Available Light; The light fantastic

Working with available light means you need to know light intimately with the ability to predict how it will move and change though out the day, seasons and weather patterns. These changes can alter the mood of an image; making it warm or cold and create soft or hard shadows. The three characteristics of light; Brightness, colour and direction sometimes thought as Quality, Quantity and colour.

Light Direction

Throughout the day light can come from many directions as the sun travels through its arc. Light can come directly from the sun or reflected off a surface. A subject can be lit from the front, back or side.  The lighting of the subject can affect the way we may approach it. The Quality of light can also affect this as well. On an overcast day the light will be soft and defuse creating soft shadows in contrast, at high noon the light is normally bright and vertical with hard shadows. The best time to shoot is considered to be the golden hour.

The golden hour is the first and the last hours of light in the day. The golden hour though has a relative length of time as it depends on how close to the equator you are. For the sun to create the light of what is known as the golden hour it must be at an altitude of 10 degrees. If you are living close to the equator the time that the sun is at an altitude of 10 degrees is less than if you are in the very north of Greenland or Alaska where the golden hour can last for entire days in certain seasons.

Front Lighting

The sun or the light is to the back of the photographer and is lighting the subject from the front. It is easy to meter your subject as sunrise and sunset.

Back Lighting

Sun behind your subject and in front of you. Back lighting can create silhouettes and dark shapes. If you want your subject to be back lit with the background slightly blown out and your subject correctly exposed, move closer to your subject and take the exposure reading, then move back and compose and focus the image.

Side Lighting

When the sun is to the side of you and your subject. This can be challenging to take because there is a combination of light and shadows. To help you correctly expose these images always bracket these shots. Bracketing is taking a picture one at the metered exposure and one either at +1/2 stops and another -1/2 stops.


As I wrote earlier the best time to take pictures is in the golden hour as at this time your images will have soft shadows full of detail. The golden hour is also a preferred time to shot due to the colour of the light at this time.

Shooting at sunrise the light has a warm orange tone with a golden tint. At midday when the light is at its harshest the colour is a bright white. As the sun moves through the sky to sunset the light changes to a golden hue with a blue to magenta cast slowly blending into rose pink and finally red.

It is not just light that can affect the colour but also the weather and the seasons.

Great example of how the monochrome of snow can create a focus on colorful sujects.

Snow and fog are monochrome and can be used to bring attention to a subject when it is contrasted against it.

Summer has harsher light due to the sun being in a higher arch through the sky. Winter has lower light meaning the light is softer than summer more like during sunrise and sunset.

Spring and autumn similar tones and hues from yellow orange and green. Colours can seem more saturated as they are usually layered with more monochrome back grounds and subjects.

Temperature of Light

The colour of light is measured as a temperature that is why we talk about warm and cold tones.  Colour is measured in kelvins with a high temperature colours being cool colours. A temperature of 5,000 kelvins is a bluish white. A low temperature colours are warm. A temperature between 2,700 and 3,000 kelvins, the temperature blends from yellow white through to red.


Possible Light Source




40W bulb


200W bulb






1hr from Dusk/Dawn


Xenon Lamp


Sunny Day






Blue Sky

Balancing the Light Fantastic

Taken at 8am on top of a hill above a valley this show shows how delicate the colours can be. this was taken at the close of Autumn.

You can try to predict light but it can change quickly and in a matter of minutes the fantastic shot with the pink sky has become a bland mess. Sometimes the best thing to do is shot first and think second. If the light is good now capture the shot as quickly as you can. You can also wait for the light. You can see the clouds moving with the sun moving across the landscape, wait until it is in the right place and shot. I have waited for ten minutes for the sun to move.

Seeing the colour in the light is a skill that needs to be homed but when it is you can be very creative with it.

5 thoughts on “Available Light; The light fantastic

    • There was a thought many months ago once i had completed my first year of teaching photography to compile the lecture material and these articles and edit them into something. I am glad you enjoy reading the technical posts and they are digestable. I do have a fear sometimes that i am going too far. Thank you for your loyal readership.

  1. I agree, these are very useful posts. One observation from experience is that the camera does not always meter golden light well and regular histogram checks or lots of experience are helpful

    • I glad you have enjoyed them Andrew. You are right that some times metering in Golden light can be tricky, my advise would also be be to check your histogram but also to bracket exposures.
      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

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