How Light Is Used To Create Images

by William Lulow

Note: About every six months or so, I like to republish this series of articles about what it takes to create a particular type of image and why we use the kinds of equipment we use to control light. I consider it very important to the study of photography.

I thought I’d revisit a topic that is really basic to anyone wanting to learn how to express themselves in photography. This is also a beginning article about artificial light and its application. Other articles will follow from time to time.

Light is the most important tool the photographer has. The camera is probably the least important. Lenses however, are right up there in importance. If you use a cheap lens on a good camera, your images will suffer. If you use a great lens on any camera, your images will be great. But, light is really the determining factor in how effectively your image communicates its intended ideas.

It doesn’t matter from what source the light comes. What really matters is how you control it. Light can be controlled in many ways. It can be generated by an electronic flash unit. It can be from an ordinary light bulb. Or, it can be natural light from the sun. The important thing is that you need to learn to control it for your purposes.

How is light controlled? If you put a light bulb in an ordinary lamp socket with no shade or reflector, it will scatter the light rays in all directions. If you want to make a portrait, for example, this won’t help you much. So, the next step is to try to DIRECT the light toward your subject. The thought process here is that you need some kind of REFLECTOR to help direct the light. The most common type of reflector is the kind you might buy at a hardware store. It comes with a clamp so that you can affix it somewhere and direct the light where you need it. This is most commonly a worklight that would illuminate a workbench or desk. Again, if you wish to make a portrait, this kind of light will be harsh, create a lot of shadows and will be fairly weak in terms of the actual light it puts out. You can buy a PHOTOFLOOD bulb, which will be stronger, but for this you will need a larger reflector and perhaps some pot holders because it will get fairly hot.

To summarize, your first efforts at controlling light will involve some kind of LIGHT MODIFIER,  either to direct the light where you want it, or to change it in some way.

Every type of lighting you will use in a studio setting or outdoors will involve some type of modification. It can be a sophisticated light bank or a simple reflector. Once you think of light in this way, you are on your way to understanding how to work with light to make images.

12inchLight Reflector Photo Studio Reflector 50 degree Scoop Light Studio Light Kit Studio Light Kit_2

Here are some lights and light modifiers. There are reflectors, large and small, umbrellas, light stands and perhaps a boom to allow the light to reach exactly where you want it. There are also softboxes of various types. Again, if you are serious about learning to use light, some or all of the equipment pictured above will be necessary.

If you are intending to pursue your interest in photography to the point where you are thinking about light and how to use it to create the images you want, then you will need to develop a proficiency with the tools of lighting: bulbs, reflectors, portable as well as studio flash units.

Another reason to understand how artificial light works to create images is so you can recognize and appreciate special light as it occurs in nature. Sunsets/sunrises, reflections, backlight situations are all important to understand. The study of light in general should be a prerequisite for any course of study in photography. Don’t forget a PHOTOGRAPH is literally a LIGHT PICTURE! Learn how light affects almost everything in our universe.