photography basics for beginners – Chapter 1 – understanding light in photography

Understanding light in photography

Chapter 1 – basics of photography

You can see below full video tutorial – you can sit back and let the knowledge come to you

or you can read below

First step in learning photography is analysing what we see in real world. Since light is essential in our life, and it is the main factor contributing in us being able to see with our eyes, a good understanding what light is and how it works is essential if one wishes to be able to take pictures. No light, we can’t see, we can’t take a picture. pretty simple ! Isn’ it?

Light is the raw material in photography like paint is for the painter or clay for the potter. If the painter does not understand his paint, the only thing he could do is just spread some paint on a canvas without knowing what he is doing. I doubt it will be a masterpiece. Similar the potter working a material he or she does not understand, I doubt something good comes out of it.

Understanding light is of critical importance in order to be able to control the result in photography, not just random snapping pictures. Anyone can get some sort of pictures pressing the shutter button on any camera, but more than that, I don’t know if that is the point.

I will try to keep this as simple as possible, for everyone to understand

photography basics for beginners - chapter 1 understanding light

Light definition – what is light?

Light is a combination of electromagnetic waves and a rain of particles called photons. I am not going to go very technical as that takes a bit of  understanding of physics and I would rather keep this as simple as possible. In order to visualise what is going on, I would suggest to imagine that light is a rain of particles coming from a light source. All these particles are bouncing off from the surface they hit in various amount, in all directions. The human eye captures some of this flow and our brain reads this information creating an image. I will use the analogy of light with rain as this is the easiest way to picture what is going on.

So , we have a light source, sending particles in space, they hit an object and they bounce. Depending on the material they hit and its properties, photons bounce back in larger number or smaller, in all directions that is called reflection. What we see with our eyes, is an large numbers photons coming in a flow from all directions after they are reflected by various objects around us.

Classification of light in relation to the source:

Direct light:

We have direct light when the light comes from the source direct on to the subject without any obstacles. Best example is light coming form the sun on a clear day, or light coming form a light bulb inside without any restrictions.

direct light


Direct light can be disturbing with high contrasts and to many details in teh image. The example above even taken in middle of the day shows dark areas where details are lost.


Indirect light

We have indirect lightwhen the light either is reflected by another object or surface before it reaches the source, or it is filtered through an obstacle like a a cloud, or a curtain or both.

indirect light



In the example above we have indirect light form reflections and direct light diffused by a half overcast onto the child. Soft shadows are present which are not disturbing the child’s portrait.


Most of the time we have a combination of both as the whole world arounds reflects light in all directions all the time.

Classification of light in relation to quality

Hard light

or harsh or whatever you want to call it. In most of the cases direct light produces shadows, but shadows can be produced by indirect light as well. If there is shadow than we can have contrast. The smaller the light source in comparison with the subject, the clearest the shadow is. Also remember, the stronger the light, the stronger the contrast. In photography strong contrast are to be avoided as they create disturbing images, and create to much detail. This is not always the case as sometimes maybe the shadow is intended.

hard light

Soft Light

We have soft light when the shadows are very soft or non existent. This is a result of the large source of light in comparison with the subject. It may be direct (soft box) or indirect – blanket of clouds over the sky.

soft light


Note: the most important aspect you need to remember as a photographer is this classification between hard light with shadows and soft light with no shadows.


Light properties:

1. Light strength. or light level

The number of particles gives the level of lighting. The more particles traveling, the stronger the light is. More rain drops falling, the stronger the rain, the faster you get wet.

Just for our purposes this is a simple classification of light levels, just an average for the human naked eye being able to capture

– the strongest light level of on the planet would be probably in full sun in in the mountains in snow. As snow has high reflective properties, a big percentage of the sun light is reflected. This light is so strong, people need sun glasses to be able to cope. We have also strong light on the beach

– high level of light, full sun outdoors

– average level of lighting, normal day, morning afternoon, where vision is just normal and you do not need anything to be able to see clearly , or indoors depending how many lamps are on in your room

– low light – early  mornings, late evening, before sunrise, after sunset, or indoor when there is not enough light for you to see clearly

– dark – no light, you can’t see

Level of light can be measured with light meters in order to know how we can set up our photographic equipment but that is a subject to a different chapter

2. Colour light or temperature

Humans can sees a large number of colours. Colours is a light component which is related the property of the object it falls on and it is described by the wavelength frequency. We are not going to get into that is it can be very technical but the only thing we need to remember is that the light colour sets up the mood in an image.

Warm light

We have warm light when we can see a yellow/red/orange feel and it gives us the feeling of warmth. If you want to convey that feeling, you can use these colours to your advantage.

warm light

Cold light

We have cold light when the general look is towards green and blue, the colours which transmits a cold feeling

cold light

Understanding light importance

Well, understanding what you see is the basis of photography.Light is the raw material for photography like paint is for the painter, stone, for the sculptor.

You will need to understand your raw material if you want to be able to control the result. Is the painter able to paint if he or she does not know how the paint spreads on the canvas? I guess not




About Christian Tudor

professional photographer, main editor at Academy of Photography and owner and principal photographer of Tudor Photography