At the end of the day, there’s only one reason why people like good photos. It’s a simple concept, really, but it also forms the foundation for all of photography. Emotion. For a photo to succeed, it has to resonate with your viewer. That could happen for a number of reasons, ranging from your subject to your composition. But the strongest tool to capture emotion is far more fundamental than that — it is, quite simply, your light.
Light has extraordinary power to create emotions in a photo. Most photographers know that light is important, but it’s still something that everyone should strive to learn about and improve.
If you master light, you master photography. Photography is light. Without it, you couldn’t take pictures in the first place.
The key to using light correctly is understanding that different qualities of light — different brightness, contrast, and direction — all carry their own emotions.
A dark, backlit photo with high contrast sends a very different message from a bright, airy forest at sunrise. And in photography, your light should complement your subject.
If you’re trying to photograph an intense, dramatic waterfall, your light should contribute to that mood. It shouldn’t detract from what you’re trying to say. The same is true if you’re photographing a fun, happy wedding portrait — the lighting should reflect those emotions.
Below, I’ll go into the unique emotional impacts carried by different types of light. Although some parts of this are subjective, others are nearly universal. I suspect that you’ll recognize many of these themes in your own work.
1) Dark light
One of the most emotion-filled types of light is dark, intense lighting.
This works great for all sorts of photography: moody portraits, powerful landscapes, and somber documentary work. Dark light is popular across the board, and with good reason.
Quite simply, it’s unique. Dark light conceals information from viewers, making a photograph appear mysterious and (depending upon your subject) potentially ominous or refined. You’ll see many product photographers capture dark images for high-end advertisements, since, again, it does a really good job of conveying emotions.
If you want to be a landscape photographer, I hope you’re not scared of the dark. The hours after sunset and before sunrise are some of the best times of day for photography, assuming that you’re awake. (Personally, if I happen to sleep in past sunrise, I always assume the conditions were bad that morning.)
It’s not just landscapes. From portraits to reportage, and wildlife to products, dark images should be an integral part of your portfolio. Any time that you want to capture intense, somber, or refined images, keep it in mind. Personally? This is my favorite type of light.
The emotions of dark light:
2) Bright light
The obvious counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far is that bright light also exists, and it carries its own set of important emotions.
For the most part, bright light is how we see the world. Even in a dim area, you’ll usually still see plenty of detail in the people and objects around you. It’s possible to capture bright photos even in dark areas simply by altering your exposure.
So, sometimes, photos with “bright light” just look like normal photos. The light doesn’t stand out as especially different from usual. But that doesn’t mean bright light is emotionless — indeed, in some cases, it can convey very strong moods in an image.
Say that you want to capture an etherial, airy photograph. Would you rather take pictures under a dramatic storm, or during bright, hazy, late-afternoon sunlight? This shouldn’t be a tough question.
The same is true in other cases. For example, maybe you want to capture a happy, optimistic image. If that’s your goal, you probably won’t go out in search of dim street corners at night. They just wouldn’t fit the mood, while a brighter scene might.
Although bright light is pretty common, it’s still worth seeking out in many cases. If you’re after a certain type of mood — airy, optimistic, or etherial — bright light will be your bread and butter.
The emotions of bright light:
- Light (the adjective)
3) High Contrast
Many good photos make use of high contrast — juxtaposing extremely bright and dark regions of the image right next to each other.
If you have a dark mountain silhouetted in front of the sky, that’s contrast. If you have a bright pond against a dark shoreline, that’s contrast.
A lot of people think that contrast is the difference between the brightest and darkest parts of an image. Although that’s true to a degree, it isn’t the fundamental definition. For example, this gradient contains both white and black, but it has fairly low contrast:
Instead, contrast occurs when bright and dark elements are right next to each other (or elements of different colors — but that’s an article for another day). The “contrast” slider in most editing software does add to the distance between the brightest and darkest part of an image. But it also makes smaller, side-by-side regions of contrast more punchy.
And that’s one of the key words for contrast: punchy. As far as emotions go, it’s no surprise that high-contrast images draw a lot of interest. They’re dramatic and attention-grabbing, and they stand out from a crowd. That’s not always a good thing — it depends upon the image — but it’s also why high-contrast images are fairly popular right now. Quite simply, it’s a good way to get your photo noticed.
You can find contrast by searching for non-diffused light. In other words, a bare flashbulb or a sunny afternoon will likely result in high-contrast images (although this does depend upon your subject). Personally, for landscape photography, I look for contrast when I’m trying to make a photo pop — cases when the landscape itself is particularly dramatic and intense.
The emotions of high contrast:
4) Low Contrast
As popular as high-contrast images can be, don’t discount the opposite — photos that are low in contrast.
Low-contrast images are more muted and subdued. They tend to occur when your light source is heavily diffused (such as an overcast day). It also helps to capture relatively uniform subjects, such as the above photograph of a lupine field.
Often, low-contrast photos won’t stand out as much upon first glance. They don’t shout for attention. However, if you’re after a more subtle look, they work quite well.
That’s because successful light isn’t the one that makes your photo pop out the most — it’s the one that matches the character of your subject. If you’re photographing a quiet, gentle landscape, or you want a soft mood for a portrait photo, my top recommendation is to search for low-contrast light.
Does that sound like something you’re after? If so, add a diffuser to your flash, or move your subject into the shade. For many photos, this will be a noticeable improvement.
The emotions of low contrast:
5) Direction of light
So far, it should make sense that brightness and contrast strongly impact the emotions of a photo. But what about the direction of light?
There are five primary directions of light:
- Sidelighting (left or right)
- Overhead lighting
The last one is pretty unusual, unless you’re going for a Halloween-style look. But the others are fairly common in most types of photography, from street photos to landscapes.
On top of that, you might have dual light sources, typically in studio photography with two separate flashes. Indeed, high-end product photography setups can have far more than that — sometimes, more than a dozen different lights. There’s really no limit.
But does the direction of light impact your photo’s emotion?
The answer is yes. But the specific way it affects emotion is hard to generalize, since it depends upon the scene. Sometimes, backlighting will be high-contrast and dramatic. Other times — say, on a foggy day — it could cause the atmosphere to light up with bright, etherial sunbeams. There’s no real consistency.
That’s even true if you’re capturing a portrait under controlled conditions. You can get many different emotions from a single direction of light. For example, are you altering the diffusion of your flash? What about the color of the background, or even the emotion on your model’s face? All of these factors mean that backlighting — just as one example — won’t always carry the same emotions.
So, this is something you’ll have to approach on a case-by-case basis. Look at the scene, analyze the direction of the light, and see what elements of your photo it highlights. Usually, that’s a good way to tell which emotions it is most likely to convey.
The important thing here is that the direction of light does impact a photo’s emotions, but not consistently in one way or another. You need to experiment in the field, and think carefully about which mood the light is creating.
Now that you’ve seen how light can carry emotion, will you seek out any specific moods in your own photography? Are you tempted by the dark side?
The good news is that you can (and should) take photos with all different types of light. There’s no reason to stick with just one, unless you’re working on a specific photo series.
However, it’s also important to recognize the emotions that your light conveys — and to realize that the strongest photos occur when your light and subject work together in service of a particular message.
We also have another article on finding good light specifically for landscape photography. Check it out if you’re interested in reading more on this topic.
Other than that, all I can say is simple: best of luck, and best of light. Perhaps more than any other area of photography, this one can take your photos to another level.