Creating great photo – Chapter 3: Understanding Light and Exposure

Arguably the most important element in the world of photography, is light. The word photography literally means drawing/writing with light. Photo = light, and graphy = writing or drawing. Without light, no photos can be taken, even if you have a camera with the best high ISO low light capability, or a hot babe standing in front of you, or at the most beautiful places in the world, you cannot do anything without light.

When light is used correctly, even the most boring and ordinary subjects can become a piece of art work, albeit good photography techniques applied as well. Light creates the mood of the picture and is always the major factor for determining the good and the bad shots.

Different types of light conditions will result in the different moods and feelings to the picture. This is determined by the temperature, direction, distance and intensity of the light. Temperature of light refers to the color temperature. The two factors that photographers need to pay attention to is the warm and cool lighting. Warm lighting refers to colors such as red, yellow orange etc, while cool lighting refers to colors such as blue, purple, cyan, etc. Below is a list of color temperature for reference.

Temperature Source
1,700 K Match flame
1,850 K Candle flame, sunset/sunrise
2,700–3,300 K Incandescent lamps
3,000 K Soft White compact fluorescent lamps
3,200 K Studio lamps, photofloods, etc.
3,350 K Studio “CP” light
4,100–4,150 K Moonlight, xenon arc lamp
5,000 K Horizon daylight
5,000 K tubular fluorescent lamps or Cool White/Daylight compact fluorescent lamps (CFL)
5,500–6,000 K Vertical daylight, electronic flash
6,500 K Daylight, overcast
5,500–10,500 K LCD or CRT screen
15,000–27,000 K Clear blue poleward sky















Light temperature differs at different times of the day, so it is important to know what kind of pictures we want to create so as to be able to shoot under the right lighting conditions for our desired result. For many photographers, most love to shoot during the magic hours, which is the time when light is the prettiest. This period of time usually lies between the time just before sunrise, till about and hour later, and vice versa for sunset. Through my own experience, I felt that the acceptable temperature for getting accurate colors usually lies from somewhere within 3000K – 6500K. Temperatures beyond that would look very warm or cool and will have a heavy color cast of orange or blue. However that does not mean to avoid shooting at these extreme color temperatures. In fact, I had taken many pictures that are either very warm or cool. Landscapes photos shot during sunrise or dusk produces dramatic colors. Photos of animals with the golden morning or evening light add to the mood of the picture. But photos such as products, or studio shoots usually requires more accurate colors, and thus colors that are too warm or cool may not be appropriate.

Types of light

Direction of light is another important aspect in photography. Determining the light direction affects the tones, texture, color and mood to the picture. There are 360 degrees of possibility where light can come from, but basically, there are three main direction, front, side, and back.

Front light is where the light source comes from the back of the photographer. Front lighting produces good dynamic range as it lit up the subject well and eliminates shadows. It produces bold and saturated colors. However due to the subject’s shadow falling behind it, it creates a very flat two dimensional image.

Examples of front lighting:

 Collared Kingfisher DSC_0207 DSC_3645a DSC_2339a DSC_8931 Lesser Whistling Ducks

Side light comes from either the left or right of the subject. This lighting produces deep shadows and brings out a three dimensional look to the subject. The angle which the light is placed will determine how much shadow will fall on the other side of the subject.  Side lighting reveals the textures of the subject, such as the rocky surface of the mountain, the fur of an animal etc.

Examples of side lighting:

(192 of 531) DSC_9918 DSC_3284 DSC_0575-44 DSC_0004  Buffy Fish Owl DSC_0105

Back light comes the back of the subject, and when properly expose, can produce theatrical effects to the picture. Backlighting helps to outline the subject and separates it from the background. Many wedding photographers make use of this lighting to create the romantic feel to the picture. To get a good backlit photo, it is advisable to keep the light source out of the frame to prevent the picture from being overblown by the intensity of the light.

Examples of back lighting:

DSC_1289 -284 Dark-sided Flycatcher DSC_1064-6-6 312364_264502860234352_177587848925854_1043636_5959588_n DSC_0548-31

Reflected light occurs when light is being reflected from another subject or object and onto your intended subject to photograph. The color of the reflected object will determine the temperature of the light that will fall onto your intended subject to photograph. Reflected light is softer than direct light and hence reduces contrast between highlights and shadows.

Examples of reflected light:


Light is being reflected off the water surface  which brightens up the kingfisher.


Spotlight is where light falls and illuminate part of a picture, while the rest of the picture falls into shadows. Spotlighting can create very dramatic pictures and immediately draws the eye to the area that is illuminated. It is important to use spot-meter and meter your camera on the area that is illuminated to get the correct exposure, or else the deep shadows would fool your camera into brightening up the whole scene.

Examples of spotlighting:

Milky Stork DSC_0107 Ruddy Kingfisher juvenile Stork-billed Kingfisher

Hard light and Soft light

The quality of light also affects the results of our images. There are basically 2 quality of light, hard and soft.

Hard light is created from a single, small, undiffused, distant light source. It creates strong, sharp and crisp outline of shadows with less transition from illuminated area to shadows. Hard light generates more contrast and tend to make the pictures look sharper. An example of a hard light source is a torch light, a sunny day with no clouds, desk lamp etc.

Examples of hard light:

Hooded Pitta DSC_9407a DSC_6604 DSC_1051-23 DSC_0022a -294

Soft light is created from a larger light source where light is scattered and comes in from a wider area than those from hard light. The closer and bigger the light source, the softer the light. Soft light creates less shadow and contrast on the subject as light is more evenly spread across it, thus creating better dynamic range. Examples of soft light is, a cloudy sky, light source coming out of a big soft box, light bouncing off from a wall.

Examples of soft light:

-479  DSC_0501-10 DSC_6102a (2) DSC_0538-27 DSC_5836-2a Long-tailed Macaque

Getting the correct exposure

When lighting conditions are met, getting the right exposure is next. I will not touch on the basics here on overexposure or underexposure as it has been covered by many websites. I like to share on how to get the right exposure that would produce the best colors and tone without having to use photoshop to touch up too much. I am a firm believer that the best colors and tones are produced straight out from the camera itself, and later enhancing it up a little more in photoshop. Through my experiences, it is difficult to replicate the exact colors from a shot that is slightly over or under exposed against those that’s got an accurate exposure.

Depending on what I am shooting, I would use the appropriate setting to get my shots.When shooting in conditions such as wildlife in the forest where light condition constantly changes, I would set my camera to manual mode and use the auto ISO function so that I do not have to constantly change my settings. Otherwise, I would set me camera to full manual mode to allow me full control to the kind of the photos I would like to create, especially when shooting in a back-lit situation, or just requiring certain areas of the picture to be properly exposed.

The camera metering is based on the luminance of light reflected on a subject appearing as middle gray or 18% gray. This means that to get an accurate exposure, the camera needs to meter at an area that has a middle gray tone. By metering anywhere other than middle gray, it will result in underexposure or overexposure to the image. Take example, if you meter on a white object, it will result in underexposure, while metering on a black object will result in overexposure, due to the reason that the camera would render whatever it meters into middle gray tone.

So what to do if your subject is dark or bright? You can either set the camera exposure compensation setting to either eg 1 stop over or under to get accurate exposure, or you simply compensate manually by simply adjusting your shutter speed or aperture a few stops over or underexpose, something which requires experience and knowledge (advantage of using manual mode).

Train yourself to see light

 In order to be able to get used to looking for good lighting conditions, it is important that we train ourselves to see light. First, stop playing with your phone, tablets and all, and start to be more aware of your surroundings. Every day, try to look at what is happening around you, take note of the weather, the quality of light, highlights and shadows, etc. Whenever you spotted something interesting, try to take a shot, either with your camera or your phone. Try looking at everything that come across you, and slowly, you begin to see things that you would miss in your daily life. This will help sharpen your senses and you will realize you are able to see a scene with more intensity.


– Light is the main element in photography. Without light, there can be no photos taken.

–  Light comes in all directions. The basic 3 direction is front, side and back.

–  Light consist of many different temperature, which will determine the white balance of the photo.

–  Getting correct exposure right out from the camera produces better colors than those which is processed in photoshop that are under or overexposed. Thus it is important that we get our exposures correct.

–  The metering mode renders everything it meters into middle gray. Thus to get the correct exposure, it is advisable to meter on an object that produces middle gray tone.

You may also like:

Creating great photo chapter 1:  Camera and photographer, which matters more?

Creating great photo chapter 2:  Visualization

© [Dennis Ong] [DennisOngPhotography], [2013]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [Dennis Ong] [Dennis Ong Photography] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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