The Transformative Power Of Light In Photography
by Marie Laigneau
Light – and the absence of light – is inherent in all photography. But light is not neutral – it shapes your image, it emphasizes your story, and can ultimately transform the reality to create new worlds as mysterious and powerful as those found in our dreams. Knowing when and how to use light is key to creating greater impact with your photography. If we look at the impact of light as a continuum, light can transform your image in four different ways:
1. Separation – At the very basic level, light acts as a separator between your subject and the background. Back to the core of our perceptions, the human mind can only distinguish elements in visual art if, and only if, they have different colors or shades of a similar color. In B&W photography, when colors are de facto absent from your composition, the only way to define your subject vs. the background is to create tonal differentiation. In other words, you need to capture elements with different values of light if you want them to be distinct from one another.
2. Emphasis – A more advanced use of light in your composition can allow you to emphasize your main subject. In other words, light can help create better stories if used smartly and appropriately. Think about how light, and its opposite the shadow, can contribute to your composition: leading lines, blockers, frames, negative space. All those elements will support your story by leading the eyes to what really matters – and get rid of what doesn’t.
3. Substance – Furthermore, light can create elements of its own – secondary actors that will help you tell a more subtle and powerful story: silhouettes, shadows, reflections. Those elements often convey more mystery and depth to your stories, helping to emphasize underlying emotions in your images. Those elements will create substance if they reinforce your existing story – which means, if they do not contradict the story in place.
4. Tension – The most powerful impact of light that can be found in photography is to create meaning. When new elements created by light – or absence of light – detract and contradict the story in place, you are in fact creating new meaning. This is probably the most interesting and inspiring use of light for street photographers. New meaning will be created if, at the end of the day, elements with contradictory meaning come together to form a greater whole. This is the power of opposites – stirring emotions in multiple directions to create, ultimately, meaningful tension.
1. Separation: Using light to dissociate elements in your photographs
The primary subjects in the photo below would be almost indistinguishable from the background if the sun was not highlighting their faces. Here, light creates that required differentiation between tones that is at the basis of our perceptions. Because the light in the background is subdued, the point of highest contrast (meaning, the point where there is the highest difference between light and dark) also falls on the subjects. The eye will naturally focus on the point of highest contrast, ensuring that my subjects are prominent in my composition.