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The Color of Light


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BY Brian Stoppee, Janet Stoppee May 15, 2010 · Published by Focal Press

Understanding the characteristics of light is fundamental to the craft of photography. Get a handle on them with this excerpt from Brian and Janet and Stoppee's Focal Press book.

This article has been contributed from Rocky Nook Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Rocky Nook’s online features, visit the Rocky Nook website.

This excerpt from Stoppees' Guide to Photography & Light is provided courtesy of Focal Press. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Focal Press website.






Chapter 1

The Color of Light

Light is the most positive energy we know. It reveals truth. Most of the energy that light emits strikes a surface, bounces off , and then goes elsewhere. Light is so essential that we cannot exist without it. Our lives depend on light as much as they do upon water. Through photography, we capture for ourselves and share with others the glory of that positive, critical energy. Just like life, light brings us great joy. Light comes in many colors. As photographers, we are communicators of light. The images that we create enter the body through the eyes and travel to the brain, evoking a response. Love the light, the energy, the joy, the color: communicate positively for the rest of your life. Celebrate and share every visual exploration.

A Colorful Day of Sunlight

At approximately, noon, on a clear day, we have a relatively even distribution of the sunlight’s color wavelength.

Light and Air Molecules

Throughout the day, light must travel through air molecules. These molecules scatter a portion of the light’s rays. As they scatter, the color of light changes.

Earlier and later in the day, light strikes the earth at an angle, and travels a greater distance. The light travels through hundreds more miles of air molecules in the early morning and late evening than it does at noon.



Dawn and Dusk Wavelengths

At dawn, some of the blue wavelength is absent. The air molecules have filtered out some of the wavelengths.

The opposite is true of the color of light after sunset. The sun’s light is rich in blue, come evening.

At both dawn and dusk, depending on sky conditions, nature bathes subjects in light with an orange or peachy tone. Some photographers refer to these as the “golden hours.” These windows of opportunity to photograph such tones are brief. Preproduction planning is a necessity. (For more on wise planning, please see Chapter 5, “Preproduction Smarts”).

Throughout the day, the sun travels across the sky; the color of light changes. What we shoot at 7:30 a.m. will have a diff erent color base than what we shoot at 12:30 p.m.

Communicating Time of Day

As photographers, we learn to use these colors to communicate the moods that are associated with these times of day. We use the time of day to create a different mood for what says “early morning” than what clearly conveys to our viewer the sense of what happens in the early aft ernoon.

Clean, neat children boarding the school bus works well with morning color tones.

Planning to Capture Color

Planning to capture color can mean that photographers and their crew need to be on location before the sun rises or striking the setup after dark.

Sometimes that sort of schedule is not an easy sell with assistants, stylists, and models. This schedule takes discipline. We make sure that our entire team sees every shoot as an exciting opportunity to capture what will only happen once. We make it fun, at all hours. Pacing our shoots is important, too.

A ten-hour day, from setup to strike, maximizes everyone’s energy. Be sure that everyone’s energy remains up and it’s a good time, for all.

The Challenges of Light’s Limited Intensity

As enjoyable and dramatic as the effects of dusk and dawn illumination can be, the lack of that illumination’s intensity creates exposure challenges. (Please see the start of Chapter 2, “Digital Exposure and Optics”) Shutter speeds and aperture openings can present limitations, especially if we need to set the sensitivity of our cameras to 100, for maximum resolution and limited noise.

The further the light source is from our subject, the less intense the light becomes. Sometimes in nature, we have no choice but to work with what we are given. Our philosophy is to enjoy what we have and make the most of it.


The Temperature of Light

Winter’s cold. Summer’s hot. If the thermometer says 20° Fahrenheit, we better bundle up. If the nurse sees that we have a body temperature of 100°F, we’re running a fever. We are used to these common events and their associated temperatures.

At first, it’s not easy for us to associate being able to measure light and express it with temperature.

There’s a great deal of science to understanding light. This science requires precise tools of expression.

The Kelvin Scale

If we heat something enough, it will glow. Something that’s totally black doesn’t glow at all. It’s at 0 on the Kelvin scale. This corresponds to something as unimaginably cold as -459.67°F.

Just as we express degrees Fahrenheit with F and Celsius with C, temperatures measured in kelvins are indicated by K.

We don’t get a great deal of warmth when we light a match, yet without question, the match glows for a while. Th at glowing little match fits on the Kelvin scale at around 1,700 K. A basic household lamp burns at around 3,000 K.

The other end of the visible Kelvin scale can be related to a sky that is heavily overcast. Everything looks quite cool. That might have a light temperature of around 10,000 K.

Doesn’t That Seem a Little Odd?

Something that we see as warm, on the Kelvin scale, is 1,700 K and something that’s cold is 10,000 K?

When we establish, in our minds, some standard reference points (like the match and the household lamp), it eventually becomes second nature to us.

Noon Sunlight = 5,500 K

A great reference point is noon sunlight on a fabulously clear day. It measures at 5,500 K. Back in the days of film, that was considered “daylight.” It’s still our reference standard.

Five Basic Color Temperatures

For photographic purposes, there are five color temperatures to become familiar with:

Incandescent. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3,000 K

Fluorescent . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4,200 K

Daylight/Flash. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5,500 K

Cloudy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6,000 K

Shade . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8,000 K

These temperatures are approximations. Conditions in nature cause variations. Manufacturers specifications, plus the lifespan of the light source, cause these numbers to fluctuate, too.

Kelvin temperature varies dramatically, based on the conditions of the environment in which the light is received.

Allow your mind to process the full visible spectrum of what is neutral, at 5,500 K, what is “warm,” on one side, and what is “cool” on the other. With time, the Kelvin scale will become how your eye sees and how your brain processes the color of light. (Please see pages 22 and 23 for more on how your eye and mind play a significant role in perceiving color.)

The sun’s surface is around 6,000 K.

When we heat iron, until it glows red, it’s around 3,000 K. Once it glows so much that it becomes “white-hot,” the iron, like the sun’s surface is around 6,000 K. If the iron were to become so hot that it vaporized, the gas it gave off would appear blue. Th is would be way out on the Kelvin Scale at around 20,000 K.


The ambient light in an outdoor shooting environment is composed of two elements: the light from the sun, plus what the sky reflects back to the earth. These combine to create variations in color temperature. On a sunny day, the light coming from that blue dome above the earth is strong, but the direct rays of the sunlight are stronger.

The stronger the skylight, the more blue our images appear. This effect can show up in some shadow details.

On a lightly overcast or hazy day, the sunlight and skylight combine for a color temperature in the 7,000-8,000 K range. We can accept and enjoy this look or we can make some corrections.

Heavier overcast conditions at 10,000 K are not as easy to adjust.

When considering the color of ambient light, there’s more to it than what the sun delivers, directly. The sunlight that strikes the sky creates what can be referred to as “skylight.” The more strongly skylight exerts its influence on our images the greater the presence of blue.

The Year in Light

Because the earth orbits the sun on a tilted access, we have 365 more reasons to get out and capture images every day.

Light in the tropics is not as affected by seasonal changes. However, elsewhere on the planet, the angle of light goes through dramatic change.


In the colder months, not only do we have fewer minutes of daylight, but also our angle of light is low. We can capture some beautiful long shadows in the snow.

In Washington, DC, on December 21 the sun rises at 7:23 a.m. and sets at 4:50 p.m. This timing provides only 9 hours and 27 minutes of daylight.

Some think of winter as a bleak time to shoot outdoors. Yet the lack of leaves provide vistas that are otherwise unseen. Because of the longer shadows, some dramatic visual statements can be made.

Snow scenes provide high-contrast opportunities, because the white surroundings pop out the subject with fewer and/or less distinct foreground and background elements in the composition. The light that strikes the snow refl ects back onto the subject. Illumination is more evenly distributed on some subjects.

Winter scenes can be quite serene and pastoral. Th ey also can provide a few lighting challenges. Some cameras, in auto exposure modes, provide results that can be a half to a full stop darker than expected. (For more on this please see Chapter 3, “Measuring Light and Color.”)


About thirteen weeks later, we have 166 more minutes of daylight, with the sun rising at 6:09 a.m. and setting at 6:22 p.m., for more than 12 hours of shooting time, and plenty of natural illumination to enjoy.

Spring’s light in the northern hemisphere is infl uenced by the planet tilting more toward the sun. Shadows change as spring approaches. Monitoring the progress of the flora, coming out of dormancy allows the photographer to capture blooms at their fullest, on the perfect day with the best illumination and finest weather.


By June 21, the sun rises at 4:43 a.m. and doesn’t set until 7:37 p.m. With 14 hours and 54 minutes of well-illuminated shooting time, plus those extra dramatic minutes before and aft er, we can knock ourselves out with a potentially exhausting 15-hour work day.

With the earth now at the closest to the sun, at the summer solstice, some consider the light of this season to be best for colorful, well-saturated images, often with shorter shadow length, as the sun is at its highest point. At this time of year, the sun is directly overhead at the equator at noon.

Some find this time of day over the summer to be a bit harsh. Under hot and humid conditions, talent and the rest of the crew are not always at their most productive.

Good sunscreens are essential throughout the year, as is proper fluid intake. For summer shoots, keeping everyone safe from UV exposure and dehydration is critical.

Always plan a shoot responsibly.


By the autumnal equinox we are back to around 12 hours of daylight with sunrise at 5:55 a.m. and sunset at 6:06 p.m., Yet these 731 minutes of light offer some spectacular color as the chroma of leaves that the eye perceives as green now reveal their hidden brilliant tones and hues that the diminishing light, precipitation, and temperatures coax out of them for our photographic bliss.

Summer’s more harsh moments diminish, as the sun’s angle is no longer at 60° above the horizon in most of the northern hemisphere.

As with the spring, monitoring nature’s conditions provides a photographer with many once- in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Throughout the year the sun’s angle changes. Not only is there more or less light every day than the day before but the angle of light, striking a surface has changed, as well.

Light’s Direction

When shooting expansive scenic images, the photographer is at the mercy of the sun’s position, for the direction of light.

Of course, when photographing smaller scenes outdoors, we have many light modification options. (Please see Chapter 8, “Man-Made Modifi ers,” for more on this.)

The angle of light creates a visual statement that can be part of a photographer’s style signature. Having an eye for using the light to your advantage changes what an image communicates to the viewer. Because the angle of illumination is much like taking a light source and making a trip around the globe with it, the possibilities seem infinite.

Nature’s Direction

For the majority of the day, natural illumination comes from above, so any departure from that creates a unique image. Outdoor objects facing east are front-lit in the morning and backlit in the afternoon.

When shooting outdoors, scout your site whenever possible, so that you can plan for the best light on your shot list’s schedule. (Please see Chapter 5, “Preproduction Smarts,” for more on this.)

Five Angles of Light

To assist you in pondering your options for light, we’ll narrow them down.

1. Frontal

To some, frontal illumination is too flat and at other times it feels harsh. However, its benefits include few visible shadows. It hides many imperfections and, if soft enough, can be somewhat fl attering. It goes along with the old rule that photographers should stand with the sun behind them. Oft en the meter in a camera is a safe bet for this sort of light. Front lighting often accentuates color. When photographing people, if the frontal light source is too strong, the subject might squint.

2. Overhead

Some photographers have given overhead illumination a bad name, too, because it does not have the drama that other angles of light provide. However, some situations work well when the area is simply well-lit and other visual elements, such as the subject or the optics make their own statement. Modifiers help to lessen harsh shadows.

3. Side

There’s a great deal of drama in sidelighting. It’s oft en characterized by distinctive shadows and highlights. The hidden details in the shadows create a sense of mystery. If one side is well-illuminated and the opposite side is not, the subject has a very three-dimensional feeling to it.

4. Rim

When the primary light source creates a high- light on the edge of the subject, a dramatic rim light effect rivets attention to the main event, in the photo. This approach can allow the subject to go dark, or the rim light can be the most powerful of various sources of illumination. Rim light can also be known as hair light.

5. Backlight

Silhouettes are not the only use of backlight. This dramatic lighting vehicle tends to pop out the subject’s shape. When used with other light sources, backlight gives the subject a very three-dimensional quality. Some of the subject’s texture and detail are lost, which may be exactly what you want.

Don’t just look at your subject, study it. Envision how light will affect how the subject would be rendered differently if the light moved from here to there. Consider the possibilities and draw yourself a mental picture.

What Your Eye Sees

Our eyes are much like a camera. There’s a lens. We have a pupil, which works like an aperture, automatically adjusting how much light is allowed into the eyeball.

Our Retina - The Photographic Film of the Eye

There’s also the magical light-sensitive inner layer that works like photographic film: the retina. It receives the images formed by the lens and transmits them to the brain through the optic nerve. In an outer layer of the back of the brain lies the occipital lobe. That’s where we process the color information that our retina hands off, along with visual tasks and motion perception.

The retina has rod cells that are highly sensitive to light, but not to color. The rods respond even in very dim light or darkness.

Our retinas have a contrast ratio at any time equal to around 6½ f-stops. However, as our rod cells are able to adjust so well, we have an amazing dynamic range of about twenty f-stops.

Though we have two eyes, which work independently of each other. Together, the brain uses them to assist our dimension perception.

Much like in a camera, the image that the retina sees is upside-down and reversed. Our indispensable brains correct this, too.

Trichromatic Color Vision

Along with the retina’s rods, we have cone cells, which allow us to perceive color. These photosensitive cones are receptive to short, medium, and long wavelengths of light. We refer to the cone that receives the long wavelengths as the red receptor, because it is responsible for the perception of red. However, its peak sensitivity is in the greenish-yellow region of the spectrum. The medium and short wavelength cones are not necessarily blue and green, either, even though they are often described that way. We use the RGB color model to represent how the cones of the human eye work. We call this trichromatic color vision.

Relating the colors that the cones of our retina communicate to just red, green, and blue is deceptive. Those three primary colors blend to form a vast color model.

Color Perception

We perceive color based on the wavelengths that are reflected off the subject that we see.

This is what a green pepper looks like under 3,200 Kelvin lighting conditions.

Here’s what your brain tells you that it looks like, having adjusted it by 2,300 K.

How Your Brain Compensates

We might think that a red dress emits red light, but the dress absorbs all wavelengths except the red ones and then reflects the red wavelength. We know that the dress is red only because we are able to distinguish those wavelengths. Some mammals are able to see a greater spectrum than humans and other mammals have no color perception at all.

Chromatic Adaptation

Once the image has been conveyed to the brain from the retina, the brain goes to work making color compensations for what information has been handed to it. We perceive that certain objects should be certain colors. A green pepper should always be green, whether we see it in daylight, under incandescent illumination, or during a cloudy day. (Please see pages 16 & 17 to further understand the color of light.)

Your digital camera’s sensor makes no such adjustment. It reads the green pepper based on the quality of light that is falling on it. Th is optical illusion that our brains play is called “chromatic adaptation,” sometimes known as “color constancy.” As photographers, we need to think as our image capture systems think (or don’t think). We cannot let our chromatic adaptation tell us that what our cameras will capture will match what our brains are correcting. We have to rely instead on the sophisticated instruments in our finer cameras and color meters (examined in Chapters 2 and 3).

The retina of your eye is its film. It relays the images to the brain for processing. The brain is much like Adobe Camera Raw in Twin Turbo mode. It makes the color corrections, creating pleasing scenes even when the light makes them less than fabulous.

The Lubricated Eye

Do you want to see with greater clarity? Keep your eyes well lubricated. It makes a difference. Always have eye drops at a shoot.

Color’s Palette

In his early twenties, Isaac Newton explored the behavior of sunlight through glass prisms. To this day, we too are fascinated by how seemingly pure light enters one side of a triangular block of glass and the colors of the rainbow emerge from the other side.

Not only did Newton see the prism break light into rays of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, but the colors blended without seams.

Though that was the year 1666, and this is the twenty-first century, we must explore with the same sort of gusto as did Isaac Newton. We must have a daily, lifelong fascination with light and color.

Color Theory Then and Now

Tradition color theory is concerned with mixing the paint that went on canvases.

Today we have to apply color theory to digital color management.

We now create in the additive color world of the red, green, and blue primary colors. It’s now all about how our liquid crystal displays translate pixels into color displays for our computers and camera backs, rather than oil paint for canvas. To make it more challenging, when we print our work, the RGB image is translated into four to nine inks based on the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) color model, familiar to large printing presses. (For more on color models, please see Chapter 4, “Light, Color, and Use”).

Communicating Color

Traditionally, the photographer’s discussion of color was limited to “a warm scene” or “cool light.” Obviously, reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows commonly say “warm,” and blue and green signal “cool.”

With all the visual tools available to us, today’s photographer has even more reason to become a significant visual communicator.

Many successful photographers have mastered the technical aspects of the medium. Some of those who really shine at photography not only have a well-trained creative eye, but are able to articulate visual principles to create a collaborative environment with everyone involved in a project.

Sun’s Palette

One aspect of understanding light is the relationship that colors have with each other.

Sunlight has a remarkable assortment of visible levels of warmth and coldness over the course of a day. (Please see pages 14 & 15 for more on this.) Choose a single outdoor scene and revisit it throughout the day. Be there at daybreak, when the sun is not yet above the horizon. Don’t just capture this with your camera, but also determine how you will communicate what you see to others. Are there muted blues? What is unique about greens in the grass and trees? Does the coolness of the scene cause you to describe the blues and greens as “exaggerated”? Would you call the earth tones “blue and subdued”?

Next, return to the same spot at noon. On a clear day, the sunlight is made up of roughly equal amounts of warm and cool colors. How would you describe the color of the same subjects? What has a fairly neutral color balance?

Finally, go back there just before sunset. Capture and describe what you see. Do warm colors now predominate? With what colors has the sun washed the scene? What’s glowing? Are there rays of yellow, red, and gold that you would term as, “romantic”?

For the most part, the physical elements of the scene have not changed. The subjects have the same qualities 24/7. What has changed is the quality of the ambient light. Th is change should have altered your perception of the landscape. With a keen sense of what has evolved over the course of twelve to sixteen

Neutral Density Gray

hours, this should have evoked an emotional response from you. Chances are that you have had many years behind the camera, maybe even going back to your childhood. You have seen many of your own photographic images and you have surely been studying the images of others. How well can you articulate what you are experiencing? This project in communication involves more than your ability to talk about photography. More importantly, it forces you to carefully examine what you are seeing.

Many experienced photographers may have a visual awareness of the palette of hues to be found in daylight. They may bring back some great images. They may also find themselves using color well to create remarkable photographic images, almost without thinking about it.

For photographers to reach their full potential, they need to carefully examine not only the images that they are creating, but also the experiences that are streaming into their eyes. By forcing themselves to explore and express these experiences, photographers grow and become who they are meant to be.

The majority of the light that strikes a white card is reflected, and a black card absorbs just about all the light that comes its way.

Being average is not the aspiration of any diligent creative soul. Yet understanding what average is all about is key to the technical side of using light to our greatest advantage.

We can distill all of life’s most beautiful visuals to an average value of 18% gray. This is known as neutral density. Of the light that falls on most subjects, 18% is reflected.

A basic camera’s built-in meter depends on neutral density to deliver acceptable results in average automatic exposure situations. (For more on use of a gray card in exposure, please see Chapter 3, “Measuring Light and Color.”)

A bright white surface absorbs only 10% of the light energy that falls upon it, reflecting 90%. A dense black surface absorbs the majority of the light, reflecting very little.

Keeping these principles of reflection in mind is key to understanding not only exposure, but also the quality of light that we capture. Knowing what is average assists us in creating what is unique.

Minimum Density: Super White

Testing to be certain that film processing is up to specification is essential before the customers’ precious images are sent through the chemical baths. The same is true of keeping the photographic paper processing accurate.

D-Min and D-Max: Total Contrast

An essential tool in the photo lab business is the densitometer. “Densitometry” measures the optical density of light sensitive materials. “D-Min” and “D-Max” refer to the minimum and maximum density that can be recorded on the material.

If it’s film, D-Min is relatively clear. In the case of paper, D-Min is white. On the other side of the tonal spectrum D-Max is as black as it can get. These are total contrast values.

Photographing Absence

We can make dramatic visual statements by what we photograph, but not as much as by what we do not capture in an image. A subject surrounded by light rivets our attention on just the subject. All of the background and foreground goings-on are absent. Our atten- tion is fully drawn to the subject. Th e stark qualities of super white give us nothing else to see. (Please also see the section “High-Key” later in this chapter on pages 50 & 51.)

Maximum Density: Blackest Black

The mystery of total darkness is both intriguing and at sometimes frightening. There is so much that is hidden in the blackness. Yet, like a central subject immediately surrounded by super white, with black all around the outside edge of the image, our attention is driven strictly to the central visual message.

The simplicity of the black causes the subject to jump out of the image. There’s nothing else for us to see. A model on black looking into the camera’s lens appears bold and unafraid. The same talent, looking away from the camera with a less self-assured appearance, can evoke natural feelings of concern for the subject from the viewer.

For product photography, a black surround may cause the viewer to want to know more. The blackness is an excellent convention to tease and entice, at the risk of appearing less than forthright. If not done correctly, the audience could wonder, “What aren’t they telling me?”

Much like those who would prefer to be a few pounds thinner, and therefore wear black seemingly 365 days a year, photographing someone on black with limited illumination can hide many sins. (Please also see “Low-Key” later in this chapter on pages 52 & 53.)

Angles of Incidence and Reflection

Frustration plagues photographers who are faced with unwanted reflections. It becomes even more exasperating when one is trying to create an even reflection on a subject and is unable to achieve the desired effect.

The Angle of Incidence

Learning a few basic principles of physics can relieve many of these photographic annoyances. Consider it fundamental to understand some of these technical aspects of photography. The more fully you comprehend these sorts of things, the more prolific you will become at image-making.

Any ray of light that strikes a surface is said to be “incident.” The angle of incidence is then the angle of that light ray.

The Angle of Reflectance

If the incident light strikes the surface at 45° to the camera’s axis, it will refl ect that light at an equal and opposite angle, -45°. The principles are that simple.

It’s just as easy to put this into practice. When photographing a city building with plenty of glass windows, you see reflections of the buildings across the street. If you are looking directly at the building, you may even

What’s Seen… What’s Hidden

see a reflection of yourself about to make the photograph. Move down the sidewalk a few yards. Now the reflected subject material will have changed. Try the same thing, moving even further down the sidewalk, but in the opposite direction. As you move, so the reflections change.

Next, try photographing the hood of a dark car on a crisp day. Notice how the sky is reflected in the hood. As you move about the car, you see different reflections of the sky. In both of these situations, you witnessed how the angle of incoming light varied, as you changed your camera angle.

This angle becomes significant in work with artificial illumination, especially in dealing with shiny surfaces. Sometimes the reflection of your light source in the subject becomes a signifi cant part of the image’s success. In this situation, you are able to move the light source to accommodate your vision.

In each example, some of the reflections are seen and some are hidden. It’s your choice.

Commit this to memory: “Angle of Incidence = Angle of Reflectance.”

Another excellent example is copying artwork that is both textured and glossy. (Please see the section “Copying Flat Art” in Chapter 13, “Digital Studio Flash,” pages 396 & 397 for further information.)

When working with artificial illumination, the lighting instruments create reflections of themselves. This can become especially perplexing when shooting multi-faceted crystal. Keeping in mind how the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflectance will assist you in solving challenges.


Is it really “all done with mirrors”? Well, in a sense, yes! The only reason we see anything is because energy that is not absorbed by a subject is reflected.

The more polished and glossy a surface is, the more the image includes reflections.

This knowledge should rev your creative engines. The possibilities are endless for the great refl ected objects that you can find.

Patterns in Nature

Some natural events create beautiful patterns, such as raindrops falling in a puddle. Other great images are created on rain-soaked pavements both during the day and at night.

Nature’s Mirrors

Some wonderful, graphic images can be found in nature where one object is the direct reflection of another. A great example is a swan on a lake. We see both the swan and the swan’s reflection. Try skipping the swan and see what a kind of a story you can tell with just the reflection of the swan.


A never-ending array of images can be captured and tell the story of city life. A building with highly reflective glass is a gem of a find. Images of people on the go, as seen by their reflection, create an abstract sense of fast-paced life. Sometimes the static quality of the huge edifice forms an intriguing contrast to the blurred action in the reflections.


There are touching photographic tales to be told of a child’s joyful face in a window, where Santa can be seen indoors, or a happy youngster captured in the reflection of a sparkling Christmas ornament.

Memories in Mirrors

Some fabulous unforgettable moments can be seen through the images of mirrors, such as a mother and her daughter on her wedding day, as they get ready, together. The same is true of a father with his young son, as seen in the mirror of a barbershop during his first haircut.

Abstract Elements

Other rewarding finds are reflective surfaces that form abstract shapes and create undefined images. Water in gentle motion creates mysterious photos. The windows of a bus or train as it’s pulling away depict energy that’s happening, as do the reflective surfaces of an airport terminal.

Keep your eyes open. Let your imagination explore.

Surfaces and Textures Everywhere

Whether you’re photographing an object or a human face, there are surfaces and textures everywhere. They are all absorbing and reflecting light. Understanding how to make the most of them, so that your visual voice says exactly what you want to be heard, must be high on your priority list.

Observe Light’s Effects on Textures

Before you go any further in your discovery process of what textures do to the light that strikes them, ferret out a few images that feature textures. Concentrate on those that impress you with how the light makes a special statement about the texture.

What Is Texture?

Ponder that question for a bit. Your first impression of texture could be something like weathered wood or well-worn burlap. An impressive photographic texture is also a baby’s cheek or highly polished gold.

The most successful photographic renditions of texture are the ones that cause you to believe you can almost feel the surface, right on your fingertips.

In other cases, a photographer has done an excellent job if we cannot see much of the texture at all.

The Skin’s Textures

Portraits of elderly, hardworking fishermen aside, photographers are often expected to photograph people with all the flattering light possible. All clues to a person’s age can be revealed through texture.

From the day we are born, gravity takes over, along with all the other natural elements. It’s seen in our wrinkles; it’s in our pores, no matter how well we take care of ourselves. We have our nicks and dings.

As photographers, we celebrate a face. We have the fabulous opportunity to make someone feel great about themselves. Our images allow another person to cherish the picture of a loved one next year, next decade, next century.

We are storytellers.

Softer light can both hide texture, as it wraps around the imperfections, providing smoother transitions from highlights to shadows, or it can bring out shadow details that harder light can hide.

Texture and Color

There’s a great story to be told about color and texture. Yet sometimes the story is best told in black and white.

In well-illuminated conditions, textures come off the page. This is due in part to the higher contrast. It can make some color situations quite aggressive. On other occasions, an absence of color makes a far greater statement. It focuses the viewer’s attention on the raw texture in the image.

Light’s Angle Accentuates Texture

Play with the angle of light on a surface. The lower the angle, across a surface, the more shadows are created. As we create more shadows, the texture becomes all the more obvious. If it is our goal to make the texture scream, we need to accentuate that angle. However, if we’re covering imperfections we need to softly flood the subject with light.

Surface Reflections

Light strikes a smooth surface and cleanly bounces off, like a fast ball, swiftly moving on its way. All the light that strikes the entire surface moves in concert.

On surfaces that are more textured than smooth, light hangs around for a while and knocks about from here to there.

Direct Reflection

A smooth, glossy, flat surface sends light in one direct reflection. If all the light comes in from one direction, it travels off in one direction, too, like a very precise marching band. If the surface is polished enough, the light creates a hot spot.

Specular Reflection

Some glossy surfaces that are not flat scatter their reflection over the shape of the surface. Though the light may come in evenly, it is reflected based on the shape of the subject.

A uniform, single-directional light that strikes a textured surface, scatters in many directions. This behavior is unlike that of a smooth surface, which reflects light in an even manner. A textured reflector produces softer light.

Understand Speculars

The photographic term “specular” means mirror-like.

To see it in action, look in a mirror, in a well-lit space, while adjusting the angle of a hand-held mirror, under your face. You’ll see little hot spots move across your face, as the mirror catches light and reflects it back. That hot spot is an instance of specularity.

Diffuse Reflection

When rays of light strike a course-textured surface, they scatter all over the place, depending on how rough the surface is. The more faceted the surface, the broader and more varied the diffused reflection.

Plenty of Highlights

Highlights make or break a photo. It’s all about pushing the drama to the limit, but not crossing over the line. As the name implies, highlights should provide visual excitement.

Too Hot?

Some of what passes as excellent to you, as a photographer, might not be all that acceptable to someone else. Fortunately, it’s all a matter of personal judgment when you’re shooting for your own pleasure.

When you’re working in a commercial environment, though, there are some rules to follow.

Highlights can become too “hot.” We can define “hot” as an absence of detail. Obviously, the highlights on a white object are going to be white. If the highlights on skin tone are white, the image is considered to be overexposed.

Diffused Highlight

Every image has a neutral zone. It’s the portion of the image where the exposure is perfect for the intended use. You meter for that space on your subject. (Please see Chapter 3, “Measuring Light and Color” for more on this).

In a head shot, a fair amount of the face is usually in that neutral territory. We call this a “diffused highlight.” Finding the diffused highlight is the key to preferred exposure.

Some of this is technical and the rest is built into your creative mind. When you envision how to photographically portray a subject, ask yourself where the neutral territory is? How broadly spread is the diff used highlight on the subject?

Specular Highlight

The hottest spot on a subject is your specular highlight. Of course, some subjects, like the human form, have many contours, so there can easily be more than one specular highlight. However, keep compositional elements in mind, as too many specular highlights can easily distract the eye.

The specular highlight is an attention-getter. Your viewer’s eye will automatically make it a central focal point.

Imagine a woman in a low-cut dress, lit from overhead. If the specular highlight is on her cleavage, that’s where the viewers’ eyes are going to focus, especially if she is not looking directly into the lens. (Though your subject is two-dimensional and frozen in time, the normal human reaction is to stare more at someone who is not making eye contact with the audience.)

Specular Form

Give some thought to the shape that the specular highlight creates on your subject. It says a great deal about the rest of the image.

If you are photographing a grouping of balls on a billiard table, do the specular highlights take a round form, as if there is a globe-shaped lamp above them? Are these hot spots rectangular, as if the table is near a window? If lit artificially, do the specular highlights mimic natural conditions?

Specular Edge

Some specular highlights will have a harder quality to them than others. Soft or hard, the “specular edge” is defi ned as that transition space between the specular highlight and the neutral area that is known as specular diffusion. An extremely soft specular edge does not draw too much attention to the highlight. The hard specular edge makes a louder statement about the lighting conditions.

Plenty of Shadows

Shadows are the companions to highlights, when we are talking about the resulting light quality of a subject. Without shadows, diffused highlights would have limited form.

Umbra and Penumbra

There are shadows that fall in the opposite direction of a light source. Like a lunar eclipse, these shadows cast an “umbra” from an opaque object, where the shadow is the darkest. With it is a “penumbra,” a partially shaded region, as the shadow transitions out. Some of these shadows are short and others can be quite long. Crafty photographers fi nd ways to prevent very little of these shadows from being seen.

A Subject’s Shadowy Side

For now, our primary interest is the shadowy effect on one or more sides of a subject. These shadows are, in essence, the opposite of a highlight. They literally round out the subject and convey a sense of three-dimensional qualities. It’s tough to have a highlight on a three-dimensional subject under a single light source, without having a shadow.

Shadow Detail

It goes against our creative grain to apply hard rules regarding how lighting designs must be implemented. What works well for one photographer may not create the desired effect for another.

Extensive lighting contrast creates a mysterious mood; details are hidden. Such images allow the audience to imagine what is not seen. The lack of detail allows the viewers to create some of the story in their own minds.

However, if the goal is to allow the target audience to fully examine the details of the model’s mohair sweater, all the shadow details must be seen. (Which can make for an unhappy client, and too many of them can cause economic hardship!)

Balancing Highlights and Shadows

There’s a balancing act not only between highlights and shadows but between creative imagination and technical application. What lives in your mind (or that of your client) may not always be easy to achieve, technically. (If you have not read the previous two page spread, on highlights, please study it, along with the next two pages, on creating highlights and controlling shadows.) As usual, compromises are often a necessity to accomplish happy results.

In short, you need to strike a balance in both how your diff used highlight transitions into shadow and how much detail is revealed in that shadow. Th is is what creative problem solving is all about.

Shadow Edge

The shadow edge is a transition area. When you create a hard-edged shadow, the transition happens over a small area. If, however, that area is quite broad, the shadow’s edge is soft and gradual. The hard edge draws attention to itself and becomes a signifi cant character in the visual story line. The soft edge may still be a significant player but does not upstage the subject.

Specular Shadow

If a subject is next to a dark object, that dark object not only absorbs the light that falls upon it, but also steals the light of the subject, and the dark object casts its image upon the subject, too.

To understand how this works, place a shiny white ball (such as a cue ball) on a billiard table. Prop up a black card next to the ball. Watch how the while ball mirrors the black card. Th e ball now has a dark area on it. The ball mirrors the dark card, fitting the definition of specular. Though we tend to think of a mirror creating a highlight, a dark object can be mirrored in the subject, too.

Create a Highlight; Control a Shadow

When photographing a broad outdoor scenic image at one of the seven wonders of the world in the middle of the day, there isn’t a great deal of lighting control that we can exert.

In smaller spaces, however, there are many lighting tools at our disposal. (For more on this, please see Chapter 8, “Man-Made Modifiers.”)

The photographic team needs to take control of a situation to not only flex their creative muscles, but also ensure the best technical outcome.

Every time a highlight is created on a three-dimensional subject, a shadow results. Controlling the two are what successful photographers are made of.

Subtractive Contrast Control

In the white ball/dark card example on page 36, the card removed brightness from one side of the subject. The card is our tool of lighting control; and it created a contrasting effect. Therefore, it is referred to as “subtractive contrast control.”

Additive Contrast Control

The opposite of the subtractive contrast control is our ability to affect the subject’s light quality with an additive control. Before you move that white billiard ball, slip the black 8 ball in front of it and to the right, so that the two balls are touching.

The white ball reflects the black ball. Now, use a white sheet of paper and slide it almost under the black ball, but hold it up. White is reflected onto the black ball. In doing this, you have explored “additive contrast control.” You have changed the contrast of that black ball with your sheet of white paper.

Imagine this with a human face. As light falls on one side of the face, creating a shadow on the other, a large white reflector softens the shadow. Now, imagine how much light a silver reflector would create. Consider how much greater that light would be from a mirror.

Key Light

All these examples work with the reflectors, because they manipulate the light that is coming from the main light source. This source is also referred to as the “key light.”

Ambient Conditions

In outdoor photography, in direct sunlight, the key light often comes from solar radiation. If it’s sunny enough, someone lying on a grassy area will have a natural green reflector, under them. It provides a very natural appearance, but do you really want that green? At times your ambient conditions create a challenge. Yet again, it’s your job to control the work environment. The more that you learn about the tools at your disposal, the greater the expert problem solver you will become.

Surface Efficiency

Every surface absorbs a certain degree of light energy and reflects what’s left. The efficiency of the surface has to do with it’s shape, texture, color, and other features. A white, flat, opaque surface can be 90% efficient.

Specular Diffusion

Just like how sunlight becomes diffused once clouds begin to fill the sky, you can control the highlights that you create with diffusion material. Imagine the harsh direct noon light of a sunny summer’s day. It makes models squint their eyes. Now imagine a white bed linen coming between the sun and the talent. The specular highlights soften, as do the shadows. (By the way, bed linens are not a very efficient means of diffusing light. Too much illumination is reflected, not transmitted through the fabric, which reduce the exposure opportunities. The light that does pass through the cloth tends to shift the color balance of the entire image). Don’t necessarily do all the things we ask you to imagine!


There’s a crazy, misguided philosophy that with digital photography you can just shoot the picture, no matter what, and fix it later in Adobe Photoshop. While it is true that Photoshop and its Camera Raw plug-in allow you to do things that were previously unimaginable, even in the early 1990s, you still need on-the-money exposure to produce a great digital image.

The work you do after the image is taken is generally referred to as “postproduction.”

When the lead actor in a feature film becomes ill and can’t work that day, someone might be heard saying in jest, “No problem; we’ll fix it in post.” Similarly, when your exposure is off by six or seven stops, it will do you just about as much good to say, “We’ll fix it in Photoshop.” Like the actor, it’s just not there.

Never allow yourself to think that you can do a lousy, haphazard job in production and make up for it in postproduction. Not only will you have a poor raw image, but you are saying, “My time is worthless.”

Every moment of your life is valuable. Make the most of it.

When you’re working in Photoshop, do great new things to make your images even better, rather than making up for what you did poorly with the initial production. Start with the proper illumination. Understand the brightness range of the photo. Expose for the desired result.

Expose for the Diffused Highlight

As we discuss on pages 34 and 35, the diffused highlight is everything when it comes to determining exposure.

Think of that brightness neutral zone as a child’s swing at rest. When the swing moves forward, it’s heading toward the highlights. The shadows are when the swing goes backwards from its resting point. If you swing way too far in either direction, you risk falling off or breaking the swing set!

Brighter Is Better

In most cases, the brighter the shooting environment, the better your chances of grabbing a great photograph. Your sophisticated digital single lens reflex (dSLR) camera has all the means of dealing with bright ambient conditions, but has fewer preferred remedies to insufficient illumination. Keep “brighter is better” in the forefront of your production planning mind.

Brightness Range

Tone and color combine to form a brightness range. This range of brightness runs from the photograph’s most specular highlight detail to the darkest visible detail in a shadow.

Always keep the analogy of the swing in mind. A safe dependable brightness is five stops from the highlight to the shadow.

Therefore, if your diffused highlight is f/8, the specular highlight is f/4 and the shadow detail is f/16. Think of the raw photo as your starting point and the end use as the finish line. We go into the reasons for how brightness ranges vary in Chapter 4, “Light, Color, and Use.” The end use determines everything. For some uses, such as exhibit prints, your brightness range can be greater. However, if your images are intended for everything from the Web, to television and to media that is not on your mind at this moment, you have to think conservatively about brightness.

Photoshop Done Right

When you do get down to business in Adobe Camera Raw, you may want to adjust your exposure and brightness before creating the working file. You are better off if you have great highlight exposure. If the highlight information is not there, it’s tougher to successfully recover that element of the raw image. It’s easier to run the exposure and brightness controls down a bit than to bump them up. (Please see Chapter 6, “Raw Files and Scanned Films,” for more information on this.)


A tone is an area of uniform density that separates itself from the lighter or darker areas that surround it. Light and tone are interconnected, whether in color or black and white images.

Tonal Theory

How we see a tone depends on the other tones that surround it. When a dark tone in a photograph shares space with a sea of neighboring lighter tones, the lighter elements seem minor to the eye when compared to that dark patch. The dark tone just jumps right out of the image, crying for attention. Its neighbors take a seat in the image’s upper balcony. The same is true of a rich, brilliant little red patch that’s surrounded by pale yellow tones. With the yellow’s lack of emphasis, the red has taken center stage.

Color Harmony

Ideally, you want all the colors in the composition to be team players. Th is cooperation requires an eye for the harmony of the colors in your photographs and the role that light plays.

Look to nature for your inspiration in spotting harmonic colors. Study farmland and observe how planted fields change throughout the year. Observe the undisturbed forest areas. Enjoy natural coastlines. Visit a gorgeously designed garden or park.

In them, you will find color harmony. All the elements work well together. Th e colors play off each other. Th ese tones are a visual symphony. Th e better your mind’s eye can discern what is harmonic color and what is discordant, the better your awareness of color combination issues will become.

Light and Tones Working Against Your Work

Some tones present problems that your best efforts miss.

It hurts our sense of professional accomplishment to create an image that appears flat. We strive for images that appear to have three dimensions, even though they have only height and width. We achieve the appearance of depth with light.

It’s easy to shoot one photo after another in a setup that has given us many successful image-making sessions: it makes sales and it wins praises. We continue to use it or recreate variations of it.

Imagine a dark background with a hair light, that ought to be an added attraction (please see pages 20 & 21 for light’s direction). The hair light gives just the right dimensional qualities to the photos. It works for subject after subject until a blonde with plenty of puffy hair enters the picture. The hair light creates a glaring yellow halo around her head. Now the photo session is the story of her hair, as if her face, no matter how pretty it may be, just came along for the ride, way in the back of the van. In this case, tonal interaction is now working against you.

Playing It Safe?

How do photographers play it safe with these possible tonal conflicts? On pages 52 & 53 we explore high-key photos, a visual direction that goes back to the celebrated master painters of Europe. Some of the professional photographers who have made a name for themselves with high-key portraits prefer their subjects dressed in white, posed on white backgrounds, flooded with plenty of even illumination and rim light, too.

We encourage photographers, even those with a high success rate, to carefully study every subject and create a custom environment that does wonders for each sitting. An eye that is always on the move does well for everyone.

Find the color harmony.

Discover the contrasting tones.

Draw out the tones that play with each other, creating individualized images that challenge you as a photographer, every day, and winning you creative (and, hopefully financial) applause.


Many visual communicators hide from their lack of understanding of what color hue is all about. Hue, saturation, and brightness are not oft en explored, in depth. Together, they are referred to as the “HSB color model.”

Hue, Saturation, and Brightness

Hue is one of the three dimensions of some color spaces. First, be sure that you understand hue’s cousins, saturation (pages 48 & 49), and brightness (pages 42 & 43).

Hue is the purest elements of the colors: red, green, yellow, orange, blue, and so on. Hue has no tint; it has no shade. It is the pure color. On the color wheel, hue makes the full 0° to 360° rotation. Whatever you explore in color, hue has to be there.

Saturation is sometimes called “chroma.” It represents the amount of gray a color has in proportion to the hue. It’s measured as a percentage from 0% (gray) to 100% (fully saturated). On a color wheel, saturation increases from the center to the edge.

Brightness is also measured as a percentage, on a scale of 0% (black) to 100% (white).

What Does Hue Have to Do with Photography?

It has anything to do with image-making that we want it to! Some of it has to do with composition. Some of this gets into postproduction.

Open any image in Photoshop. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. You will see the HSB options (“Brightness” is referred to as “Lightness”) Be sure that the Preview box is checked.

Bump the hue slider in either direction or double-click the numeric value and use your keyboard’s up and down cursor keys to increase or decrease its values in increments of -1 or +1.

Notice how -180 and +180 look the same. This demonstrates how hue runs 360° around the color wheel.

Treat Color Like Black and White

Challenge yourself, further. Approach a color image as if it is a black and white photo. Create a scene that is all about a single color, with just a single hue as the center of the photographic series. Consider a study in yellow, or blue, or green, or whatever pure color fits your study.

Make it about barns, or the ocean surf, or trees, or flora, or racing cars, or front doors, or whatever moves you. Then, expand your vision to include people in this monochromic challenge of hues.

Stretch your comfort zone with every opportunity that presents itself. Just because others do not understand how to make the most of hue, don’t join them. Once you get comfortable there, stretch yourself some more. Never stop.


The term “contrast” wears many hats in photography. Learn to wear all of them.

Black and White

When we apply contrast to a monochromatic image, it refers to the difference between the lightest and darkest regions of the photograph. It’s all a matter of relationships and intensities.


For the full spectrum of color, it’s all about boldness. Some contrasting colors are so brash that they almost seem to be screaming at each other at the top of their lungs. Their full-throated cries seem most appropriate when the two competing colors are 180° from each other, on the color wheel.

We associate the Christmas colors of red and green with the opposite sides of the color wheel, but try blue and orange in the natural setting of bright orange floral blooms against a crisp blue sky.

Now that’s color contrast.

Lighting Contrast

In the most simple terms, contrast, in light form, has to do with the difference between how much illumination reaches the brightest and darkest portions of a scene. To study how we can apply this to artifi cial illumination, we need to spend some time exploring the extremes of nature’s contrasting light.

Atmospheric Contrast

To learn what this is all about, you need to go further than your front yard. Pristine white beaches, surrounded by clear water, off er great contrast.

When the sky is clear, at higher altitudes, the sharper blue sky off ers contrast to any brilliant color that is willing to take it on, as direct sunlight bathes anything in its path.

Flat plains and their unending miles of agriculture leap out of a photo when a huge piece of brightly painted farming equipment seems tiny by comparison, under bright light.

Anywhere that dark clouds on an otherwise unsuspecting horizon seem both foreboding and visually jarring, you have an atmospheric contrast that’s begging for a photo.

Hard Light

We do not experience a great deal of contrasting illumination under soft light. We’re used to softer, more comforting light. However, hard light is not what we experience on a day- to-day basis.

When confronted by hard light, most people do not identify it as such; so it grabs their attention, because it is outside of their ordinary serenity.

What to Do?

How do you use lighting contrast to convey visual messages? Do you choose a hard light to get attention, even though it might agitate your viewing market? Knowing that a less contrasting illumination is more peaceful, do you lean toward tranquilly lit images?

Vibrant, Saturated, and Muted Colors

Color is a seductive attention-getter. It can draw the eye into a photograph, sometimes to the point of distraction.

Vibrance and saturation are the chromatic tools that grab our eyes. How to use these tools is generally a personal choice.

Color Psychology

Highly saturated colors tend to catch us off guard. When they are strong, we sometimes think of them as garish.

Color evokes emotion. It’s a very personal thing. A color that seems inappropriate in one situation is considered delightful in another. Though we may get sick of a bathroom sink that’s in a fully saturated red, yellow, or blue, those identical colors make great children’s crayons or blocks.

A bright red sports car gets as much attention as a yellow taxicab. However, some people tend to think of the drivers of bright-colored cars as folks who are begging for our attention.

Most of the colors we see are to some degree unsaturated. Most brides do not walk down the center aisle of their church wearing a dress that’s fire-engine red. When we see red, yellow, and green, together, and fully saturated, we think of traffic lights. So a color, in its full chroma, is not the norm.

We think of pastels for a baby’s room. Th ose muted tones cause us to think of quiet and peaceful moments. Mauve is a popular color in some medical facilities. It’s a derivative of red, which in its full chromatic glory would bother those who were not feeling well and make their loved ones feel uneasy, if it loudly covered the walls of a hospital room.


As discussed on pages 44 & 45, saturation is a hue in it’s purest form. It’s a color in it’s full vivid capacity. Fully saturated, for instance, blue is a color with an absence of gray that would tone it down.

To photographers, “brightness” refers to the intensity of illumination. Yet many call heavily saturated colors “bright.”


Like saturation, vibrance pumps colors to their purest hue. Adobe Camera Raw provides a Vibrance adjustment that raises the saturation of all lower-saturated colors with less alteration to the higher-saturated colors. This is a popular option for photographs of people. The vibrance adjustments preserve the skin tones so that they do not become unnaturally oversaturated. (For more on vibrance, in Camera Raw, please see Chapter 6, “Raw Files and Scanned Films.”)

Muted Colors

Much like the word “tone” we use another word that has to do with sound when describing a color that has been quieted: “muted.”

Many colors in nature are brilliant, such as various fl oral petals. They create splashes of welcome color that bring us joy. Most colors are somewhat muted. The clothes we wear, the paint on our walls, and the fabric we choose for upholstery are quieted by tones of gray or diluted with white.

The Color of Light

We are used to a day of varied light from the sky. Some may never notice that the light changes throughout the day, yet most will find great joy in the unanticipated colors of a brilliant sunrise or sunset.

When warm yellow light breaks through the cool tones of morning fog, we feel good.

Some unexpected colors in nature concern us. If the sky takes on a greenish cast, many think of a tornado. Destruction and violence comes to mind. It makes us feel small, fearful, and without control.

Yet when the setting sun illuminates the clouds with colorful magentas, bathing everything in warm light, it brings us joy and leaves us in awe.

The yellow of the cake and the delightful white and chocolate frosting are soft pleasant colors. The presence of the saturated red roses provide a contrast that draws the viewer to the image.

Color Science and Theory

Featured photographer: Brian Stoppee, Janet Stoppee

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