Photography – Learning how to “Write with Light” / by Skip McDonald

“Light glorifies everything. It transforms and ennobles the most commonplace and ordinary subjects.”    ~Leonard Missone

During a photographic seminar I attended on the coast of Maine several years ago, I distinctly remember a team leader making an offhand comment about the word “photography”. He simply dissected the word into two parts- “photo” (light) and “graphy” (writing), basically “writing with light”. 

My earliest photographic efforts in the field were concentrated on trying to find the most interesting subject matter and not really studying the incredible nuances of light that reflected off of that subject matter throughout the day. I eventually began to seek out the “sweet light”, that dynamic early morning and late afternoon light that changes from hour to hour and often from minute to minute. This light is so desirable for it’s luminosity and almost magical qualities.

There are really only four basic types of lighting situations that you will encounter (the direction of the incoming light) when shooting in the outdoors-  front lighting, back lighting, side lighting and diffused lighting. 

Front Lighting is apparent when the sun is at our backs and the subject matter is lit up in front of us. This can actually be the flattest of all light and it usually reveals no shadows and very little texture. This is probably the least interesting type of light for effective outdoor photography work. 

Back Lighting on a subject is one of the most favorable lighting conditions that you can come across in the field. The sun, or light source, is behind the subject matter. This type of lighting can offer up very dramatic results but it also can be extremely difficult to meter correctly.  If you plan to photograph mostly backlit close-up subjects (much macro photography is done this way) you may want to bring along some type of portable light reflector or fill-in flash to help bring out some of the details in your chosen subject. 

Side Lighting is the best light to show contour and texture and therefore is another directional light source that is one of the favorites of outdoor photographers, especially those who specialize in landscape work. When a subject is lit from the side, the resulting image can have an almost three-dimensional effect. 

Diffused Lighting is best observed on overcast days and mimics the Softbox (a tool used by portrait photographers to achieve overall even lighting by placing a diffuser in front of the light source). Since diffused light is not as bright as direct sunlight, a photograph taken on an overcast day will show more details than that same photograph taken on a sunny day. 

Since my wife and I now live in Oregon, it is not uncommon for us to experience the above four directional lighting situations...all in the same day!

Happy shooting and stay focused!