Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography” Lecture – Light I – Found or Ambient Light

Fundamentals of Photography - Joel Sartore

Fundamentals of Photography – Joel Sartore

At our BLPG meeting on August 1, 2013, we watched the first of three lectures by Joel Sartore on light, this one entitled Light I – Found or Ambient Light.

As usual, the lecture was filled with advice and tips, the first of which was, “It’s not the light, but where you are in it“.  His advice – move around and see what the effect is as you place yourself in different positions relative to the light.

Joel talked about changing and adjusting the light, pointing out that there are two major ways to do this: making adjustments in the camera, specifically the exposure compensation setting (he usually sets his down 3/4 of a stop), the ISO, and the histogram; and, making adjustments in the environment (e.g. moving around).

This led to a Tip:  You can bring back details in the shadows, but you can’t get back details in the highlights if they are blown out.  So, it is a good idea to always look at the histogram after taking a photo, just to check that you have not over exposed the highlights.  He noted that high ISOs lead to increased “noise” (dark speckles in the image, caused by the camera not having enough time to collect data for those points because of the high shutter speed).  His advice: choose the lowest possible ISO consistent with your choice of shutter speed and f-stop.

Histogram - "Keep the mountain in the middle" - Joel Sartore

Histogram – “Keep the mountain in the middle” – Joel Sartore

On the topic of the histogram, Joel’s advice is: Keep the mountain in the middle.  The histogram depicts the intensity of the light in the image from dark (on the left) to light (on the right).  If the intensity is non-zero, on either the dark side or the light side, then clipping has occurred there.  Clipping on the left can often be compensated for; but clipping on the right is generally bad (sometimes it’s OK, as long as that is what you decided had to happen).  Tip: You can never get back information that you’ve lost because you’ve over exposed the image.

The next subject in the lecture was Quality of Light.  Right off there was a Tip: Analyze where the light is coming from and how it is relative to where the subject is.  Joel then listed off and gave examples of various types of light:

  • Front Light
  • Back Light
  • Hatchet Light
  • Ghost Light
  • Above Light
  • Venetian Blind or Zebra Light
  • Rembrandt Light
Rembrandt Light from Joel Sartore's Great Course "Fundamentals of Photography"

Rembrandt Light from Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography”

His favourite was Rembrandt Light, given that name because Rembrandt used it in so many of his paintings.  For a portrait, the light comes from the side but slightly in front.  Suppose we are looking at a portrait.  Imagine that the face is looking directly out at us.  If a clock face were lying flat and horizontal under the face, and rotated so that 6 o’clock is nearest us, then the light is coming from the side, not from the 9 o’clock position but somewhere between 7 o’clock and 8 o’clock, just forward enough to get past the plane of the nose so as to light a bit of the cheek bone on the opposite side of the face, but not so far forward that that entire side of the face is lit.

One point Joel really emphasized: shadows give our photos depth and richness.  He made some other points as well: always look for variations of light; and, watch the background to see if it is dark or light, acting to emphasize or enhance the subject.  Joel illustrated these points by showing examples, of his son perched on a rock at sunset with an expanse of lake behind.  First the sun was behind the boy, then lighting him from the side.  When his son finally turned to face the disappearing sun, the portrait was made.  Joel also showed an example of an upper barn floor being removed and how the light coming in from below changed on the subject (the man lifting the floor boards).  In both cases, he waited for subtle light, not harsh light, because it reveals good soft shadow details.

Barn Floor Removal - Joel Sartore

Barn Floor Removal – Joel Sartore

Another type of light was Grey Light, the sort of light available on a cloudy day.  Joel warned, however, that to the camera a grey sky is a huge source of light, so one shouldn’t try to shoot objects which are silhouetted by the sky, unless that is the intention.  It is far better to shoot down so that only a bit, if any, of the sky is included.  That way the skylight will not overwhelm the illumination on the subject.  Tip: On a grey day, get higher up and shoot down to eliminate the sky.  He also mentioned that one could use flash to provide a bit of front lighting, a topic to be covered in a later lecture.

Found Light - Joel Sartore

Found Light – Joel Sartore

Joel talked about Found Light, perhaps inside, with light coming in from a window or door.  And he mentioned Bounced or Reflected Light.  He also talked about the warm glowing light which occurs just after sunset.  And finally Joel emphasized once more the importance of moving around one’s subject in order to see it from as many sides and directions as possible.


Pick a nice sunny day, start early, and shoot 5 shots of the same subject:

  1. Early morning
  2. High noon
  3. Late afternoon
  4. Before sunset
  5. After sunset

then compare.  Be sure to walk around and go beyond the obvious in selecting your subject.

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