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The whole basis of photography is the use of light. In fact the word photography means painting or drawing with light, and the better you use light the better your pictures will look. If the light is terrible – high in the sky, harsh, cold, flat, dull - then your images will look just like that. On the other hand, get the light right - creative, interesting, beautiful - and your pictures will glow and pop and look gorgeous.

I’m sitting in my office in George in the Western Cape writing this and as I look out of the window, up towards the Outeniqua Mountains it all seems just a little jaded - boring really. The midday light is doing nothing at all for these rather splendid mountains, and as a result they have no shape, no form. So, if you are into landscape or wildlife photography, the best thing you can do at this time of day is write features for Kruger Magazine. Or, edit photographs. There are always pics to edit.

Cats with spots look wonderful in soft diffused lighting and, if it’s overcast, you can shoot all day - just don’t include the sky in your pic.

Cats with spots look wonderful in soft diffused lighting and, if it’s overcast, you can shoot all day - just don’t include the sky in your pic.

So lets “look at light”… For a start, there are 3 basic properties of light that we reference when talking about light in photography.

- Direction - from where is the light shining

- Quality - is it hard or soft

- Colour - the colour temperature

For the most part, landscape or wildlife pictures tend to look good with long shadows and soft, warm light found just after sunrise and just before sunset hence the name “golden hour”. This is not always the case of course, but more often than not, when looking at a great landscape or wildlife picture in a magazine, calendar or book you will see that it will have been taken during the first, or last few hours of sunlight.

Of course, silhouettes are back lit but the pic is exposed for the bright background rather than the subject.

Of course, silhouettes are back lit but the pic is exposed for the bright background rather than the subject.

It’s not only about time of day though. The direction in which the light is falling is also very important and can greatly influence the mood of the picture. I remember, soon after I got my first camera, my great aunt (or someone) saying “Make sure that you position the sun behind your left shoulder, my boy, and you’ll get good pictures every time”. Not necessarily! Position the light source (the sun) wherever you want it in order to achieve the effect you’re after.

If you have the light coming from behind you it’s called front lighting (your subject is lit from the front) and while you’ll get great detail in your photographs, front lighting gives very little away as to the shape and form of your subject.

If it’s texture and shape that you would like to capture then make sure that the light crosses the subject at a low angle - cross or side lighting. You will now start to see the shadows (missing from front lighting) that give the subject shape and form. This is the predominate light direction I use when shooting landscapes.

Late, late in the afternoon - the sun almost on the horizon and the light shining across the elephant, brings out the texture of the elephant’s skin.

Late, late in the afternoon - the sun almost on the horizon and the light shining across the elephant, brings out the texture of the elephant’s skin.

Back lighting (where the light shines from in front of you so that the subject is lit from behind) adds an element of romance and magic to photographs. (Take a look at how they use back lighting to shoot shampoo and life insurance policy adverts on TV). Furry animals, flowers, autumn foliage etc can look wonderful using back lighting, the rim light providing a lovely halo around your subject. Alas, you’re going to loose some detail in the subject but if detail is what you’re looking for then perhaps choose “the sun over the shoulder” technique. Of course if you position your subject against the light source you’ll end up with a silhouette.

But what happens if there is no sun? What happens if it is overcast? Well then what you have is the world’s largest soft box (a light modifier that gives a soft even light - usually attached to studio lights). While this type of light is rarely good for general landscapes, especially if the sky features in the picture, there are a thousand and one other situations where these conditions can be used to good effect. It can be wonderful for really tight animal shots (especially cats and dark animals like buffalo, elephant and rhino) and close up pics – flowers, fungus, abstract patterns and so on.

Very soft, gentle light suits this subject perfectly. Overcast days certainly have their uses.

Very soft, gentle light suits this subject perfectly. Overcast days certainly have their uses.

Misty, drizzly conditions are fantastic for forest interiors and for waterfalls. Get your shutter speed as low as you can, stick the camera on a tripod and shoot your favourite waterfall - you’ll get lovely saturated colours and soft, fluffy water.

The other time when there is no sun, is, of course, before sunrise and after sunset – both great times for photography. The afterglow in the evenings is a superb, soft, warm light that can work extremely well on static subjects or on moving ones if a little creative blur is desired. For the most part though, the trick is to keep the camera steady because we will be looking at fairly long exposures – up to around 30 seconds!

And even later (or very much earlier - before sunrise) you get the blue hour. This is the ideal time to be shooting cityscapes and those glowing warm windows at lodges, chalets and other locations where you are mixing cool and warm light sources.

Front lighting does little for me - I much prefer cross or back lit subjects.

Front lighting does little for me - I much prefer cross or back lit subjects.

Next we need to look at the colour of light. The temperature of light is measured according to the Kelvin scale, and midday light (sunshine) is about 5 500 Kelvin. At sunrise and sunset the sunlight warms up to about 2 500K and overcast weather is about 6 000K, while shade is about 7 000K. Now, your really don’t need to know the numbers - just that the light is warm at sunrise and sunset, cooler at midday and in cloudy weather and even cooler when shooting in the shade.

You can use these properties in your photography to create moods and effects - warm - happy, cool - somber…

Back lighting can look gorgeous, although you need to keep direct light off the front element of the lens otherwise you’ll get flaring.

Back lighting can look gorgeous, although you need to keep direct light off the front element of the lens otherwise you’ll get flaring.

We’ve also spoken about hard and soft light. The degree of hardness and softness is rather subjective but it depends on the size of the light source and its distance from the subject. The bigger the light source the softer the effect. The further it is away from the subject, the harder the light becomes. For example, the sun is a huge source but it’s really, really far away so it’s actually a hard (harsh) light at midday. At sunrise or sunset the light is more defused by the atmosphere so it becomes much softer. Again you can use this to great effect in your photography.

Try to learn how to “see” light - it’s direction, colour and quality and then use it in your photography. It’s really important for creating beautiful photographs.

Be sure to check out our other Photo Tips and tutorials.

As always, if you have any questions or suggestions for future articles, do drop me a mail. Also hook up with us on Instagram (@RogerdelaHarpe) and Facebook ( Roger and Pat de la Harpe Photography).

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