© munish khanna

The very fundamental of photography is the Light. Light has been one of the most transient elements which has existed on earth since the existence of earth itself and for more practical purposes since the existence of the mankind and us. Light is changing every moment and one thing which has not changed over the ages is also Light. If we observe light carefully as it exists in nature over the course of time in the day and all through out the year, we can bring a lot of improvement in our photography. Light conveys life and if the light is right in our pictures they will be more closer to life. Photography completely depends on the Light and its changing qualities. This change in the quality of light is what brings out the mood in our photographs. Photographers need to understand this aspect of Light very well so as to apply the right mood or kind of light in the right situation. In other words, it is the light that brings life to our photographs. Light is the most basic raw material for any picture of any genre. It is the light which conveys the whole mood of the photograph, the message which you want to convey in your image. A photograph conveys a thousand words but if the lighting is not good enough it may convey the wrong words instead. For example, a bright sunny day will add to the warmth and happiness shown in the photograph where as a dull overcast day may convey sorrow, sadness, thoughtfulness, defeat and other negative moods. Something often noticed in movies, whenever there is a dramatic situation, there is lightning and thunder, but it does add to the impact. When there is hunger and poverty  a "flare" is added in the frame to get that feel.

Good photographers respond to any changes in natural or artificial light very instinctively and a can pick up any changes in the light quality. If you can understand the natural light you can handle the man made artificial light much better and in a more systematic manner. You can pre visualise the effects to expect from a particular light. You can understand what kind of light would convey a particular mood or characteristic in a photograph. You can anticipate the out come much better and plan the lighting, subject position, equipment all in a better manner to compliment each other. 

Most people think of light in terms of intensity, if the light is bright or dark, more or less, high or low. There is more to light than just the intensity. Following are some of the characteristics of light that play an important role.

Quantity - On one hand overall brightness of a scene is set by the quantity of light falling on the subject or the scene. The quantity of light determines the correct exposure on the camera and thus resulting in a photograph which may not differ from another where the quantity of light was more or less. If we are shooting on a particular aperture and shutter speed, once the light is increased we may switch over to a higher shutter speed to get the same or the correct ideal exposure. on the other hand if the light quantity is reduced we may either open up the aperture or use a slower shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Effectively, unless we intentionally want to convey that there is excessive or dim light, the effect of the change in the quantity of light may not really show.

To show that the place is dimly lit, we may want to over ride the camera exposure and opt for a little bit of under exposure. Or because of the quality and not the quantity of light we get the feel that the scene is lit in low light. For example, if there is just an isolated bare bulb or candle in a room with the light falling on the subject. The exposure for the subject would be correct but our brain certainly tells the viewer that this is a dimly lit situation.

The overall quantity of light is not just dependant on the light source itself. If the walls of the room are black or very dark, most of the light will get absorbed resulting in lesser quantity of light. Light travels in straight lines and whatever light is directly reaching the subject remains unaffected by the surroundings. Or if the light source is small and mainly directed at the subject at the light source itself, the surroundings would not have much effect on the quantity as not light is reaching the surroundings anyways.

If the wall are lighter or white, it reflects the light back on to the subject there by increasing the over all quantity of light. Also it influences the quality of light some what as the reflected light may work as a fill light resulting in less dense shadows if any. 


Its the light source itself but for this dramatic effect, it was important not to blow out the bright bulb itslef. The exposure has been reduced to get just the pool of light keeping the other areas darker. Canon 400D 33mm 1/160 at f8, manual exposure

The exposure on the subject is just right with the background relatively dark. The backgound is anyways illuminated by another existing light source in the room which is also falling as a week rim light on the hair. Also the direction of the light is evident on the face.  Canon 5d mark III with 40mm f3.2 at 1/50th sec iso 1600 Evaluative metering

munish khanna photography: Beyond the Shadows- India Habitat center & select citywalk, New Delhi &emdash; Not the last light

As the sun sets, this photograph was shot through the window of a cruise ship in Singapore. Nikon D 200 18mm 1/800 at f8 -2/3 ev center weighted average iso 100

© munish khanna



what is the right time to shoot? Mornings and evenings? I personally feel that as long as you understand light and know how to play around with it, anytime is great for taking pictures. Several times you cannot choose to shoot at a particular time but the situation is rather available to you at times when the light is "not supposed" to be good. You cant miss out on the shot, just because the light is "bad" Generally, if it is raining or overcast, people tend to keep the cameras inside saying that there is not enough light! or there is no sun. Also, I have heard people saying, "Isn't the light too harsh?" when the sun is shinning and bright. If you have a subject and the situation at a given time, shoot at that time once you know how to control light.

Otherwise, if you are doing a planned shoot, look for the time of the day when the light is appropriate and suitable in terms of your subject, mood and the concept. If you are showing a particular situation which happens in the mornings, the afternoon light will not look appropriate. It will not look realistic but fake.

Natural light






Colour of Light and film /sensor






It is determined by the degree to which the light is diffused. In other words, how scattered or focused is the light. Broadly speaking all light sources are hard to begin with. Some have a diffusing mechanism or modifier close to the light source and hence over all becomes one soft light unit. otherwise diffusion may happen closer to the subject as the hard light passes through some transluscent material.


Hard and Soft light

Judging the hardness or softness of light is very important to photographer. Hard light typically gives strong shadows with hard edges. Subject outline tend to be well defined, and the whole effect is one of harsh contrast and drama. In soft light the shadows are less well defined and even disappear entirely when the light becomes extremely soft. Overall shape and form are revealed and the contrast between light and dark is subdued to create a restful mood. In daylight photography, direct sunlight gives hard lighting, while soft lighting is produced by an overcast sky or when  clouds cover the sun.

The size of the light source in relation to the subject determines if the light is hard or soft. A relatively relatively large light source will give a soft light where as a small light source will give hard light. On a bright sunny day, the Sun is a small point source but on a cloudy day, the cloud itself becomes the light source making it a large source of light. Although large in size, the sun being far away is small in relation to the subject and hence a source of hard light. On the other hand, cloud is a larger light source in relation to the subject or the photographer, and the light is softer. On an overcast day, when the cloud covers the whole sky , the light comes from one large very even light source, the diffuse light causing quite indistinct shadows. In such a situation the light becomes omnidirectional – that is , the light reflected from below almost matches from above and shadows can no longer visible or are very light. In other words, shadows get filled up.

A common mistake is to confuse a softening in light quality with a drop in intensity or to assume that a bright light source is necessarily a hard one. This is not true – light from the sun is no harder than light from the much dimmer moon, as strong. In fact, the best way of determining the hardness or softness of light is to take a close look at the edges of shadows and observe how deep they are compared with directly lit areas you can then decide weather the lighting quality suits the subject or not.

In general terms, hard light with its hard – edge shadows is best that have strong simple shapes or brilliant color. Texture will be revealed by hard directional light that skims across the surface to create a myriad of contrasting highlights and shadows. In larger forms the shadows can be used as part of the composition, where they make their own strong lines and shapes. But there are times when shadows can dominate or confuse, and so diminish the impact of picture, so this type of lighting needs to be handled carefully.

Lighting direction is of vital importance and needs careful attention. The almost shadow less illumination of soft lighting with its low contrast and subtle effect on composition is much more forgiving. That is one can't really make out the errors in the lighting much. Even if you are photographing a wide range of subjects your photographs may start looking similar with the same kind of light. Soft light creates a soft mood, and is gentle in atmosphere and favours overall form because the light wraps itself around the object to give delicate modelling, while subduing texture and revealing detail. Colour is muted and there is no light and dark. Soft lighting allows the photographer a greater choice of viewpoints, which can be of help when a subject is moving or has a complex or potentially confusing pattern of shape and surface texture. 

Semi diffused light

Somewhere between hard and soft light, not necessarily in the middle, is semi-diffused, or soft directional light where the direction of the light is still apparent but the shadows cast have less obvious edges. Depending upon how diffused is the light, you will get the sense of direction and the hard or soft edged shadows. Form is still complimented by shadow shape but, there is less contrast, and color is less vibrant as compared with hard light. Semi-diffuse lighting gives a good sense of reality. 

Light and contrast




Direction of Light

the direction of light falling on the subject or the scene highlights two important aspects of your photograph. Texture, shape and form as per the angle at which the light is falling on the subject. You can use the direction of light to hide texture, say in a beauty shot or reveal texture if you are shooting fabric or an old man highlighting his wrinkles. More oblique is the light falling on the subject, longer are the shadows created, emphasising the texture.Not directly though, the direction of light may influence the metering. while it is simple and straight forward to measure the light falling on the subject from the camera axis, it may be more complex when measuring the subject against the light. The subject may get underexposed if not measured correctly. When lit from the side, the subject can have too much contrast and a fill light may be desired if a very dramatic effect is not required. 

munish khanna photography: Lets rebuild Ladakh-select citywalk, New Delhi 2010 &emdash; Blossoming with age

Photographed this old lady sitting on the rear seat of Scorpio. I was in the front seat and could not resist the soft yet directional light coming through the window of the moving suv. Though the light is coming from one side, there is enough fill on the other side as well, maybe from the front windshield. Its the directional light that is creating the contrast and revealing the fine textured lines on her face.

Canon EOS 5D
Focal length70 mm
Exposure1/50 at f/7.1
ISO 100

© munish khanna

Pool of Light
Some time the light is coming through the trees and its just a small pool of light that falls on the subject. Its a good idea to let this pool of light fall along the most important area in a photograph. Depending upon the lighting conditions, the light through trees is relatively soft compared to the direct light.





The distance between the source of light and the subject effects three characteristics. Quantity, Quality and Diminution of light.

Quantity is the most obvious one. As the distance of the light source from the subject increases the light falls off much more rapidly as we generally think of. It is governed by the inverse square law. The light radiates in all direction and as the distance is doubled for example, it is doubled in all directions and not just one. So the amount of light reaching the subject reduces by one fourth and not half. The light has spread out into four parts or four times as the distance is doubled. This is the reason that when using a flash or any other light source along the camera axis, while exposure on one person is correct, the exposure on another person just behind this person is quite under exposed. Likewise, when illuminating a group, it may not be a good idea to keep the light source too much on a side away from the camera. While it may not be along the camera axis to avoid flat lighting, do not keep it too much away also as the people close to the source are getting quite a lot of light compared to those away from it. For Inverse square law to be effective, its being assumed that the light source is symmetrical and radiating light uniformly in all directions. 

How the light radiates as it leaves the source depends on the light modifiers it comes across.  while a spot light concentrates it more in the centre, a soft box uniformly spreads it out making it soft as well. The diminution of light depends upon the luminaire and the light modifier being used.

Further the light source, smaller it appears from the subject position or in relation to the subject. The light rays spread out in all directions. while the subject is closer, it kind of receives light from multiple light sources even though it is one light source. The light is softer and diffused. as the source is taken away, only a part of the light rays effect the subject  thus resulting in more directional lighting.  

SHAPE /SIZE of the Light modifier

The light modifier may be larger than the light source as in case of a typical soft box. The light is re reflected internally before it escapes the front diffuser. Thus creating a soft diffused light. Even though it appears to be uniform it may be brighter in the center compared to the sides or edges. Sometimes another deflector is paced along the bulb / flash tube to reduce the excessive light in the middle and make it more uniform.

On the other hand typically in a spot light or snoot, the modifier is smaller than the light source resulting in hard lighting. The edges of the light modifier are clearly demarcated as shadows.