What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

Started 2 months ago | Discussions thread
Tommi K1 Senior Member • Posts: 7,080
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

contadorfan wrote:

Often when reading about good photographers, they say to"learn to read the light." What is that, exactly, direction? Strength? Color? Knowing what settings to use instinctively?

It means that you need to first learn to see the light by separating the light color, the light how it shapes elements it hits, how the colors changes when different color and strength light hits them, you learn to praise the shadows, deep shadows, and the details you get with different angled light that reveals the textures on planes of elements.

You as well need to learn geometrics how the light directions change radically the look, how the contrast between shadows and highlights play and shape things.

It is not at all "learn to read the light" in the camera, as you don't use camera for that. The camera is just the tool, that you need to adjust to capture what you see or you create.

Landscape photographers can't affect much at all to the landscape light as it is mostly environmental, they can little bit by performing light painting at night to near objects, or use flash to fill a foreground elements on backlit scenes (like flowers, grass etc front of the camera) but mostly it is about environmental light. And that is all about the time of the year, the time of the day, the weather conditions and other environmental conditions that are changing the light. You need to learn how the light transforms the scene in different conditions, and then you can use that experience to estimate how the different scenes in different locations etc would change so you know that at what time of year or day you need to be on location to capture the scene visually.

Portrait photography in studio is easiest of all, but as well very challenging. As you are in full control of the lighting, learning to read the person face, learning to understand the light source size and distance relation to the subject, the reflection surfaces of the person eyes, the skintone difference to light, how to change the color of the light or power of the light and how you combine the multiple lights to lit up the person (or the scene). You learn how to use shadows to shape the face, as the shadows are as important, or even more important than the light itself. What people who demand wide dynamic range doesn't never understand as they do not know what the shadows are.

In product photography you need to learn a lot of geometrical shapes and their reflection, how to position the lights and adjust their sizes to get shadows and highlights in control. Example one of the most challenging photography objects to do is a highly polished steel spoon or a ordinary white chicken egg. The work with highly reflective and almost not reflective at all objects is quickly teaching how the light behaves and how you can use it for various other works.

"seeing the light" as well means you need to learn psychology via color science. You need to learn that what colors means what in the psychology, like what difference is between red and purple, what does blue mean compared to yellow. Then learning other things like textures and geometrical shapes and storytelling etc, you start to be able to use light with different colors and color balances, lit the different colors at different powers, generate the contrast between objects and subjects.

Anyone can learn to set a histogram "right" or specific camera settings with the flash or set the flashes at "proper" angle and setup. But that is like a monkey following the procedure how to get a food. Learning to see the light, means many many things, and you will never see the surroundings anymore same way. It is like learning to read between the lines, learning to write poetry, learning to enunciate poetry that others has written, learning to compose a music from a ordinary sounds. Learning to see the contrast and separate the truth of the lie, even when the lie is concealed as a truth.

A lot of "seeing the light" requires just experimenting, like painting with oil colors, shaping clay with hands, building a model houses, walking in the dark with the flashlight and candle etc.

If the "essence of the light" should be put in short and prompt explanation, it would be that: "There is two kind of light, hard light and soft light". And everything else is variation of those two and playing with it.

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