your camera on manual white balance. However, certain subjects create problems for a camera’s AWB, i.e. if a subject is predominantly red, the camera AWB can mistakenly increase the colour temperature and creates a bluish colour cast. The AWB is more effective when the photo contains at least one white or bright colourless element. The AWB is more accurate within a range of usually between 3000 and 7000 Kelvin.



The direction of the light determines the amount of shadows and the direction of the shadows created on your subject, and will have a huge affect on how your subject appears. Front lighting gives a clear, descriptive image, but produces a flattened effect, doing nothing to bring out detail or providing an impression of depth.

Interesting effects can be achieved by changing the angle of the light falling on the subject. Side lighting is wonderful for showing texture and adding depth to a photo. Backlighting can illuminate the subject from the background and causes the edges of the subject to glow, while other areas remain darker. Backlighting is also used to create a silhouette effect.

Furthermore, all the lighting positions in between those three positions, as well as the vertical angle, also makes a difference. Depending on the shape or the texture of a subject, the appearence of the subject can change completely by only moving the light a few degrees. The direction of the light has a direct impact on the shadows created by the subject. To read more about shadows, please visit the blog post titled “Shadows”.


“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” (George Eastman – Inventor of the Kodak camera – 1888)

No wonder professional photographers invest more on lighting systems than on camera equipment. A picture is not created inside a camera, but outside the camera with light. The camera only captures the picture.

Most readers of this blog are not professional photographers and will probably never buy any lighting equipment except for a speedlight (flash). In the following few blog posts I will get practical and discuss how to exploit natural light sources, how to manipulate artificial light sources, and also discuss some important camera settings for you to be able to take professional quality photos.

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