What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

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contadorfan Senior Member • Posts: 2,294
What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

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?

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threw the lens
threw the lens Senior Member • Posts: 1,136
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?

Never heard of it, but then I'm not much of a reader of photo books.

I simply expose so as not to blow highlights much.

When using my own light sources I'm conscious of how directional and specular my light is.

For instance I get a handsome directional light that is not too specular (read: hard) from a grid on a softbox or big beauty dish.

tony field Forum Pro • Posts: 10,270
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
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Reading the light is the photographer's ability to recognize the interplay of highlights shadows and other tones in the seen and how it will translate emotionally into a photograph. For example a scenic photographer will look at the scene and decide to wait for an hour for the shadows and highlighting to be in a better relationship.

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ToxicTabasco
ToxicTabasco Senior Member • Posts: 2,440
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
2

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?

Good question.  And a good topic.  Light is the key ingredient to amazing photo.  It's what separates the common snapshot from the masses and the skilled photographer who has a lot of experience in shooting with various types of lighting.

Thus, when a skilled/experienced photographer talks of the good light, they are talking of the best natural light, and using additional light to create the shot.  In order for them to do that, they are reading the light, or understanding how the light is going to impact the shot.

Consider the use of natural light or lack of, and the light created for the shot/subject/scene.  There are many techniques to use to get the outcome when using a mix of natural and artificial light.  And knowing how to read them while creating the shot is the key to creative high end photography.  It's something a lot of high end, or experienced photographers strive for.  And with today's camera technology, those types of shooters, like to push their gear to the exposure limits of what can be accomplished.

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OP contadorfan Senior Member • Posts: 2,294
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses.  Seems that the ability to read the light comes solely through long experience.

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Michael Firstlight Veteran Member • Posts: 3,732
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
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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?

I didn't read the light as well as I should have for many years. I was usually more interested in light quantity and exposure than light quality. It wasn't until I began doing studio work where I was 100% responsible for light - that was my wake up call. When it comes to light there are a few main elements - each of which have additional characteristics

  • The quantity of light
  • The quality of light
  • The direction of light
  • The color of light

These are just the major elements. There are many more attributes such as in the quality category:

  • Tonality
  • Specularity
  • Hard light
  • Soft light

With these we can control

  • Mood
  • Attention
  • Shape
  • Dimension
  • Depth
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Translucence
  • ...and more

I now look at light much differently than I did in my early years. I instantly notice all of the above and much more with every image I'm making - even outdoors in natural light when doing landscape work. Light is one of the most important tools in creating the message of an image. Every image has a message whether it be intentional or unintentional. As the saying goes, you cannot, not communicate. So then the next logical question becomes - how does the light factor into the message I am trying to convey in this image?

So for me, reading the light is more than simply taking account of its technical characteristics, reading the light is about reading the message one creates using it - ideally with conscious intent.

Regards,
Mike

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OP contadorfan Senior Member • Posts: 2,294
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

"...how does the light factor into the message I am trying to convey in this image?"

Fascinating point of view.  Thanks so much.

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Aaron801 Veteran Member • Posts: 6,079
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

I'm not saying that I'm any kind of genious photographer but I believe that in the last few years I've gotten much better and I attribute much of that to having more sensitivity to the quality of light that I'm seeing. The most interesting subject isn't likely to make a great photograph if the light isn't enhancing it. Conversely, even the most ordinary subject can be trasformed into something magical if it's hit by light in just the right way. A lot of what photography is involves noticing these things...

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bullet1 Veteran Member • Posts: 7,274
Photograhers capture the light - not the scene

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?

The meters on our cameras read the reflective light from the subject.  The scenes are lit by the light, natural or artificial.

This is why the light is important.

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kiwi2
kiwi2 Veteran Member • Posts: 4,542
A couple of examples from some experienced/talented photographers
1

You've had some very good replies in this thread so far.

Let me add a couple of YouTube clips that show practical examples of photographers reading and working with the light.

First jump to 11:00 minutes in this one where a landscape photographer anticipates what is going to happen shortly with the light and suggest to his class to sort out their composition well in advance and wait for the light to happen...

Next is a wedding photographer that's very good at reading the light for creating the mood and look of his photos. It's very interesting that he actually looks for the good light first rather than just going for picturesque location...

In my personal opinion, understanding and working with the light (rather than working against the light for what you want to achieve) is 100 times more important than a lot of the nonsense that gets talked about in these forums that would have a thread hit the 150 post limit in under 24 hours. Unfortunately threads like this that try to discuss the importance of the properties of light mostly go unnoticed.

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Tommi K1 Senior Member • Posts: 7,079
Re: Photograhers capture the light - not the scene

bullet1 wrote:

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?

The meters on our cameras read the reflective light from the subject. The scenes are lit by the light, natural or artificial.

This is why the light is important.

Photographers specifically captures the scene, mood, story... But cameras captures the light.

Donald B
Donald B Forum Pro • Posts: 13,073
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
2

From my point of view its not about reading the light but about a particular "look" your after in an image. my daughter wanted this type of look for her school grad photos next year so we went out for a play and achieved exactly what she was looking for.

I experimented for 6 months and built my lighting gear to get the look out of camera no PP.

If their is a certain look you want study the photographer and the shadows  and look where the light is coming from and the intensity and Practice untill you get what your looking for.

Don

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Tommi K1 Senior Member • Posts: 7,079
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
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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.

biza43 Forum Pro • Posts: 10,353
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?

All at the same time, and more. It's leaning to interpret the scene and adjust exposure to get the result one is looking for. And doing it without relying on the camera automatisms.

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ggbutcher
ggbutcher Contributing Member • Posts: 550
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

Great thread, great responses.  I think sometimes we get lost in all the other aspects of image capture - composition, color, motion, etc. - and we miss the  primary influence, the light.

To add a maybe pedantic aspect to the discussion, my personal challenge in light reading has been to comprehend how the dynamic range of a scene will map to my camera's capability.  Even right now, staring at my computer on the desk, the dynamic range is deceiving because the rest of the room is "lit" by a north-facing window, all looks fairly uniform to my perception, but I know that my D7000 would struggle with the background shadows. I recently procured a Z6, which I now know would better capture those shadows, and it gave me a useful insight tool - highlight-weighted matrix metering.  I assigned a function button to it, so I can toggle back-and-forth from regular matrix to the highlight-weighted mode, and it's interesting to see how much, if any, change the camera thinks is warranted to protect the highlights in the JPEG rendition.

No, it's not ETTR, but it's quite instructive to my assessment of the light...

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R Liewenberger Regular Member • Posts: 311
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

Michael Firstlight wrote:

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?

I didn't read the light as well as I should have for many years. I was usually more interested in light quantity and exposure than light quality. It wasn't until I began doing studio work where I was 100% responsible for light - that was my wake up call. When it comes to light there are a few main elements - each of which have additional characteristics

  • The quantity of light
  • The quality of light
  • The direction of light
  • The color of light

These are just the major elements. There are many more attributes such as in the quality category:

  • Tonality
  • Specularity
  • Hard light
  • Soft light

With these we can control

  • Mood
  • Attention
  • Shape
  • Dimension
  • Depth
  • Texture
  • Pattern
  • Translucence
  • ...and more

I now look at light much differently than I did in my early years. I instantly notice all of the above and much more with every image I'm making - even outdoors in natural light when doing landscape work. Light is one of the most important tools in creating the message of an image. Every image has a message whether it be intentional or unintentional. As the saying goes, you cannot, not communicate. So then the next logical question becomes - how does the light factor into the message I am trying to convey in this image?

So for me, reading the light is more than simply taking account of its technical characteristics, reading the light is about reading the message one creates using it - ideally with conscious intent.

Regards,
Mike

A pleasure to read your post!

Liewenberger

MarshallG
MarshallG Veteran Member • Posts: 7,231
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
1

Donald B wrote:

From my point of view its not about reading the light but about a particular "look" your after in an image. my daughter wanted this type of look for her school grad photos next year so we went out for a play and achieved exactly what she was looking for.

I experimented for 6 months and built my lighting gear to get the look out of camera no PP.

If their is a certain look you want study the photographer and the shadows and look where the light is coming from and the intensity and Practice untill you get what your looking for.

Don

Outstanding!  Great post and great photos.

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Michael Firstlight Veteran Member • Posts: 3,732
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?

I live for these kinds of discussion threads  - we learn and reinforce a great deal from each other - get above the gear talk into great substance.

Mike

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MarshallG
MarshallG Veteran Member • Posts: 7,231
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
1

contadorfan wrote:

Thanks for all the thoughtful responses. Seems that the ability to read the light comes solely through long experience.

It takes effort to understand. First you need to understand what you’re looking for, and then you need to put in the effort. I can say with certainty that many photographers never begin to understand, because I’ve written about it dozens of times here, with examples, and many, many times, people dismiss it as irrelevant.

Seeing the light is much, much more important than your equipment in producing good photographs. Amsel Adams produces some of the greatest photographs ever using 8x10 view cameras. The only electrical product he used was a lightbulb

You can actually learn this from Ansel’s books, and by looking at his Zone System, although that was his end-to-end model which included printmaking.

One thing he wrote about, which really stuck with me, was when he first visualized how the print would turn out when he took the photograph. Although this applies to all the elements of your photo, it's really important with light. The photograph will not represent light the way your eyes see it.

It has a little to do with your exposure settings, but mostly, your camera has almost nothing to do with it. What’s most important is the nature of the light, and the most important part, I think, is how contrasty the light has. Well-diffused, scattered light will almost always produce a much better photograph than very direct light. Cameras just don’t handle high contrast as well as our eyes and the best results always always come when the lighting is best.

I’d be happy to explain more if you wish; it’s a huge subject and the most important thing is to understand that the camera or the software cannot fix bad lighting and the best results come from the best light, not the best camera. In all the photos below, it’s the light that makes them stand out.

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Michael Firstlight Veteran Member • Posts: 3,732
Re: What exactly does "reading the light" mean?
1

Well said.

One thing that helped me read the light was was when I began to concentrate every bit as much on shadow - just like it helps to understand composition better by concentrating on negative space. Call it reading the dark LOL. Now I think about and apply (or at least recognize) subtractive lighting almost as much as I use additive lighting when, whether it be natural or artificial if I can gain such control over it.

Mike

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