If you as a photographer want to:

  • Know how light works…
  • Know how light influences color…
  • Know how light creates shadows…
  • Learn how to really SEE the characteristics of light and shadow, and…
  • Learn how light and shadows can be altered to create a mood…

Then have I got a resource for YOU!!  I’ve been reading Kent duFault’s guide on light:  Understanding Light – Book One which is published and sold by Photzy.  He also has a second book out on Light. And right now they are being offered at a great discount!!  So check it out!

DuFault says that wherever and whenever he is out taking photos, he is always analyzing the light and the shadows so he can take the photo he sees in his mind. He says it takes time and practice but WE CAN TRAIN our eyes to see the characteristics of both light and shadow. When we see a subject that interests us, SLOW DOWN and take a moment to really evaluate the light and resulting shadows. Ask yourself questions like:

  • Are the light and shadows going to help you tell the story you want to tell with your photo? (I’m all over this one because this is how I am rolling these days…how can I best tell the story I want to tell with any photo I take?)
  • Can you change your position to improve the light and shadows?
  • Can you even alter the light and shadows?

Here is the Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. 2 main characteristics of light
  3. Other characteristics of light
  4. How light affects the Human mind
  5. Characteristics of reflected light
  6. Shadow and its relationship to light
  7. How all of this applies to your photography.

What I am taking away from this guide is this: that the 2 main characteristics of light waves are reflection (throwing or casting back of light when it hits a surface) and refraction (the ability of a light wave to pass through a surface). Obviously, these 2 characteristics are opposites.

  • When a light wave hits an opaque surface (an impenetrable surface), it is reflected back at the same angle it came in (the angle of incidence)
  • When a light wave hits a translucent surface (a surface that will permit light to pass through) it is refracted through and will be diffused depending on the type of surface.

Take-away: If we can determine how a light wave will “react” in any given circumstance, we can better light our subjects in any photo we take.


Another term to learn in regards to light reflection, is dispersion of light which means that the direct light waves hitting a surface are reflected into multiple waves either traveling in the same direction at the same angle they came onto the surface or in different directions. The resulting light will be different depending on the surface that the light is hitting : a light-colored and hard surface results in light that has not really changed but is just reflected out OR an uneven surface which results in dispersed light that will bounce off in many different directions and be diffused or softer. (This image is courtesy of Jennifer Ouellette, and is also found in duFault’s guide.)

Likewise, the light being refracted through a surface will change if that surface is:

  • smooth and clear (a window glass). The light is coming in at a very low angle onto this lily in the first photo but is still pretty harsh because of the smooth surface of the glass.
  • rough (a leafy tree).  The light is very filtered and soft in the second photo as the light disperses through the leaves.
  • colored (colored glass or a bottle of colored liquid) as in the third photo above. In this photograph you can see how the light passing through a bottle has been refracted. The course of the light has been altered. Near the bottom of the bottle the light has become concentrated. As the roundness of the bottle affects the light rays, they are bent (refracted) further and further (Photo courtesy of Kevin Pack.)

Man-made reflectors can also be employed to bounce the light where you want it or the light, coming from a camera flash, can be “bounced” off a wall or the ceiling to help you guide the light to the right place.

Finally, light hitting a black surface will be absorbed and will not be either reflected or refracted. So if you placed a subject next to a dark or black wall and wonder why there is no light hitting the subject on the part facing the wall, you now know it is because all the light coming from the side, for instance, is being absorbed. You will most likely need a “fill-flash” to give some light to the subject or bounce some light off of a reflector or the ceiling.

Take-away: Seeing the light, analyzing where it is coming from and whether it is either reflecting off of or refracting through, and whether it is being dispersed and how, can help you place your subject in the right place for the most pleasing light effect.

Another big “Aha” moment from reading duFault’s guide was when I realized that with light, comes shadows! I know, you’re thinking “duh…”! But sometimes I am just looking at the light, not the shadows. The combo of light and shadow can give form and texture and greatly enhance the mood of a photo, thus can help add a bit of mystery and add to the story being told and viewed. (See the photo above where the light is filtered through the tree leaves. This is one of my fav types of light!)

“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

Whew…you made it through to the end of this post…congratulations!!

Are you ready to train YOUR eye to see light better?

Are you ready to set aside some time to practice seeing light?

Are you ready to create epic photos using light that sets a mood?

Success in storytelling with photos, capturing good light, and even altering it takes time and practice.

Come with me…explore the light! Here’s what you can do this week:

  1. Go back through your photos and look at the light. Analyze them and figure out what made the photo work because the light was just right or what you could have done differently because you understand light better now!
  2. Take your camera (DSLR or iPhone or Android camera) and go on a “light walk”. Do this at 3 different times of the day to capture the light as it’s angle is different:
  • Take a photo of a subject with harsh, direct light on it.
  • Find a subject that is lit with reflected light off of another surface (or use your own reflector).
  • Find a subject with refracted light on it…light that has passed through a surface (solid or liquid…be creative) and has been dispersed (filtered) thus making it softer.

If you are having trouble finding these situations outside, do it inside using either natural light or an artificial light and using a reflector to reflect the light (white board, foil board, etc.)

Post your photos below in the comments and lets get a discussion going on what you see in your photos…what you learned about light and the resulting shadows.

Questions? Ask me in the comments below! I’m here to help!

Grandma and baby looking out a window

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