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Lesson 13 from: The Photography Starter Kit for Beginners

John Greengo

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Lesson Info

13. Light

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

In this lesson, the instructor discusses the importance of light in photography and how it can affect the overall look and feel of a photograph. He explains the different qualities of light, such as direction, size, intensity, and color, and how they can impact the subject being photographed. The instructor provides examples and tips on how to work with different types of lighting situations, including front light, side light, back light, and overhead lighting. He also discusses the importance of considering the size and intensity of the light source, as well as the color of light. The instructor emphasizes the need for photographers to be observant of their surroundings and to experiment with different lighting conditions to achieve desired results.

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Lesson Info


Okay, we've finally gotten through all the technical stuff on the class. We can finally get into the artistic side of things. And so we're gonna start with section on light. And obviously the type of light that you photograph in, or the way that you create the light, or how you work with it the time you're out there is very important depending on the subject. And as I go through this entire class, I feel like I have a really good handle on a lot of the subjects. But light is one that's very hard to teach because there's so many variables between the type of subjects that you can choose and the type of light that you have and then what you're trying to achieve in a particular photograph. And so I could give you a recipe and say I like this but that doesn't mean you're going to like it. And so a lot of this is just becoming more aware of your surroundings and what's going on and how the light impacts the subject that you're shooting with. We really don't need to go any further back than ...

the definition of photography. The very definition is drawing with light. We don't have photography without light. It's obviously very important. And you think about a phrase that we use on a regular basis is that a lot of times when we wanna showcase something, like you're going into a job interview, you wanna be seen in the best light possible. And this carries forward obviously to our photos, where, okay, well here's the same subject but it looks completely different with one type of light and the other. And it's first identifying what looks good and what looks bad. And then understanding why does it look good and why does it look bad and how can I use that to my advantage, and how can I look for that sort of thing going forward. And so when I think about light, I'm thinking about some different qualities of light. Where is the light? How big is the light? How intense is the light? Now, intensity is actually strongly related to the last one on the list, contrast, and then there is also color of the light because that affects the way we're going to see everything in there as well and this section on light, by no means am I gonna be able to give you the definitive class on light in the next 10, 15 minutes here. But I wanna get you thinking about things in different ways. And so we have subjects and we have lights. And I'm kinda thinking this is a mix and max Sesame Street game. You got this type of subject, I want this type of light. You got this type of subject, I want that type of light. And so there's a lot of different types of subjects. Think about common ones that we shoot. Landscapes, portrait, action, close-up. Well these mean nothing to light. Really, we wanna be thinking about them in different ways. Think about something like a three dimensional area, something that's highly detailed, something that's simple, something that's flat. So identifying your subject with these types of characteristics and then with light, we have direction. Where's the light coming from? How big is the light source? How intense is it? And what's the color of it? And so what I have found and I'll show you a few of these, but don't worry about trying to scribble them down, is that when I'm shooting a three dimensional light source, I prefer this combination of lighting options. But when it's a detailed subject, I want a different combination of lighting because it showcases that subject a little bit better. When it's simple, I might want a different style and sometimes, if you have a very complicated subject, you want very simple lighting. 'Cause you don't want to much confusion and too much going on everywhere, unless that's what you're looking for. And so, there's a lot that can be changed very very quickly. So, here we have good light and bad light. And what is the difference between these two photos? In the real world, they're taken one minute apart by me turning 90 degrees. Just decided rather than shooting in this direction, I'm gonna shoot this direction. And I get much better light. And so, we have the front lit sand dunes which you can't see any detail, because everything's lit. There's no shadows. In this case, shadows help out reveal the texture and depth of that particular location. Front light is where your subject is fully front lit. Lots of light on the front. It's simple, it's easy, it's powerful, it's not the most evocative, it's not the most interesting. This is a lot of what I would call postcard work, you might say. It's simple and it really shows you very clearly. It may not be the most artistic version of it but it's a nice, simple definition of what something looks like. And as I say, it's powerful light. So when you're needing faster shutter speeds for action. You can see that very clearly. It's not the most interesting light source, but it does illuminate the subject very clearly and makes it easy to see. A lot of people's favorite type of light is side light. And this is where the light's kind of wrapping around you. And now you can see the form and texture of your subject more clearly because you can really see by those shadows where those bumps and textures and everything else is. At some times, it may be too contrasty, it depends on how intense the light is, in addition to where it's coming from. But as we saw earlier in this picture, you can see that fortress in the background and where those shadows are gives you some very distinct lines where you can tell where those buildings are and so it works very well in this type of scenario. One of the more difficult types of light to work with is back light. But this can be very handy. I wanted my model here in even light, from face down to toe, so I don't have these blotches of bright lights and shadows. There's some bright light behind here, that's fine. But she, her face, is in nice even lighting. And so it's a little bit trickier. This is a great time to be in manual exposure. The back lighting has another thing that I really like and you can see that rim light around the Great Blue Heron and it really separates with that dark background. It really stands out and feels three dimensional in this instance. It's definitely at a difference distance than that background and that back lighting really does that much better than front lighting and so it can be very good for that. The type of light that's really hard to work with is overhead lighting because it's very contrasty, it's very bright so you got a lot of power to work with. But sometimes, it's so bright, for instance on the top side of the wildebeest here, not wildebeest, I'm sorry, but on the bottom side you get these deep, dark shadows and you can't see any information in there. And that's the problem with middle of the day sunlight, is you can see the sunny section pretty clearly but everything in the shadows, like where these trees are, you're kind of missing a lot of details in there. And so bright sunny days can be difficult times when you want to show detailed information. So think about the size of the light source, large versus small. And so, at this canyon here, middle of the day, it's a sunny day, the sun's out. Now, schoolkids, is the sun large or is the sun small? Well, I haven't been there but they say it's really large. But do you know how much it takes up of the sky, in the horizon? So think about 360 degrees around you, think about one degree and then cut that in half and that's how much space the sun is taking up. It is coming out of a little pinpoint in the distance, illumination your subject, which means there's going to be a very distinct shadow and where it's shining, it's gonna be very bright and in the shadows, it's gonna be very dark, dark enough so that most of our cameras can't see into the darkness. Now, you could change the exposure and see into the shadows, but then you're gonna lose the highlights. And so how do I shoot this canyon on this day? Not like this. You can't shoot a big picture that's got sunlight and shadows and so I know the weather forecasters go nuts when it's a sunny day, everybody go out, have some fun, and it's like, that's kinda tough for photographers in many cases. And so coming back on a day that has lots of high clouds, it spreads the light out, it doesn't have a hotspots in the deep shadows, it's a much more even light and in a complex highly detailed environment like this, that even lighting is gonna showcase our subject much more easily. Another kind of high vantage point looking down. All those houses and so forth, you can imagine how they would be blocked up in shadows shot during the sun. I'm not gonna go so far as to say it's a bad photo when you shoot it on a sunny day, cause there may a different way of composing it that makes those shadows work for you. And so it depends, you kinda have to match your style and composition to the lighting that you have at hand. Now, these clouds or more even lighting generally are not as bright so you don't get the super fast shutter speeds. So it's a little lower in power but it's a nice even lighting and so I would call this simple lighting for a complex subject. Where's the light source coming from in this case? It's a bright sunny day, but I am totally working in the shadows. There's a building and it's casting big shadows and that's where I'm working and if I had to say the predominate place where he's being illuminated is from the dirt ground just around him. The sun is illuminating that and it's acting as a nice, soft reflector and it's bouncing over a large area so that light's not coming from that half a degree point in the sky. Now that small light source can give you some distinctive shadows which can help you out if they're not too harsh, depending on the environment. And so this is illuminated by sunlight but it's got much weaker cause it's late in the day and you can still see in the shadows and so there's a little bit of a play from the sunlight to the shadow inside. And even though it's a little bit more contrasty here, we have a simpler subject that doesn't need as much information in the shadows. And so there's a lot of it depends on what's the best light depending on what you want your image to say and to show. Think about the intensity of the light and there's a lot of times we're talking about sunlight here and you wanna be thinking about the contrast between areas that are important to you, that are bright and dark. And so here in the north-west, something that's a common pastime is we like to go for hikes and sunny days are great because you don't have to bring all the rain gear, you can bring lighter versions of it. But a sunny day in the forest is just nasty for photography because you get these areas of high sunlight and deep shadows, it's something that our eyes, human eyes, can adjust for, which is why cameras are different than humans, is we're adjusting for the bright areas and the dark areas. The cameras have to capture everything in one smooth tone and so the time to photograph in the forest, in a very complicated environment like that, is on an evenly lit day. This carries forward to people's faces. People's faces have a lot of details and contours to them. The sunlight is gonna yield some very distinctly dark shadows which aren't always attractive and so having more even light on the face will enable you to see the details a little bit more clearly. I was in Wyoming and they had this gigantic stack of antlers and I could photograph on the sunny side or the shadow side. And on the sunny side, you can see all those little highlights and if you remember back to the section on metering and histograms, you can imaging that histogram would have two spikes, there's one over on the bright side and one over on the dark side, where they are, and the one on the right would be this more even tone right through the middle. A very highly detailed subject that plays a little bit more easily under even lighting. And so low intensity, when the sun is low on the horizon, it hasn't got to full brightness yet, the difference between the shadows and the sunlight is not that big a deal. And so over on the right hand side, those are the Maroon Bells, they're in direct sunlight but they're just a little bit brighter than the areas in the shadows because it's very early in the day. Need to be thinking about the color of light that you are working under, whether it's a blue sky type day or the sun has just arisen. But there are other things that can affect the color of your images. In Petra, Jordan, this is the Treasury Building. In the morning on the left and in the afternoon on the right. What happens over on the right hand side is the sun moves around to a new position, it illuminates this entire wall of sandstone which reflects onto the Treasury Building and gives it nice and warm. And so, normally, you wanna get out in the morning or in the evening to get that nice warm light. In this case, it's more the late afternoon to get the warm light because it's reflecting not the direct sunlight itself. And this is why a lot of photographers will wanna be out there at the early morning hours or the late evening hours to get that nice warm light, which is generally a very comfortable feeling. I still like cool light images and sometimes they can be quite nice. And so it all depends on what you want in a particular photograph. And so sometimes this is something that you can tweak a little bit with the white balance setting on your camera. Do you want it cool? Do you want it neutral? Or do you want it warm? And in some cases, you're trying to fit exactly what it was to your own eyes. In some cases, you're trying to correct for things so that it's normal and in other cases, you're just picking it because you like it. And that's the thing about photography is it's can be used in a lot of different ways and the choice is really up to you. Think about the contrast of the light and this will come into play a lot anytime you're working around the sun. The contrast is both great and terrible. It depends on the situation. The contrast, you wanna be thinking about how brights are the bright and is there things there that I wanna see and what's in the shadow that is also important that I also want to see. And so on the left, we have a fairly simple subject, we don't need to see the exact details of the bark on that tree for that picture to make sense to us. And so it's okay that we have really high contrast. Over on the right side, it's a very complex scene that needs that more simple lighting. And so pay attention to the lighting around you and how that affects your subject and maybe try photographing the same subject on different types of days or in different types of lighting cause this is something that, I'm pretty sure if you're like me, you're gonna spend the rest of your life learning about and honing and just getting one step better than it was in the previous day. Just a comment from Frank who is watching online who's talking about trying to photograph the moon in the evening as well. That high contrast scenario where he's either the moon is too bright or the surroundings are, clouds, for example, he was trying to get those, are too dark and he's still struggling with that, like the rest of us. Yeah, the moon is really tough because if you think about it, think about a full moon, what's it illuminated by? The sun. And when are you photographing it? At night. And so you have sunshine and nighttime at the same time, that's not gonna work out and so generally for photographing the moon, it's best done right as it's risen or right before it's setting so that it's close to the horizon, so that one has kind of come down in brightness and the Earth has gone up in brightness and they're a little bit within the same range, rather than in the middle of the night where there's a huge difference between them.

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Ratings and Reviews

Kanoelani Patenaude

I am a pro photographer in my dreams, where I know the in's and out's of my camera; however, reality proved differently, as real life would tell you, I was a deer caught in headlights just looking at my new 7D Mark II. I am a photographer enthusiast without the skills, but a lot of love for the moments one, or the profession/hobby of it can capture. I mostly shoot my husband, friends, and community surfers in the lineup, and of course, my children, who rarely sit still. Thus, I switched from Nikon to Canon, venturing on the 7D Mark II for the grand reviews of how stellar of camera it is for action shots (surfing, and kids, this was a no brainer). That said, and overwhelmed with the way beyond my skill set, but noted desire and aspiration to grow, I made the purchase, and sought help rather quickly as I wanted to feel confident with what I was utilizing to capture the best memories possible. I came into this John's courses knowing the "on/off" button, and "auto" shoot mode. I came out of the course feeling like the pro in my dreams, and ready to shoot manual. John's teaching style is on point, and his detailed visuals are a huge plus. My first shots post this photography kit course, I thought were great for my first educated shoot, and shockingly, I even received and email from one of the sponsors of the surfers I captured, asking if they could use my image for their sites and publications. Not bad for a newbie. Though, my intent was never a business purpose, I did not know if I should charge a small fee, or give it for free. I don't mind free as it's not my business, yet I don't want to ruin it for any professional photographers in town doing the same thing that are charging. Perhaps another course to help me with that. I highly recommend courses by John Greengo! Thank you so much, John!


I'm not sure my first review posted. But I LOVE this class! John Greengo is a great, engaging teacher who is really adept at representing the concepts visually and excellent at explaining them verbally. I love how he goes through examples with photographs he has taken. Even though I only have a Nikon Coolpix digital camera, it does have Manual, Shutter priority, and Aperture priority modes. Through his class I've gotten a really good sense of how to balance ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. It's a great overview for me especially since I am new to photography, I can play around with some of these settings, and I have a greater understanding of what I might need in a higher level camera in the future. Money well spend! (For $29, this is an absolute steal). John Greengo is an awesome teacher and I hope to take more of his classes in the future!

Megan Wagner

John is extremely articulate and is a great teacher with lots of visual aids and metaphors to help understand photography. I have been doing photography for a few years now and this class was a tremendous help in boosting my knowledge and refreshing my memory in multiple aspects of photography. The graphics that John uses are helpful and he even goes through images and asks which settings would be best to use and will go through the why. He makes things easy to understand and is very clear about the information he provides. I am so glad I took this course and I would highly recommend it even to an experienced photographer. Thank you John Greengo!

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