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Light and The Photographer


Light and Photography

When it comes to light and photography, it’s helpful to understand some of the basic physics behind light and lenses. The word “photography” was created from the Greek roots (phōtos, phōs, and graphé), which together means “drawing with light”. It is important to remember that light is the primary working tool of any photographer.

Light Rays

light prism color.

Light is the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that starts from red (the weakest of rays) to violet (the strongest rays). Light rays from the sun are considered white because they contain all the colors of the spectrum. Black is simply the absence of any color. When we place a prism in front of a white light ray, the prism will diffract (or separate) the ray into all the colors of the spectrum.

Light Refraction through a Prism

When we place a LENS in front of any ray, that lens will refract (bend) that ray.

animation of light through a prism.
Stop for a minute and watch this animation.
Light refraction through a prism.

Camera Lens

A camera lens is ground or molded transparent material (glass or plastic) that refracts light rays to form an image. A lens focuses light onto the sensor of a digital camera to create an image. It is also known as an optical or photographic lens.

Creating an Image

As a light ray enters the lens, it is refracted and exits the lens refracted in the same manner. Because of the geometric shape of the lens, light rays are refracted, so they form images. So when we place a lens in front of any light ray, the lens will refract or bend that ray.

the movement of rays from subject, lens, aperture, and film plane.

Being in focus involves moving the lens elements forward or backward until all the rays coming toward the camera from the subject meet at one point; the camera sensor. In the illustration above, you will see a point where the rays meet. That point is also called the film plane. At that point, all light rays of the subject must meet to accomplish sharp, focused pictures.


Good Light

Photographers are constantly talking about the quality of light (both good and bad). Light can be hard or soft, direct or indirect, natural or flash, and come from different angles. As you learn the Art of Photography, you will undoubtedly hear photographers refer to using “good light” in their photos. So what is good light?

There is no one good answer because it’s subjective. Good Light is just the right amount, quality, color, and angle of light a photographer needs to produce the desired image. For landscape photographers shooting in the early evening, it’s all about timing for the best light. The Golden Hour is the hour between sunset and nighttime when the light is diffused, soft, and colors can be vivid. This is in comparison to daylight which is harsh, leaving subjects looking flat and unflattering.

Types of Light

There are generally three types of light sources in photography;

  • Natural Light
  • Camera Flash
  • Studio Flash

Quality of Light

When photographers talk about the quality of light, they’re referring to the intensity of light;

  • Soft Light
  • Hard Light
  • Direct Light
  • Indirect Light

Angles of Light

The angle of light is the direction of your light source;

  • Front
  • Backlight
  • Sidelight
  • Reflected
  • Diffused (or dispersed)
  • Night (or twilight)

Read our detailed post on 11 types of lighting and how to use them

A Photographer’s Guide to Light

If you’re interested in learning more about light in photography, take the Art of Finding Light course from Udemy. You’ll learn that your eyes combine colors differently than colors are combined when painting.

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  15. Thanks Vibha! The vocal point is the part of the film plane where the image is in focus. From the article: “So, being in focus simply means moving the lens elements forward or backward until all the rays coming toward the camera from the subject meet at one point; the focal point on the film.” So the focal point is on the film plane.

  16. The information is awesome. The concepts dealt in lesson 1 clears lot of doubts that we had till date. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

    This one concept mentioned in the lesson 1 is not very clear for me. Please help me to understand. – “all the rays coming toward the camera from the subject meet at one point; the focal point on the film”

    It is said – “meet at one point ” – the focal point – is it exactly 1 point – which is very close to aperture. or the focal point and film plane are one and the same. Kindly clarify.

    Thanking you in advance.

  17. Very useful lesson for a beginner like me. Explained very well and now I understand about the connection of the light and the focus point. Sometimes I have a lot of out of focus fotos.

    Thank you very much to share this knowledge to us.

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    Thank You,
    Samantha J

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  23. Um, nice explaination except I’m really pretty sure that between blue and violet waves, there are indigo. You know, ROY G. BIV. Is indigo just not important in this explaination. Do camera’s not read indigo? I don’t know much about cameras, but I do know light. Nice course.

  24. Thank you very much for posting this course. It is very easy to follow, and I am a very beginner. I like the way you start with the very basics.

  25. compelling that light, and pigment can be used to make a new colour, especially one that one would never suspect could be created,

  26. As a former film (35mm] hobbyist I’m looking forward to diving into DSLR work. I never took a formal lesson but managed to produce a number of more than acceptable works. I used Minolta equipment; 3 bodies, half dozen lenses, flashes etc. Had a darkroom ; Durst enlarger, Cibachrome color. Now it’s been years since switching to point and shoot stuff and I want to get back to SLR photography. I’ve forgotten most of what I knew second hand and think this course can bring me back up to speed.

  27. Lesson #1 was very interesting to say the least. I’m still wrapping my mind around the electro-magnetic spectrum.

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  29. Am planning to buy a aim and shoot camera. I was told that the best one available was the LUMIX FZ200. Please confirm if this is good.
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  30. A am looking at getting into digital photography for hobby. Am looking for someone that can teach/guide me in the right direction.

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  32. After searching the web for 2 days, I came to find this gem of a site tucked quietly away. I had started with film photography in high school, but soon left it for life. Now too many years later, the photography bug bite me and I am starting with a Nikon DSLR D3200. I am so glad to have found this site that introduces people into the basics of photography without overwhelming them. I am sure that his site is going to be an excellent source of learning both now and in the future. Thank you for the great work!

  33. Have bought a Nikon DSLR D5100 and wanting to learn about the Basics of good photography, i am sure this site will help me fulfil this thank you

  34. I’ve had a camera since I can remember, but only recently became serious about photography when my husband came home with a DSLR camera. I’ve checked out blogs, looked up some very expensive classes that didn’t see to be geared toward someone who wanted basic, clear, practical lessons. I’m so excited about this free, easy to follow, accessible site. Thank you for providing such an invaluable service!

  35. Wonderful! Very easy to grasp;plain and simple. will love to finish all the lessons. Thanks for the lessons

  36. really love taking pictures but never got the hang of it.I now understand the concept of the light
    good simple explanations always encourage learners like me to go on
    thanks a bunch

  37. I’m a beginner photography and I am wondering if this is right class for me…I Have a slightly older Kodak Z740 with 10 optical zoom…Also has complete manual settings, also has if you pick one like aperture it will automatically set the other two for you…I’ve taken about 2000 pictures all with automatic settings…I want to learn what P.A.S.M. is and all the other goodies…I’m kinda old (57) but willing to give it my all…I’m disabled and have plenty of time… Is this a good place for me to start learning or would you suggest some-thing else…Thanks and “GOD BLESS”…Bruce Morrette

  38. This is very simple and well phrased. I am very interested to see if a lesson on reading a histogram will follow.

  39. I just have a sony cyner shot camera 14.1 mega pixels but i want to get my first real camera to start learning and taking photos and hopefully become a photographer during my fun time .can anyone suggest what camera i should start with

  40. I love to take pictures. Just a hobby, but now that I’m retired would love to learn more. I am so crazy about some of the whimsical Artography out there, I guess that’s my desire in the end. We’re just talking hobby I think, but who knows? Ha! I have never had any lessons of any kind, am not looking for a degree or anything but would dearly love to get into this.

  41. I have been looking for a class like this for a long time. I have experience in film but need the digital knowledge

  42. This is great, I am new to Photography and am developing this skill as part of my Silver Arts Award at school. The information is good although it took a couple of times reading it through to understand it fully.

  43. The lesson starts of erroneously saying that prisms diffract light. They actually refract light. Grisms diffract light, not prisms.

  44. Just one word- wow!
    Thanks a ton to d authors n makers of this website.. Cant wait to go through all d lessons.. Everythng so simply explained! Photography is my passionate hobby esp. wildlife photography.. But had never known d basics. Thank u so much. Do u provide special information to improve wildlife photography?

  45. Thank you for your website. I looked at many sites to get a good firm handle on learning how to take great photos, but this is the best. Thank you again.

  46. As a retired police officer, I have taken many photography classes but never received the basics of light as you described here. I can only imagine how much better my crime scene photos would have been if I had!

  47. this site is fantastic! its very helpful for a newbie in photography like me… i’ll recommend this site to some of my friends! ^_^

  48. Though I have been into photography for many years, and have been paid to shoot weddings and other events – I also love to learn more about my favorite passion. This site is well thought out, easy to understand and I will be sharing it with my 18 year old son who once shot a friends’ wedding and came out with some great shots – but like me can always make room to learn more. So, put your money back in your pocket and sit back and enjoy the lessons – very worth your time to do so.

  49. It is fabulous and brilliant. I don’t have basic understanding of photography. Just I was interested in taking some good photos and slowly started taking family photos.

  50. Wow, this is so helpful! I’m just a high schooler, but I’ve been in love with photography for a while. I’ve been wanting to seriously study photography, but I don’t have the resources to pay for classes. I can’t even explain how helpful these lessons are or how happy I am to have stumbled upon this website! I will definitely keep going! 🙂

  51. hello,someday when I win an oscar for the best cinematographer i will thank you on stage…
    Love you guys ..

  52. I’m very interested in learning more about this course, Ive been looking for months for an affordable class thanks to you guys I’ve found one thank you 🙂

  53. I’m looking forward to learning a lot from you guys.

    thanks for your generosity in offering this free online course.

  54. Hi, thanks for your interesting lessons,the concept of light… I can see myself progressing from a good better photographer.

    Thank you Regards

  55. I’m reading all I can read to get as much information as possible, I don’t even own a camera right now , but plan on getting one soon. This a great way to learn and get the information I need for when I’m ready to begin taking photo’s. I will have will a headstart. This very helpful.

    Thank you

  56. this is very helpful to learn the concept of lighting

    I will def. be going onto lesson 2

    thank you


  58. Seems awfully steep for a warranty. Warranties are just about always just insurance to make things easier in the case that your camera happens to break. With camera repair centers being available, the fact that you probably will want a new camera in another 4 years, and you’ll probably have issues after 4 years and a day, I would pass. Any other opinions? I’d bet that maintenance and repairs on a camera over 4 years will be less than $200.

  59. hi, i just bought a canon rebel t2i…as a beginner, this is very helpful to me. my question is do i really need to get an extra 4 year warranty that cost me 200+cdn?

  60. Fantastic site. Continue to enlighten us with your expertise in the field. A boon for people like myself who are not familiar with the nuances of the subject but love photography.

  61. yes i agree with the last entry, never thought about the colors bending… the demo of the prism was awesome! i have been wanting to take photography lessons forever, and now thanks to this site i can! Thank you!

  62. I did learn about how light is refracted through the prism/lens at varying angles, all the way to the “film.” I found it useful information if you’re a photographer that uses film, but I’m a digital photographer and I’m unsure of how things may change when the photographic medium changes. I will keep going on, as a professional photographer would utilize both medium.

  63. I was encouraged by this site to go after my dream of taking photos again.I love seeing the world through the lens of my camera!!!! Thanks

  64. Light! the basic lesson on photography but one of the most essential part of how to come up with a good photograph!

  65. Hi I just found your websight and I am so happy I did I have always been interested in Photography but have never had the money to go to school for it this is a very wonderful way to learn thank you so much for doing this for people like me that can not afford to go to school to learn what we love to do so much you and your websight are wonderful

  66. Dear Friends:

    Im very happy to find this site. i have been taking pictures for at least 3-4 years with my nikon D80, i took a couple of requirement classes for my BA Bachelor on basic Photography, since i finished last year on December im trying to find a school or an institute that can teach me the basic of Photography, but all i find is schools that offer a masters degrees or an advance level classes for commercial and graphics design levels, no to tell you that there is a small fee of over $50.000 thousand US Dollars. I know that i will not need such an expense at this moment of my life, but i can and i will recomend this site to every one i can, is a very simple and direct explanation that makes the reader feel like a professional already!! Thank you!!!

  67. This is very helpful as a new photographer.I’m very appreciative that you can give me these lessons.I was disappointed today because after searching and realizing that the colleges I was interested in some different course but they didn’t care about me they cared about my money. I am happy to see a site that actually will help others. You are taking your time out to help me and some many. for this reason I done this coment again. sorry about that .God bless you. this is my wish . Thank you so much.

  68. being retired, but working in the Graphic Arts arena for 30 years, I am very familiar with light and its properties.

  69. Thank you for giving me something to start my photography interest. I’ve a lot to learn I can see straight away

  70. The first paragraph says:

    “Light is the visible portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum. The spectrum starts from red, the weakest of rays, all the way to violet which is the strongest of rays.”

    This implies that the electro-magnetic spectrum “starts from red, the weakest of rays, all the way to violet which is the strongest of rays.” To this is not fully correct. There are many more wavelengths on the em spectrum outside of the visual range, as well all know. To be more accurate, you could say:

    “Light is the visible portion of the electro-magnetic spectrum. Light energy ranges from red, the weakest of rays, all the way to violet, the strongest.”

    Sorry if someone already pointed this out above, I didn’t take time to read all the comments. Maybe I’m a lame engineering student, but it was hard for me to read past this statement and focus on the article.

    Thanks for the site, continuing to explore.

  71. OMG! Your classes are awesome. I thank God for blessing you with this opportunity to help others with your gift in photography. I want to thank you so much. All of this information is wonderful. I will keep studying and practicing. Thank you. May God continue to bless you and your family.

  72. I’ve just recently purchased a Sony DSLR a300. I was searching the web for a photo course that would give me some simple and quick tips on producing good quality photographs. I am thrilled that I ran into your site. Simple, clear, and concise, without all the fluff that a lot of other places that I have tried to learn photography at. Thank you for providing this information. I will be going on.

  73. New camera. Easy! Just get on with it! Not so. There is always something in the photo that could be much better – so thank you for your lessons and no more short cuts for me!

  74. From my point of View – you have created lots of photographers by providing this course … Thanks mate for your contribution to photography world . I owe you….

    Nisarg Shah

  75. Great site! Just starting out with a Kodak Z950.

    I was confused by focal length thinking that the focal plane was the
    distance to the point of focus on the subject you were shooting and couldn’t figure out how it could be in mm.

    In your picture I assumed the stick figure was the person taking the picture instead of the subject. Oops.

    Maybe it would be clearer to embed the lens and plane portion of the drawing in a simple outline of a camera?
    Or maybe just label the stick figure “Subject” and put a label
    “photographer” to the right of the focal plane.

    Keep up the good work.

  76. This is an eye opener.Thanx for the great work.
    I started photography as a village boy at atender age am glad that ur article has contributed to my professionalisation in photography.

  77. Just read the first paragraph and noticed a mistake. Violent is the strongest or most energetic of the visible light spectrum and red is the weakest or least energetic.

  78. Great Job! I have been taking photos off and on for several years really never taking the time to understand what I was doing. So far everything has been easy.

  79. I was so sad today to find out that my dream to be a photographer will cost around $75,000, which I do not have. I laid my 2 boys down for bed and came across this website and after reading the info I cried. I was disappointed today because after searching and realizing that the colleges I was interested in didn’t care about me they cared about my money. I am happy to see a site that actually will help others. You are taking your time out to help me and some many. God bless you. Thank you so much!!!!

  80. my photography instinct is tremendously stimulated by this site…Im a Newbie with DSLR and I will be a regular of this site.Thanks and Carry on guys!

  81. Hi there, just came across this site and am so thrilled. I have been told that I have a good eye for photography and it has been a passion of mine since I can remember. I have always kinda seen the world in pictures, if that makes any sense. I just don’t have the technical skills and I know that will boost my photos alot, as well as my confidence. I look forward to learning as much as possible from this course and thank you in advance for helping me to become a better photographer. Is there anywhere that you can get your photos critiqued online that you can recommend? Thanks so much for this course!

  82. very clearly explained first lesson, I have just had my daughter, everytime I want to take her pictures they go wrong in some way or other, thus making me think I should do a course on photography…to understand the insight of it….thanks

  83. This is very interesting. I am often the family photographer during the Christmas Holidays. I may turn my hobby into a career after taking this course.


  84. I am now able to understand terms like shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Your lessons are really good for beginners

  85. I just discovered this site, I am looking forward to continuing this course. My local junior college has little to offer as far as photography.

  86. It sounds like your problem Brian is not the focusing but the low light camera shake. Your hands are shaking quicker than the shutter can open and close. You need a Camera Tripod. If you don’t have a tripod you can find more create ways to support your camera. It may also help to learn a bit about exposure control.

  87. Thank you for an excellent site. Possibly i do not fully understand the light coming in? I accept that different colours have different wave lengths. The thing that puzzles me is how you tell that your lens / cmera is in focus Bright sunny days are one thing but in less than ideal circumstances i am not always certain if i am in focus resulting in juggliong back and forth. sure you can see on the lcd but sometimes when i download the photos i can se that they were not in focus as i thought.

  88. This is absolutely fantastic, and I am still in complete awe that you guys are doing this for free. I have had the passion for photography since 9th grade when they cancelled all the photography classes. I am now in my mid 30’s and wanted to take them through a community college and cannot seem to fit them in my schedule with the times they have. My husband had bought me a nice camera and lots of books to learn with, but this site seems so easy to understand. Thanks a ton again.

    My only question is this. What is a better way to explain what the “film plane” is? I am just not grasping the meaning of film plane in your words or pictures.

    Thanks in advance.

  89. Thanks for this site. I have been wanting to learn photography, but had no clue where to start. I found your site while looking for online photography schools, and LOVE it here. I know I will learn, and it will not cost me an arm and leg to get the information I want to gain. Again thanks for this site and the passion to help other with what they love as well.

  90. Thanks for taking your time to do this for all of us. I appreciate your time and efforts. I enjoyed this.

  91. Hello! thank you for this important info.
    This what I was looking for, and I feel so enthusiastic.
    This is a very good photography lesson for me as a ammateure
    photographer, thanks again. thruly yours. JL/C

  92. Photography has been my hobby for a very long time but have not been able to learn the intricacies and mechanics involved. I am happy you are giving people like me the opportunity to learn something valuable as this. I can’t wait to continue. Thank you.

  93. This looks very easy to understand, and its FREE! I’ve always loved photography and wanted to learn it so I can have it as a hobby.

    Thanksss. XOXO(:

  94. The blue end of the light spectrum is high energy with a short wave length. Red is low energy light with a long wave length. Sunsets are red because the dust in the atmosphere scatters the long wave lengths and blocks the shorter. Blue images appear light in a Black and White photograph because the high energy blue light burns deeper into the negative. This is also illustrated by color temperature. Blue has a high Kelvin temperature while that of red is much lower.

  95. Im upset I wasnt reading this years ago. Id be light levels ahead of where Im at now. Ive learned completely by trial and error with zero instruction. Needless to say am still learning and the process has been extremely frustrating. Thank you.

  96. I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to share your expertise. I have been trying to find ways to learn more about photography in the hopes of one day starting my own business. Your generosity will never be forgotten! Can’t wait to learn more!!!

  97. This is a great website so far! I love it!
    And it’s a great help for me while I’m taking my photography course in school. Yay!

  98. For beautiful images you’re correct you do not want to be using an ISO higher than 400 if possible. The best cheap lighting that there is indoors are windows. They can actually create beautiful light. Often times during the winter it can seem dark and dreary, but the reality is that even on overcast days the light from the sun can be much more intense than the light bulbs indoors. If you are really serious about portrait photography you may look into lighting from your local photography store. If you happen to have a ton of lamps lying around set up a few a different angles and try shooting that way. I would agree that a flash can be quite dangerous but we have a lesson on Flash Photography that is helpful as far as when to use or not use a flash. Also, look at some images that you like and think of how they might have positioned the lighting then try to recreate it. Good Luck creating beautiful images!

  99. I just bought a Canon Rebel Xsi. I have been in love ever since but find myself getting easily frustrated at how difficult it is sometimes but this website has been awesome at helping me understand easier. Just a quick question, do you have any tips on taking pictures indoors? I’ve been practicing with my daughter as my model and since it’s winter and pretty cold I dont get a chance to test it outdoors and no matter what I do in M mode it is always soo dark. Even when my ISO is at 1600 which I don’t really want but I don’t know what else to do??? I also thought it was a good idea to try and stay away from using the flash?? Any hints would be greaty appriciated!! Thanks in advanced!!

  100. Thanks for your excellent website I am still working through it and want to start from the very basics and work through the entire lot so I don’t miss out on anything.
    For the drawing my preference would have been to draw an upside down person on the RHS and say using the head and show two rays of light (one horizontal and one angled down) through the lens and show how they end up on the head on the upside down image (where the horizontal light is now angled down and the angled down light is now horizontal). This would also look simple but illustrate just how the image is formed inside the camera. This is hard to explain in words 🙂

  101. James, thanks for your comment. The image is overly simplified to illustrate the light coming through the lens, and coming into focus on the film pane or digital sensor.

  102. Actually the drawing is incorrect. The head and feet do not come together when it is in focus. What happens is all the rays of light that emanate from ONE POINT on the subject go through the lens via many different angles but end up focussing BACK to one point where the film/sensor is located (ie focal plane)

  103. I have also recieved a serious camera and found this little piece pretty informative. It’s nice to know that photographers are looking out for beginners like me.

  104. Very simplistic and understandable. Love the illustrations gives a good visual to help understand more. I want to continue to learn more! Thanks for the information.

  105. this all ready appears to be a course that i will understand and be able to use in my photography efforts. Thank you

  106. Glad you like the photography lesson on light and the photographer. Near the top of each page are links to the next photography lessons in the course. These links allow you to navigate through the lessons one at a time. Also towards the bottom of the pages in the “Beginner Photography Course” are links to the next lesson in the series.

  107. I decided to go to basic because I jumped into photography with no basic! My 1st impression here is …. all right, what next!

  108. Fascinating; due to the digital world of today, most people would not start to know how a camera, camcorder or anything really works!

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Interview with Devon Steele | GBPW Episode 71

I always think there are aspects of the photographer's personality coming through in their content, even if it's commercial content or stock content. Devon...
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