Great Light On The Street

7 Building Blocks of Photography 2

Light is the number one maker and breaker of photographs. It doesn’t matter how great the subject is or how well composed the image is. If the light is inappropriate the image will be mediocre at best. 

Light is strange stuff. You can see the light source and you can see the light on the subject, but the light itself is invisible. As people we have to teach ourselves to look at how light behaves on a subject or scene. The qualities of the laigh at that moment on that person / place / subject. 

You can use light to separate a subject from its surroundings. In this shot, Alex is in a pool of shade with her back to the light. She is the subject so we set an exposure for the light she’s standing in. Alex is perfectly exposed, the background brighter than she is and she stands out from it.


Yes, a few highlights are a little burnt out and the purists will say that’s bad, wicked and wrong. I disagree, it makes her stand out. It separates her from her surroundings. When you look at the shot you look at Alex. The background is unimportant. It’s only there to give a hint of being out on the high street, but that street is secondary to Alex. It’s not important.. 

Photographers often speak of good and bad light which to my mind is not the best way to think of it. All light is good. The question is this. “Is this light appropriate for the subject and what the photographer wants to say about that subject?”

Landscapes usually benefit from low angled light and shadows. This light brings out textures and shapes. It’s what makes rolling look like rolling hills, not just bumpy things. It’s the highlights and shadows that make this image pop.


Without the highlight on the front and shadow on the right side of the building, it’d lose it’s angularity. Without the highlight on the rim of the volcano, it wouldn’t stand out. 

But this strongly directional, shadowy light doesn’t work well on a person. 

Shadows make the eye sockets very dark. A shadow cast by a nose becomes a black triangle on the face. Remember the two shots of Alex taken inside, then outside the alleyway…

03-alexandra-massey 04-alexandra-massey

I think you’ll agree, the shot on the left taken in shade with light bouncing off the wall to Alex’s left, is considerably better than the one on the right with the highlights and shadows caused by the direct sunlight. But that same direct sunlight works great on a building and volcano. It’s not about good or bad. You need light appropriate to the subject. These are what’s known as qualities of light. Don’t confuse that with quantity. The shady alleyway shot had far less light than the one in the sun, but it's a much nicer image. 

So what about the shots taken in the old toilet block doorway? I used this horrible location purely to show you that great light can be found in strange places. So how does that work?

Firstly both are great images. The light is perfect on both of them, it’s just different. These are subtle changes in light quality, that add up to a big difference in the look of the shot.


In the first image, the sun is coming from behind and to Alex’s right, adding that highlight in her hair and on her right cheek as it passes by. Her face is in shade so there are no hard edged  shadows. 99% of the light is coming downwards from in front, from the open sky facing away from the sun. Therefore what shadows there are, are gentle, soft shadows that gently bring out the contours of her face.

In the image on the right when she stepped back into the doorway, the light coming from behind, above and from the sides has been blocked by the roof and walls to either side. The only light reaching Alex’s face is coming from right in front of her. It’s like over-spill, leaking back into the doorway. It’s directional (from in front) but it’s soft light because it’s coming from the open sky away from the sun. Look how bright it’s made Alex’s eyes and how soft it made her smile. This is why light can make or break an image.

You can repeat what we did in the video in the front door of your house, the garden shed, an alleyway on the street, so long as it’s facing away from the sun. You will need to change the exposure when your model moves back and the quantity of light drops, and use your focal length to change the field of view to lose the doorway.

If you don’t know how to do these things, please try my Masterclass in Photography. Over 5 weeks it will explain all of this, plus the camera controls you need and those you don't, composition and much much more. 

It costs less than a used lens and has 100% guarantee, so stop looking for hacks and shortcuts, invest a little time and money and upgrade your skills, not your camera.

Be well till next time…

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