Joel Sartore’s Great Course “Fundamentals of Photography” Lecture – Light II – Colour and Intensity

Fundamentals of Photography - Joel Sartore

Fundamentals of Photography – Joel Sartore

At our meeting on August 15, 2013, we continued our viewing of The Great Courses “Fundamentals of Photography”.

Joel Sartore’s second lecture on light, Colour and Intensity, began with a Tip: The first step in taking a photograph is figuring out the relationship between the subject and the lighting.  He wasn’t talking just about the position of the subject relative to the light source; nor just about the quality of the light, whether it was harsh or soft.   Rather he was addressing two aspects of colour: the colour of the light on the subject, and the colours in your photograph.

Colours in Photo

Colours in your photo

The best light is soft light, the kind that can be seen when the sun is low on the horizon, or on an overcast day.  It can also be due to weak artifical light, such as on might get from a single reading lamp.

Great Light

Great Light

Light does have colour, but our eyes don’t see it easily, because our brains insist on making all light look white.  A camera, however, records the actual colour.

There are various colours of light which we can make use of in photography, not only for the warmth or coolness that the light implies, but also for its cultural or emotional meaning.

Cool light is the type found on an overcast day, a dully light snow scene or a shaded scene.  It often imparts a blue cast.  It can be used to project a mood of relaxation or contemplation, a slowing down.  Sometimes it can be used to make a scene seem a little creepy.

Blue Light

Here’s a creepy use:



Another type is Grey Light.  Here’s an example:

Grey Day

Grey Day

The greyness of the light clearly brings out the blue in the iceberg.  The portion of sky in the background enables us to see what the ambient light was like.  Even though the sky is grey, it is still a powerful light source.  In order to get the foreground properly exposed, it had to be determined what was the correct amount of light to gather.

Reddish Light usually projects a romantic feeling, warm and natural.  But culturally, we also associate red with danger, so under the right circumstances that fact can be exploited photographically.

Red Light

Red Light

Yellowish Light can be warm or it can deliver a message of Caution.

Yellowish Light

Yellowish Light

The varieties of light colour leads to this Tip: If your light is warm or cool, your picture will have one more element of interest.

Reflected Light is usually soft.  But also, it picks up the colour from whatever it reflects.  The boy’s face has a warm glow caused by the reflection from the red material.

Reflected Light

Reflected Light

The lecture moved on to the subject of the camera’s White Balance (WB) setting.  Since our eyes adjust for the colour of light, making it white whatever it’s inherent colour, but the camera records the actual colour, our photographs often can look strangely coloured to our eyes.  The WB setting can be used to restore a more natural (to our eyes) colour if we so desire.  But sometimes, that detraction from what the camera saw significantly reduces the image’s appeal.

The available WB settings on most cameras include: Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight (Daylight), Flash, Cloudy, Shade.  Your camera may also allow you to select the Colour Temperature, measured in degrees Kelvin, the usual range of which is 2500K – 10000K (e.g. daylight is 5000K – 5400K).

Here’s some examples of the effect of the WB setting on the appearance of a photo:

Tungsten Light - Tungsten WB

Tungsten Light – Tungsten WB

Tungsten Light - Daylight WB

Tungsten Light – Daylight WB

Tungsten Light - Auto WB

Tungsten Light – Auto WB

The Auto WB setting has resulted in an image whose colour is about halfway between Tungsten – Daylight WB and Tungsten – Tungsten WB.  Which is best is a matter of personal choice, but do note that the Tungsten – Tungsten WB combination is not nearly as warm as the other two photos.  Joel mentioned a couple of times that he leaves his WB set to Daylight and almost never changes it.

Effect of WB Settings

Effect of WB Settings

The Daylight setting imparts a warm look, making photos that look a little as if they were taken with Velvia slide film: blue looks blue, yellow looks yellow.  The Tungsten setting introduces a blue layer, which combats the yellow cast, that imparts a cool feeling.  The Fluorescent setting adds a layer of magenta to combat the green which comes from the fluorescent light.  The Cloudy Day WB setting warms up the image a little beyond the Daylight setting.  The Auto WB introduces a little blue to an indoor shot, removing some of the punch from the photo.

Once again Joel emphasized that we should try to get the picture right in the view finder.  Tip: Get it right in the camera. This advice is mentioned again and again by good photographers.  One interpretation of it is this: slow down, do not take that photo yet!  When a scene captures your attention, stop and analyze why.  What aspect or feature have you noticed?  Where is it in the chaos of the scene?  What position of your eye (high, low, to the left, to the right) best captures its essence?  What position reveals it in the best light (or is it not the right time to get the shot even)? Is the subject moving or still? Move your camera around until you’ve found the preferred position.

Now set up your tripod.  What White Balance do you want to use?  What f-stop for Depth of Field?  What exposure?  What focus?  Think about all of those things (I’m sure you have more) and consciously decide each one after some thought.  Now take the photo, chimp it, adjust as necessary, then move on.  Because of the analysis you’ve done before clicking the shutter, you are guaranteed to have captured a better image than if you’d just clicked away many times hoping for the “perfect photo”.

Light Intensity

Our eyes see things differently from the camera.  In particular, we have a huge Dynamic Range: we can see things clearly even if some are in direct sunlight and some are in shadow – our eyes have a broad exposure latitude.  The camera does not.  So, we have to accommodate that shortcoming by working at the right time of day.

Tip: If you or your subject have to squint because of the light, the light is probably too harsh.

Lovely pictures generally come from low intensity light.  Colours come alive in softer light.  When you can control the background and the light, take advantage of it.  Low intensity sunlight can be found early in the day and in the evening.  During the day, occasionally one can find low intensity light because of reflections or shade, but otherwise the light is very harsh (less on a grey day).  Do not insist on shooting something when the light is too harsh.

Too Much Light

Too Much Light

Later On - Better Light

Later On – Better Light

If you must take the subjects in harsh light, consider using a flash to make the background dark while the subject is illuminated (called fill flash, the subject of a future lecture).

Tip: Dial down the exposure on the background and use the softbox to bring the subject out of the shadows.

Using Reflected Light to Overcome Bright Background

Using Reflected Light to Overcome Bright Background

Tip:  Dark objects are easier to photograph in shaded or overcast light.

But even if conditions are not ideal, do what you can.  If you capture the emotion, sometimes the technical imperfections don’t matter.  It’s about the moment.

Get The Photo Whatever The Light

Get The Photo Whatever The Light




The next lecture is entitled Light III – Introduced Light

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