Color And Light

Color and light play important roles in photography. In fact, many photographers hold color and light to be the driving forces of a photograph because, without both, photography simply couldn”t exist.

Similarly, as a photographer fine tunes his ability to manipulate light to affect color, he can successfully create more advanced and complicated pictures. In this article, we will describe the importance of light and color in photography, as well as provide tips on how to experiment with each to produce dramatic, dynamic effects.

The Color Spectrum

Because color (even black, white and gray for black-and-white photography) are so important to what we see and how we perceive images in pictures, understanding the color spectrum is essential.

Although we see light as colorless, white light, in fact, contains the entire color spectrum. This fact is evident when you look at light as it passes through a prism: As a prism splits light, the light fractures into the different colors of the color spectrum, similar to the way a rainbow forms when light refracts through water droplets.

As a result, when we see as color, we are seeing the energy waves that an object reflects. For example, because a red flower reflects the red portion of the color spectrum and absorbs all other colors, we perceive it as red. Alternatively, while white objects reflect almost all light, black objects absorb the entire color spectrum and reflect very little back.

The color spectrum is arranged according to the amount of energy that the wavelength of each color holds. While red color has the lowest energy (620-750 nm in wavelength), blues have the highest energy (380-450 nm in wavelength). In photography, photographers refer to blue light as “cool” or “cold” and red as “warm.”

Types of Light in Photography

When it comes to lighting in photography, a photographer can use natural and/or artificial light in a few ways. A scene can have backlighting, front lighting and/or side lighting. While front lighting fully illuminates the subject, backlighting creates silhouettes and side lighting produces dramatic shadows.

Depending on the mood you want to capture in your picture, you can use any combination of these lighting positions. For example, to create make your subject appear more imposing, menacing or regal, use a combination of back and side lighting. Alternatively, if you want your subject to have an approachable feel, invoke more front lighting. The more you experiment with combining the direction of lighting, the better you will become at designing the perfect lighting for any scene.

Natural Light in Color Photography

Because natural light changes through the course of the day, using it as your primary source of light in photography is tricky. The natural light photographers refer to as “daylight” actually only occurs between 10.00 a.m. and 2.00 p.m. Between these times, the sun is directly over head, making blue light the predominate force.

At dusk and dawn, however, natural light is very different from “daylight.” During these times, the atmosphere filters out a significant amount of blue light, giving natural light a warmer tint that is ruled by shades of red.

Artificial Light in Photography

Just like natural light, artificial light comes with its own special challenges. Fluorescent light, for instance, often looks green in photographs, unless a photographer uses lens filters designed for fluorescent light. Alternatively, incandescent light is warm and soft. Without filters or tungsten film, photographs taken in incandescent light may have a yellow tinge.

Diffuse and Direct Light in Photography

Light in photography can come in two different forms:

  • Diffuse: To lessen the contrast in a photograph and create a softer feel, use diffuse light. Diffuse light lights the subject from more than one direction, creating a warm light that softens sharp lines and reduces some detail and color. An example of diffuse light is when light passes through mist.
  • Direct: As light that comes from one direction, direct light is useful in creating dramatic contrast, sharp lines and vibrant color and detail. Strong sunlight shining through a fence is an example of direct light.

Digital Cameras and Light in Photography

Digital cameras have changed the way photographers deal with light and color. With a traditional film camera, photographers use different lens filters and various types of film to balance the difference between natural light and incandescent light. However, with a digital camera, changing film types is no longer an option. Instead, a photographer must work solely with the camera”s settings to manipulate light with a digital camera.

For non-professionals who enjoy photography as a hobby, a digital camera”s auto setting is usually sufficient for dealing with light and color changes. Most digital cameras include settings for different types of light.

However, serious professionals may use lens filters and even improvise filters. For example, if you lack a polarized lens filter, or if your digital camera doesn”t support filters, try holding the lens of a polarized pair of sunglasses in front of the camera lens. If you”ve got a steady hand, you can mimic the effects of a polarized lens filter!

Color vs. Black-and-White Photography

Although color photography is best to display the vitality and contrast of colors, black-and-white film (or black-and-white settings on digital cameras) is generally the best medium for depicting light”s effect on photographic subjects. With black-and-white photography, the play of light and shadow can be seen without the distractions of color. The type of film you choose depends on whether you want to emphasize color or light in your pictures.