Basics of Light in Photography

Basics of Light in Photography

In a previous post, we briefly discussed how the way light is handled by a photographer can have a direct outcome of whether a photograph is ultimately ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Though the misconception is that the quality of images directly correlate to the type of camera used, it is light that plays a significant role.  Even a well-lit subject can be captured poorly if there isn’t a proper understanding of light and how to capture it.

When a camera takes a photo, the camera opens its shutter and allows light in through the lens and into the sensor which is then made into an image. There are three settings on your camera which will help you to determine how much light you want to let in. These settings are: Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO— also known as the exposure
triangle. Note: all three settings work together, so modifying one will mean you have to modify another in the opposite direction.

Before we go any further, I want to define the term exposure. Exposure is referring to the brightness or darkness of a photo—when we refer to an image as overexposed, we are saying the image is too bright (too much light was let into the camera’s sensor) and when we refer to an image as underexposed, it is describing the image as too dark (not enough light was let into our camera’s sensor).

Photography is all about controlling and capturing light. Most beginners think the magic of photography happens in the body of a camera, but the true source is light. A well-lit subject can still be captured poorly; light is everything.

Let’s go into a bit more detail on each of these settings:

Aperture: This is the size of the lens opening and they are often displayed in the form of f/8, f/5.6, etc. The smaller the number, the bigger the lens opening (or wider the aperture) and the more light is let into
your camera.  In addition, aperture also effects depth of field (which will affect how much of your images is in focus).

Shutter Speed: This is how long the shutter is left open and are often displayed in the from of 1/60, 1/250, etc.  The slower the shutter speed, the more light is let in. Shutter speed also affects you’re camera’s sensitivity and ability to stop motion. The slower your shutter speed, the more motion blur your image will have.

ISO: Your ISO is how sensitive your camera sensor is to light and is often display in the form of ISO 200, ISO 1600, etc. Higher ISOs will allow you to take photos in darker situations. Note: the higher the ISO more the noise or ‘grain’ your image will have.

In addition to determining the amount of light allowed on your camera’s sensor, these settings also control different photographic criteria as well and need to be taken into consideration before making any final artistic decisions. Aperture changes the depth of field, shutter speed stops motion or can introduce motion blur, and ISO modifies the noise levels of your images.

Now the exposure triangle is important to understand to help you take the photos you envision. It is an in-depth topic which we will dive more deeply as time moves on, but before we do it is important to understand the basics.

For a visual representation of how these three settings interact with one another, check out this website: Or check out the image below from Either one will help you to visually see the changes the choices you make with these three settings will have on your exposure.

What Makes a ‘Good’ Photo?

What Makes a ‘Good’ Photo?

In a world with smartphones armed with incredible cameras, we are inundated with photographs daily.  With some form of camera on our person always, it’s no wonder current generations are being touted as the “most documented”.  This over-saturation of daily photos on our social media timelines and cellphones have lead to photographic ‘indifference’ and have seemingly lowered the bar on our definition of what a ‘good’ or ‘great’ photograph really is?

So what makes a photograph ‘good’ or ‘bad’? While photography can be very subjective in nature, is a common trait ‘good’ photos possess and that is: it elicits an emotional response from the viewer. Now, this emotional response doesn’t always have to be a positive one; it can incite anger or sadness as well. The important thing to note is if the photo made you feel something. While this definition of a good photograph can often open itself up to interpretation, how it is accomplished is, I believe, rooted in the technical aspects of photography.

Truly great photographs not only elicit an emotional response from the viewer, but they also focus on key factors: light (the word ‘photography”s Greek roots literally mean drawing with light), focus, composition, subject matter (simply put: moment)—‘good’ photos contain at least two of these items, ‘great’ photos will contain them all.


Light and how you treat it is essential to a good photograph. It can affect how the view perceives the overall mood and message of the image.


Focus is one of those items which cannot be downplayed. A technically sound image will be in focus (unless the photographer has purposely placed the image out of focus, which should be apparent). An image with no clear item in focus can leave the viewer confused as to what they are supposed to be looking at.



Strong composition allows the photographer to draw the viewer directly to what they want them to see. How you compose an image can change the overall story being told.

Subject Matter (or Moment):

The subject matter doesn’t have to be over-the-top to be strong; there can be strong subject matter in even the quietest of moments. The presence or absence of a strong subject can make (or break) a photo. Note: Sometimes if the subject matter is strong enough, it can trump any other technical imperfections the image may include.

Even though we are surrounded by imagery each day, it’s important to appreciate the standout photos—the ones which elicit an emotional response within us, the viewer, in addition possessing what is required of a technically sound photograph.