Your camera can’t see the light and tones as well as you can. Cameras have not yet been developed to a stage where they can record a tonal range in a single, unmanipulated image as broad as you can see with your eyes.

Portrait of a senior woman being made by a photographer - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Our brains are constantly evaluating the light and making adjustments dynamically so you get to see far more detail in the brightest and darkest areas of whatever you are looking at, as well as in the mid-tones. Understanding this difference between what you see and what your camera records will help you to become a more creative photographer, (and save you time post-processing your photos.)

Different Types of Light

Basically light can be hard or soft, direct or diffused. Direct light, usually from a relatively small light source, creates a hard-edged shadow, like on a sunny day. Light that is diffused, like you experience when the sun is behind a cloud, makes soft shadows or virtually no shadows at all.

Woman selling fresh fruit at a market in Chiang Mai - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Hard light – characterized by high contrast, hard edges, and lots of texture and detail.

Unloading produce at a market in Chiang Mai, Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Soft light is characterized by gentle or no shadows, lower contrast, and less texture and detail.

Light will have various other qualities as well depending on the time of day, season, atmospheric conditions, and geographic location. Light can be warm and have a golden tone, mostly in the mornings and evenings. It can also be cold and have a bluish tone, often in city streets where buildings block the sun or on heavily overcast days.

Different Tonal Ranges

Typically with soft light, you have a narrower tonal range (lower contrast). In conditions with soft light, your camera will be more capable of producing images with detail in the shadows and also the highlights, if you expose your photos well.

Tricycle Taxi Rider in Chiang Mai, Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Soft Light

With hard light, the tonal range between the brightest and darkest parts of an image can be far more extreme. Your camera may not be capable of recording detail in the highlights and in the darkest parts of your image, in a single frame (I am not concerned with HDR or other manipulations here).

Street scene in Thailand with tricycle taxis and traffic - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Hard Light

As you learn to see light and understand the type of light in which you are photographing, you will get a feel for it and become more creative and more precise technically with your photography.

Using Light to Fit the Mood

If you want to create a gentle portrait with soft, relaxing tones you will not just need your subject to be in the right mood, but you will need the lighting to fit with the mood as well. A soft, diffused light will help you reach your goal whereas trying to create this style of portrait outdoors in the middle of a bright sunny day will be far more difficult.

Portrait of a young Kayan girl - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

Soft light here allows for detail in all areas of the image and for a flattering portrait of the girl.

Sometimes working with soft light can be challenging if it is just too flat and dull and offers very little tonal range in your subject. In these situations, I will look to add some alternative light source from a flash or reflector to add a more dynamic look to my photos.

Hard light can make for more dramatic pictures. Using the contrast range so parts of your composition are isolated, either because they are too bright or too dark for your camera to record, is often an effective method towards producing more creative photographs.

Close up of a Hmong woman hand sewing - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

The hard light here highlights the hands making the background completely black.

Carefully Control Your Exposures

Taking control of your exposure so you are only rendering the detail in the highlights and allowing the shadow areas to show little or no detail, is a great technique to learn. Alternatively, in hard light situations, you can set your exposure for the dark areas of your composition and you will lose detail in the highlights.

Photographers who are more technically oriented and believe you must have an evenly exposed image with no loss of detail may struggle with this concept.

Buddhist monks walking in the morning, Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

When you have a concept for a photograph (or series of photographs) you want to make, creating the photos in the best lighting will have a significant impact on your results. Choosing the optimum lighting to create the feeling you want to capture in your photo brings a greater depth to your pictures and more feeling of connection with those who view them.

Concerning yourself primarily with technical details will not have the same effect in many cases.

Getting Creative With Light

Lighting can be a bit of a dilemma if it does not fit the mood or scenario you are wanting to photograph. Pushing yourself to create interesting, captivating images even when you are faced with adverse lighting conditions is a great challenge to embrace and will help you grow as a photographer.

Street festival in Mae Hong Son - Tips for Learning How to See the Light and Take Better Photos

I used some off-camera flash here because the ambient light was very flat.

Pay attention to the light wherever you are, even if you don’t have a camera with you, just see light. Think about it. Consider the qualities of light and how they will affect the photos you take.

Will the light help you or hinder you in creating the style of photographs you want to make?

Buddhist monk lighting a candle taken during a Chiang Mai Photo Workshop

Learn to See Light

If the light is not right for what you want to achieve in your photos you will need to make changes by adding light, from a flash or reflector or another additional light source. Sometimes even just changing your point of view in relation to your subject will have a significant influence on the mood and look of the lighting. For example, using backlighting instead of front or side lighting.

The more you can learn to see the light and understand how it will affect your images, the more creative you can become with your camera. There are some additional tips in the video below to help you see the light.

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