Seeing the Light and How it Interplays with Composition


Over the years I have been guided by a simple example of how light is perceived. Early on in my career I studied how light varied in intensity and direction and how objects seemed to change with each variation. When my son’s were starting their career in 3D modeling I showed them how light worked in the program they were using. I showed them what it looked like to move the light around a round object to see how the shadows changed. I changed the intensity at varying distances which changed the shadows all the time.


This can be done with any object but a ball is the one I chose because it seems to change shape with the light coming from different directions. If you put a ball on a table and take a constant light source like a lamp move it around the ball and really observe what happens to the shadows. Next place some tissue paper or other diffusing material over it and do the same thing and see what happens. For many people this is a real eye opening exercise.


For some of you this may be an old exercise but it drives home the point that light and how it is perceived makes or breaks an image.


Taking this exercise into account think about the best times of the day to make really interesting photographs. That would be when the shadows are the longest at the beginning and end of the day. This would be magic hour before and after sunrise and sunset. Most everyone knows this but it’s the color balance that is different and this is what will be different besides the long shadows. Before sunrise the color balance is cool, or blue and after sunrise it is much warmer. For the most part at sunset it is warm, or yellow and red. After sunset it starts to go cool. All of this comes in to play when planning your photography.


The way you perceive light will ultimately affect how you compose your images. Strong shadows tend to give your composition lots of intersecting lines and objects to use for a pleasing image. They take on a three dimensional look. Diffused light will give you a completely different look and will most likely not have as much impact. Compositional elements depend on light to interplay with each other. 


As a photojournalist I need my images to have impact so I tend toward strong lighting to give me what I am looking for. I have always looked against the light because I love the way objects look backlit. My mantra has always been “Against the Light” it’s my signature. For instance people highlighted by a strong backlight look way more interesting to me than straight on flat lighting. If done right, portraits of people backlit are really interesting. 


Soft diffused lighting can create mood and tone just like harsher more direct light. It can be just as effective and even more so when used right. I look for the wonderful tonal gradations that diffused light gives when working with landscapes and documentary style photos of people. I look for a nice soft direction of light that creates even shadows that don’t over power the image.


A technique I use that was taught to me very early in my career is something Alfred Eisenstadt used to call “Feeling the Light”.  I hold my hand up and twist it and move it around to see what the light is doing. You can get a great idea of how to use what the sun is giving you by using your hand as a model of sorts. I still do this today to gauge what the light is doing and to get the exposure I’m looking for with my Leica as the light meter in it is of the 12% center weighted variety.


Simple compositional rules using how light interplays within them will give you the most interesting images. Here are some basic composition rules to help.


1. Simplify your image with no more than three main elements. 

One of the most common errors is to complicate your image with to many elements. I try to keep it simple whenever possible. Bringing to many elements into the frame confuse the viewer. It’s best to make sure the viewer is seeing what you want them to see. Using light to create mood interplayed with strong elements does this. I like to use uneven numbers of elements if I can. One and three work well.


2. Fill the frame

Most every image can be made more interesting by making sure the frame is filled. This can be done afterward by cropping the image in editing software. If you “crop in the camera” when framing your image you will get an idea of how this works. By using a viewing aid before you make the shot (35mm slide mount) you can pre visualize what it will look like when you make the shot.


3. Vertical and Horizontal - Square maybe

Always take a look at how a scene would look taken as a vertical. Don’t always keep yourself to the horizontal format. I am a big fan of vertical images. Light can be used to great affect vertically as well as horizontally. I try to make sure I give myself plenty of options when photographing a scene. Now that being said, sometimes the square format can work well too. I am not a big fan of this but sometimes it can work.


4. Almost never in the middle - Rule of Thirds

Most everyone knows that the Rule of Thirds is the most common of composition rules. I like to look at it this way - just keep your main elements off center, it gives the image more interest. Adhering to the classic rule sometimes does not hold up. Always using it can hamstring your creative process. I do find myself cropping news photographs to make them more interesting by getting the main subject off center. I will also break the rule once in a while by placing an element in the middle of the image if it calls for it but this is rare. In landscape photography it’s either lots of sky (if it’s interesting, clouds etc.) or all foreground never keep the horizon in the middle of the frame. Verticals with lots of foreground are very interesting.


5. Lines controlling where the viewer looks

Always be looking for leading lines or geometric shapes that lead the viewer into or out of the image. I am always looking for shadows created by light that do this. These elements are everywhere and can really make or break and image.


6. Diagonal leading elements

When framing an image always try to keep in mind how your main elements interact with each other. Are they leading you into the image? Are they converging? To add more drama or uncertainty to the image look for elements that are at more of a diagonal angle instead of straight horizontal or vertical.


7. Space to move within the frame

When photographing moving objects they need someplace to go inside the frame so never place them directly in the middle of the frame. This can also be true when photographing people if they are looking off to one side then leave them a little space to do that. For instance if you are taking a shot of someone speaking and they are looking to the right then leave some space to the right.


8. Backgrounds

This is a big one! Always pay attention to your backgrounds. If the background is distracting then the image will fail. Using a long lens can separate your subject from the background or using a wide open f-stop can do the same thing. A combination of both is killer it will wipe out the background. This is evidenced with sports photography where big glass and wide open apertures are king.


9. Paying attention to color and tone

Using color and tone to frame your images can make or break them. Colors that are not complimentary to each other can create conflict within an image which will affect how people view the image. Bright colors or tones (B&W) can also affect how an image is viewed. Using one main color or tone surrounded by muted color or tone works well. This will tend to give the image some stability.


10. Rule Breaking

I am a fan of breaking rules if the image calls for it. So be creative and if it works go with it. Just because it does not follow a rule does not mean it does not convey what you saw or felt. The most effective images are the ones that put the viewer into the scene or convey a mood that the photographer wants to convey.


© Copyright Kirk R. Williamson