Understand the characteristics of light for consistently great photos

Light is the most important factor in photography. So you need to understand the four characteristics of light, how light works, before you can consistently create amazing photos. Two of those characteristics are color temperature and direction of light.

It’s the same for natural light and flash. Light is light and adheres to the same principles, regardless of where it comes from.

Getting a great shot every now and then is nice, but who likes those odds? Nobody. When you understand the characteristics of light for photography, the odds improve. You can consistently nail those great shots.

So, let’s look at how you can do that.

This is the second part in our series on the characteristics of light and understanding how light works. The two properties of light that we’re looking at in this tutorial are:

  1. Color temperature of light
  2. Direction of light

For the other two characteristics, check out the first part in the series covering the light characteristics of quantity and quality.

Understand how natural light works to take better photos

Shot in the afternoon on a stormy winter day with natural light.

1. Color temperature of light – how to adjust for it

All light has a color temperature, but our eyes are so well adapted to it that we don’t notice it until there’s a major change, like at sunset.

Our cameras need our help to adjust for different color temperatures and we do this by changing the white balance. You can do this with the white balance presets, or by changing the Kelvin setting with manual white balance. Kelvin is the unit of measurement for setting white balance.

I’ve written a separate tutorial on how to change white balance, which also includes this downloadable white balance cheat sheet.


Further reading on setting color temperature in photography: What is white balance and does it matter?

The color temperature of natural light is affected by:

  • Time of day
  • Shade vs full sun
  • The color of the object it hits

How time of day affects color temperature in natural light photography

At the start and end of the day the color temperature of natural light is orange. We refer to this as warm light.

As the morning progresses the color temperature changes from warm to cool and the light becomes blue. At midday the color temperature of light is white.

Then, between midday and sunset, the reverse happens and the color temperature moves from white to blue to orange.

Color temperature of shade vs full sun

The color temperature of natural light in the shade is bluer at any time of day than in the full sun.

So if you’re moving between the two, you need to keep an eye on your white balance to ensure accurate color temperature in your photos. You can of course adjust white balance setting on your computer afterwards, but it’s just easier to get it right in camera.

Reflected light and color temperature

When light is bouncing around beyond our control, we need to be aware that the color of the objects that it bounces off will impact the color temperature of the light. 

So, if your subject is lying down in green grass, the grass will cast a green color over your subject. If they are leaning against a blue wall, the light bouncing back at them from the wall will have a blue color cast.

The same of course goes for handheld reflectors, which is why it’s so important to be aware of what color reflector you’re using.

Light reflected off a silver reflector has a higher (warmer) color temperature than light bouncing off a white reflector. A gold reflector will make the color temperature in photos very warm. (More on reflecting light in a moment.)

Which leads to my next point…

Cold color temperature makes the photo feel cold

The color temperature of the above photo is quite blue, so it makes the photo feel cold, which adds to the unsettled, isolated mood of the photo. The photo a bit further down was taken minutes later and has a warmer color temperature and happier feel.

Using color temperature in photography creatively

Learn your white balance settings so that you can use it to enhance your photos creatively.

For example, if you set the white balance on your camera for sunny and then shoot in the shade, the photo will be a very cool blue color. This is because the camera expects a warm color temperature, so adjusts for it by making the image more blue. As you’re in the shade, the color temperature of the light is already blue, so using a sunny white balance adds even more blue to the photo.

Sometimes color accuracy in photos is important – that whites should be white. Other times, it adds to the feel fo the photo to warm it up a bit (e.g for a summer vibe) or cool the color temperature down for a cold vibe.

The trick is to adjust color temperature to suit the image. An example of what won’t work is a blue color temperature when photographing a typical summer scene. It doesn’t make sense.

Warm color temperature of light affects warm mood of photo

2. Direction of light – how to use it

I’ve left direction of light until last, because it has such a huge impact on the mood of a photo. If you remember nothing else, you need to remember this… 

Before you take a photo, look at where the light is coming from. The direction of light in relation to your subject is a make or break thing.

Quick recap on the characteristics of light:

  • Quality of light – how hard or soft light the light is
  • Quantity of light – how much light is available
  • Color temperature of light – white balance
  • Direction of light – where the light is coming from

Back to the direction of light

The thing about light is that it moves in a straight line, or to put it in fancy terms, it is rectilinear. It doesn’t skip up and down, or bend around corners. It starts at point A and keeps going in a straight line until it:

  • Runs out (like when you shine a flashlight into the distance at night, or when you walk into a cave and the further you go the darker it gets)
  • Is interrupted (like when you create shadow puppets with your hands in front of a light source, or when you photograph silhouettes at the beach at sunset)
  • Reaches point B (such as a wall you’ve shone your flashlight at, or when it lands on your subject)

All you have to decide is where you’re going to position yourself and your subject (if movable) in relation to that beam of natural light. Will it:

  • Wash over your subject from the back?
  • Skim over your subject from the side?
  • Illuminate your subject from the front?

Your decision on how you use natural light direction will impact the feel and look of the photo.

How direction of light affects photos

The direction of light is coming from behind the model, so the backlight adds to the light, happy summer feel.

Deep dive the direction of light in photography

Because the direction of light is such a big, important subject that completely changes the look of an image, I’ve written a series of tutorials on the direction of light. Each tutorial concentrates on a specific light direction and how to use it:

While light doesn’t go round corners, it can be directed back in a straight line. This is really important!

How to change the direction of light

Just like a rubber ball, light can be bounced around. It bounces off almost everything it hits. AND exactly like a rubber ball, the angle that it hits an object at impacts where it bounces to.

In other words, if you throw a ball at a wall directly in front of you, it will bounce straight back at you. If you throw the ball along the wall a few meters to your left, it won’t come back at you, it will bounce off further to the left.

This is why when you hold a reflector beneath a person’s chin in daylight, the light bounces back up into their face. By the way, this can look weird. The light comes down from the sun above, hits the reflector and bounces back up. The reason it can look weird is that it’s not natural for light to come from below.

Using a reflector with natural light is like playing tennis with the sun. 

Here’s a light direction tip for using a reflector with natural light. If it’s golden hour and the sun is camera right, position the reflector camera left to bounce light back into the shadow side of your subject facing the camera. 

Further reading:

Using fill light – essentials you need to know

How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

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If you have any questions about the characteristics of light let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my light tips have helped you to understand how to use natural light and flash light, share that too.

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