Looking at Light: Understanding Light Sources
by Taylor Slattery | April 7, 2020
For photographers and painters, lighting is important. But how do you study it? Searching for “types of light” will yield a number of different answers depending on the context. From a scientific perspective, there are both natural and artificial forms of light. Obviously, the sun, stars, and fire are natural sources we’re all familiar with. But there are less obvious natural sources as well, like bioluminescent plants and animals. In regards to artificial light, we have all of the various forms of bulbs and LEDs humans have created. These are all interesting in their own right, but they aren’t the type of lighting we will be looking at today. Not directly, at least.
Today, we’ll look at lighting through a lens more useful to photographers and painters. It’s important to understand the distinctions between artificial and natural light, but as painters and photographers, we are more concerned with how they interact with our subject. We have the ability to control the lighting within our scene so it’s important to understand our different options and their various effects and nuances.
Lighting can be a fairly complex subject, especially when you enter the realm of studio photography where multiple light sources are used, but generally speaking, there are just two main types of light to consider. The first of which is sunlight. Due to the source’s distance from earth, light from the sun can be difficult to control. At any given time, it renders all subjects in the same way. Also due to its distance, shadows cast by the sun are all parallel.
In contrast, local light sources are so named due to their close proximity. These include things like fire and any artificial source of light. They can be readily manipulated and serve as valuable tools for our creative works. We can control the direction of the shadows they cast as well as their distance from the subject to affect their perceived strength.
At this point, it’s also important to mention reflected light. To a degree, nearly every surface is reflective. You can test this for yourself by taking a white sheet of paper and moving it closer and further from various objects. Pay close attention to the subtle ways it’s color is influenced by the objects. When we think of reflectivity, normally things like metal and plastic come to mind, but it’s important to understand that when an object is hit by a source of light, it too becomes a source of light. The intensity of the light it reflects will never be greater than the source, and its strength will depend on the nature of the material, but by simply being aware of these small color interactions, you can add greater depth to your work.
As I said, lighting is a fairly complex subject matter, but it’s perhaps the most powerful tool in our creative arsenal, so it’s worth taking the time to understand. In this series, we’ll break it all down into digestible pieces and hopefully, by the end, you’ll see the world in a whole new light (sorry, I had to).
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.