The Best Photo Tip Ever.


In this post I will tell you the best tip I ever received about photography.  This insight completely transformed how I looked at the concept of Subject and how I shoot images.  It is simple and it is brilliant.

Here it is: Light is your Subject.

Ex: An ordinary kitchen mess is transformed into a tranquil still life through the use of diffuse lighting.

The term “Subject” in photography usually means “the main focus of a photographic image”, an object.  For example; a person if you are doing a portrait or a mountain if you are doing a landscape.  What “Light is your Subject” means is that the thing you are photographing should not be the only focus of your thinking during a shoot.  Photography literally means light recording- light is what you are shooting!

The human mind generally likes concepts and labels.  It is a label making machine.  Human, friend, enemy, ugly, beautiful, table, building, flower, etc.  We tend to focus our attention on the object and our feelings about it.  A flower is beautiful, dog poop is ugly.  Instead we should shift our attention to focus also on the quality of light and look beyond our concepts of objects.  I will talk more on looking beyond concepts of objects in the next post, for now let’s focus on the different qualities of light.

Light is ever changing.  Light effects

  • Mood.  This is the most important effect!
  • Color saturation
  • Color tone
  • Contrast

Light changes depending on:

  • The time of day
  • The time of year
  • The location on planet earth that you are at
  • The location you are at specifically (city, country, inside, outside)
  • The weather

Mood:  Ever have the the doldrums on a rainy day?  Or feel ecstatic in the first warm rays of sun on a spring day?  When we look in our lives we can observe that light has a profound effect on our moods and this quality can be captured and expressed in a photograph.  If you are not consciously considering what mood you want the observer to feel when you take a photograph than you may be working at opposing goals.  Generally speaking, Cool color tones are calming/mellow/somber and Warm color tones are energetic/ecstatic/joyful.

Color tone:  Color tones are defined as Warm or Cool.  Cool tones are green/blue and warm tones are yellow/red.  The color tone of an image is affected by the various time and location logistics.

The color tone, and therefore the mood of an image, will be affected by time and location in the following ways:

  • Time of day:  Morning light is cool, sunset lighting is warm, and midday lighting is generally neutral/warm and high contrast.  direct sunlight in daytime to sunset will lead to high saturation of colors, while sunrise and shade will have lower color saturation.

Ex: Morning.  Cool tones, quiet/calm mood.

Ex: Midday direct sun, neutral/warm tones, highly saturated colors.

Ex: Sunset, direct sun, Very warm tones.

  • Time of year: winter is cooler, spring and  summer warmer tones, and fall is a cool warm tone.

Ex: Winter, cool tones.

Ex: Spring,afternoon, direct sun, warmer/nuetral tones.

Ex: Summer

Ex: Fall, direct sun, late morning.  even with direct sunlight the tone is a cooler warm tone.

  • Location on earth:  The color tone depends on where you are.  Be observant.  The color tone with direct sunlight in Korea tends to be less warm tone than Texas.  New york is Cool  tone most of the year. etc.  Pay attention to the tone of your location on a daily basis and you will become an expert for that area.
  • Weather:  We have already discussed direct sunlight above.  Cloudiness comes in many forms.  Clouds act as a light diffuser and scatter light rays creating a softer lighting  that can be very flattering.  A bright cloudy day (or bright shade or indirect sunlight) is best for this kind of lighting and offers a mood on the mellow/beautiful end of the cool tone spectrum.  Darker or rainy days can have a heavy/somber feeling.

Ex: Diffused light, flattering, cool.

EX: even a pile of orange peels achieves some level of beauty in this lighting.

The use of Mood in an image draws on peoples own memories and experiences.  We all have memories stored about what different types of light mean and we associate those with our memories of different times and places.  When we look at an image we unconsciously recognize this and and get a feeling from the image.  This is a powerful tool that can be used to create an emotional response in your viewer, something that is strongly desirable.

Next time you go out shooting pictures pay close attention to the quality of light.  Ask yourself, “is it warm or cool tone?  What mood will the lighting create in an image?”  But don’t mistake your mood when shooting for what will be the end mood in an image, although these two can be closely tied.

And these rules are generalizations too, of course.  Do you think if you take a picture of a smiling little girl on cloudy morning it will be Somber?  No!  Subject matters also.

Look at these other examples:  What mood do you think is expressed in each picture?  What tone?  Would the picture be different if it were a different time of year?  Day? Weather?


Ex:  would the below picture be same if it were shot on a sunny day?







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