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Jim Zuckerman on Composition: Light's Influence


BY Jim Zuckerman September 10, 2014 · Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to observe light and use exposure and tonality to create engaging images in the fourteenth article of his sixteen-part series on composition.

Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.

Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved. 


Lighting can have an important effect on composition. By highlighting certain areas of a picture with front lighting, side lighting, or back lighting, the play of light and shadow can create compelling graphic designs, interesting shapes, and striking patterns of color. Light can direct our attention to certain areas of picture, and it can help define the shapes of subjects with rim lighting and transillumination (light coming through translucent subjects like leaves and fabric).

Silhouettes are a prime example. Photo 14.1 shows a member of the Angami tribe in the Indian state of Nagaland who is silhouetted against the distant mountains. Notice how the lighting on the background underscores the artistic graphic form of the warrior. The lighting didn’t create the composition per se, but it influenced it by making the shape of the man much more pronounced. In the same way, I used the lighting from a flash to create a silhouette of a frog during a photo workshop (14.2). The composition consists solely of the graphic design of the shapes of the frog and the leaf, and this was made possible by the type of lighting I used.

Figure 14.1

Figure 14.2

In 14.3, on the other hand, the light virtually created the composition. Without the low-angled sunlight dramatically defining the ridge of the dune from the side, that compositional element would hardly be noticed. Had this landscape been lit from the front, it would have been a very different type of composition. It wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic as what you see here. In post-processing, I added contrast using Image > adjustments > Levels in Photoshop to emphasize the land forms.

Figure 14.3

A very different way to use light in compositional terms is to focus attention on a subject with it. Just as a leading line draws your eye to important parts of a picture, light can do the same. Image 14.4 is an example. The center of Cuzco, Peru is the focus of our attention, because in contrast to the much darker twilight environment, it really stands out. Lighting also directs our eye to the patches of golden leaves in 14.5. Notice how each tree trunk is edged with light, helping to define all those graphic elements so nicely.

Figure 14.4

Figure 14.5

In image 14.6, the blue neon lighting on the futuristic stairway underscores the beautifully graphic design of the architecture. Had there been no neon lighting, the photograph would still be nicely composed, but with that intense color outlining each step, the composition is much more effective.

Figure 14.6

The poignant street lamp in image 14.7 becomes a focal point in the foggy forest I shot in Italy. In this case, the light itself is part of the subject. I placed it on one of the power points according to the Rule of Thirds (the intersection of the left vertical third and upper horizontal third). The couple I shot in Venice during carnival (14.8) stands out as the subject because of the fill flash I used. I set the exposure so they were much lighter than the background, thus forcing our attention to them. This exposure discrepancy is a powerful tool in composition.

Figure 14.7

Figure 14.8


Go to the next article in this series: Negative Space

Read the full series:

  1. The Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Framing
  4. Graphic Design
  5. Backgrounds
  6. Classic Landscape Technique
  7. Foregrounds
  8. Moving into the Frame
  9. Patterns
  10. Lines
  11. Balance
  12. Distinctive Perspectives
  13. Symmetry
  14. Light's Influence
  15. Negative Space
  16. Breaking the Rules


Composition and Posing

Featured photographer: Jim Zuckerman

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