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lesson 3: understanding light

Photography is the art of taking light reflected off an object and capturing it by focussing it through a lens onto a piece of light sensitive material (CCD).  The camera controls how much light is let in by two controls.  One controls how much light gets in (aperture) and the other controls how long that light enters for (shutter speed).


Exposure = the total amount of light allowed to fall on the CCD.  Not enough light will create a weak image which lacks contrast (under-exposed), and too much light will create a dark image with too much contrast (over-exposed).  One of the core challenges in photography is to understand and control the light.  





Light that enters the lens can be either direct light or reflected light.  Direct light comes from a source such as a bulb or the sun. Reflected light is light that bounces off a person or thing.  


The direction of the light will determine where the shadows will be.  Remember you can change your position or the position of your subject to control the effect.  

Light affects the mood of a photograph.  It can emphasize, subdue or alter moods.  It can help you say many things about your subject.


  • Mid-day light is at its whitest (can cause over-exposure)

  • Sunrise and Sunset (summer) usually have red or yellow dominant

  • Dawn and Dusk (winter) usually blue dominant


Many photographers like to shoot in the "golden-hour" which is the first hour after sunrise or before dusk.  During the golden hour, highlights are less likely to be overexposed because the diffused light of the sky is less intense than the direct light of the sun.




assignment 2 light booklet

Target: Learn to identify the different types of light, the impact they have on an image, and the potential reasons they might be used.


Directions:  Leaf through magazines and find a photographic example of each type of light below; title and create a descriptive sentence for each image.  Assemble your images in a booklet. You can work with a partner.


HARD LIGHT: high contrast light, strong dark shadows and light bright areas, detail lost in some areas

SOFT/DIFFUSED LIGHT: lighting that is low or moderate in contrast (overcast day), light comes from such a large area that it is hard to tell where the light is coming from, highlights are subtle and there are little or no shadows

SIDE LIGHT: emphasizes texture and shape, gives a sense of mood, one side is bright and the other is darker

BACK LIGHT: light coming from behind the subject, subject appears as a silhouette or creates a halo, often used for dramatic effect

COLORED LIGHT: a type of light that alters the color of the scene or subject you are photographing, can be an artificial or natural light source

FLASH LIGHT: light produced from a built-in or external flash, light that is controlled by the photographer, purpose is to evenly light or to enhance the subject, often used in low-light conditions

TEXTURED/PATTERNEDLIGHT: hard light that is filtered through something that leaves patterns of light and shadow on your subject, the light and shadows themselves can be the subject of your image

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