Light is Emotion

As photographers we are told and come to understand, to some extent, that “photography is about light”.  We know we can’t create a photograph in complete darkness and so we need light in order for the scene to be recorded on our film or digital sensor. Once we have some amount of light then we can set our exposure to maximize the amount of visual information we are able to capture but is the phrase “photography is about light” simply a reference to the camera’s operating requirements?

Light affects our images much more than just its technical requirements so that our cameras will function. For photographers, light is about emotion. Viewers today (people that will see our photographs) are much more visually sophisticated than ten or twenty years ago. Our world is inundated with visual media which has subtly, over time, taught viewers what to expect when it comes to visual information. Much of this visual language is taught through movies and the way cinematographers use light. This has resulted in a visual language that viewers have absorbed and understand, though they may not be overtly aware of it. It also provides the narrative power of using a cinematic aesthetic in our photography.


Our eyes are predisposed to see movement and brightness. Movement doesn’t help us as photographers (at least not yet) and so brightness becomes extremely important. Viewers will be initially drawn to the lighter/higher contrast portions of an image and so using that tendency in a way that supports our intent is an important consideration. Said another way, simply placing your main subject in the brightest spot within a composition will definitely get them noticed, but if it doesn’t support your emotional intent for the image, then that may not be a good thing.

As photographers we should pay attention to that visual language and use it to support the emotional content of our images, whether we are pursuing cinematic photographs or another genre of photography. I find that by asking a series of questions about the intent for my photographs and the light within it, I can better think about and plan for leveraging light to support the emotional mood of my images.


Questions for us to consider when thinking about and planning for the light in our photographs include:

  • What is the general mood of the image (happy, sad, mysterious, romantic, etc.,) and how does the light support that mood?
  • Are the characters or subject matter supposed to be primarily in the light, partially in the light or in the shadow and why?
  • Is there some aspect of the image that you want the viewer to focus on and how does the light support that?
  • How is light impacting the areas of the scene that are less important and is it drawing attention to content in unintended ways.

In considering the impacts of light on our images, we can use natural light, practicals (lamps, room lights, etc.) or external lights that we bring into the scene (strobe lights, flash, etc.) Controlling light isn’t just about using external lights. As an example, when using natural light, we can change the time of day we shoot the image, alter the location, change the framing, etc., so that the light supports the emotional content of our image. We could also use flags, diffusers, etc., as a way to alter the natural light so that it impacts the scene in the way we want. The options to control the light, including natural light, are often only limited by our creativity as photographers.


Photography is about light and light is about emotion and so consider how best to use light to speak to viewers through your photographs.

Only My Two Cents,

Gregory Beams


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